Academic journal article Capital & Class

Cars and Consumption

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Cars and Consumption

Article excerpt

Cars as social and environmental problems

Cars define the modern age: for the vast majority of readers, the automobile forms an essential part of their daily lives as a technology on which, for better or worse, they rely on in some fashion, directly or indirectly. The significance of the motor vehicle has gradually spread from country to country in what is one of the most all-encompassing, yet little acknowledged, facets of globalisation. The pervasive creep of automobility has enabled the tacit acceptance of the ascendancy of the car, leading to the dominance of what can be termed the 'car system' (Dennis and Urry 2009). The 20th century was the century of the car, in which its central position became locked in, enabling it to emerge as the de facto mobility leader for the 21st century. However, despite--or rather because of--their prevalence, cars pose a fundamental problem for society.

If sustainability refers to the ability of a trend or practice to continue indefinitely, then, in its current form, the car system is inherently unsustainable. This proposition is being increasingly recognised in both social and environmental terms: most of us now realise that it would be as much of an understatement to suggest that cars are quite destructive as it would to note that they are also quite popular. These two facets are directly linked to one another. Regardless, we still drive them, and in ever greater numbers. There are now over a billion cars on the world's roads--a figure that has doubled in the past quarter of a century (Sousanis 2011). The automobile industry represents the single largest manufacturing sector in the world, and it is only likely to grow as the inexorable rise of car ownership in developing economies such as Brazil, China, India and Russia exacerbates matters to ever-new extremes.

The prevalence of this bustling car culture is socially destructive. The role played by automobiles in encouraging commuting means that individuals need no longer work in the vicinity of their places of residence, thus undermining community cohesion. There are streets on which neighbours do not know one other, only passing each other by as they drive off to work early in the morning before returning home late at night, all the while isolating themselves from the world that surrounds them. The automobile, then, plays a crucial role in creating social atomisation. This car culture has contributed to what Monbiot (2005) has identified as a perceptible shift to the right in terms of popular ideology: a rise in individualism, with fewer social interactions between members of different socioeconomic classes. While the car is ever-present in contemporary society, there will always be some who cannot afford to purchase or run such vehicles, and, with an ever greater acceptance of the need to commute, they will be increasingly locked-out of mainstream society: left behind as jobs, shopping centres and other services become distanced from residential areas. There will emerge a two-tier society, with cars providing access to ordinary life as accepted today, leading to a barrier as powerful as any walled settlement or gated community. Added to this unraveling of community cohesion, automobiles are also notable for the manner in which they remove individuals from society in an even more disheartening manner: road traffic accidents are the leading cause of accidental death in the UK. The majority of those deaths involve car occupants, with still more caused by cars impacting other road users, such as cyclists (Department for Transport 2012).

Cars also exert a significant environmental impact. Transportation currently accounts for a fifth of global oil usage, the vast majority of which is from road transportation, resulting in a quarter of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, most of which originate from passenger vehides (International Energy Agency 2012). Cars are at the forefront of oil usage and carbon dioxide emissions. …

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