Stop Signs: Cars and capitalism on the road to economic, social and ecological decay

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Cars and capitalism go together, destroying lives, poisoning the air, and chewing up space, all in the name of profit

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Cars and capitalism go together, destroying lives, poisoning the air, and chewing up space, all in the name of profit


Stop Signs: Cars & Capitalism –  On the Road to Economic, Social & Ecological Decay
By Bianca Mugenyi & Yves Engler
Fernwood Publishing, 2011

reviewed by Phil Shannon

The car, say Canadian authors Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler, who took a bus ride across the United States, is a doomed jalopy going nowhere. It fails, especially in the “home of the car,” on every green count.

Cars are the single largest contributor to US noise pollution and 40,000 people in the US die from car accidents each year (one million across the globe).

Traffic congestion creates stress and induces aggression, particularly towards cyclists, pedestrians, traffic lights and speed limits – anything that might slow the mighty car down.

Toxic pollutants from tailpipe and particulate matter from tire rubber (treated with dozens of carcinogens, neurotoxins and heavy metals) create health havoc from respiratory disease to cancer. Cars also “make you fat” with all the attendant diseases of obesity.

The car is a huge devourer of space – roads, garages, petrol stations and parking make up between one-third and one-half of the total space in US cities.

The two million cars added to the US automotive fleet each year require asphalting space equivalent to 400,000 football fields, paving over prime farmland. Parking is an omnipresent visual blight on the urban landscape and the car promotes an ugly urban housing sprawl.

The car is economically wasteful, chewing up 20% of GDP in the US (compared with 9% in Japan with its mass transport system). The cost of running a car soaks up one third of the working life of the average US citizen.

Inefficiency is its byword – only 30% of a car’s petrol is turned into actual motion to carry just 10% of its weight, so only “3% of the fuel’s energy actually moves what needs to be moved,” Mugyenyi and Engler write.

The ecological tire-print of the car is huge even before it leaves the sales yard. Each car requires huge quantities of water, metal and rubber, while generating tonnes of solid and airborne, often toxic, waste.

The car’s life-blood, oil, is one of the most environmentally dirty industries globally. The transport sector in the US is the nation’s leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. The petrol-driven, internal combustion engine guzzles 63% of the 20 million barrels of oil consumed each day in the US. “Peak oil” and rising petrol prices are spurring on the rise of even dirtier “unconventional” fuels such as tar sands, shale oil, genetically-modified ethanol, deep sea oil and liquefied coal.

Importantly, the authors puncture the desperate delusion that “alternative” fuels can solve “the ecological catastrophe that is the private car.” Corn-based ethanol produces more CO2 than oil-based petrol “if all the energy used in the growth phase is properly accounted for”. Corn-as-fuel also takes up five times more land than corn-as-food. Using hydrogen or electricity to power US cars would need more dirty coal as an energy source. Either that or an area as large as the state of Massachusetts for solar panels, or New York State for wind turbines, or 200 new nuclear energy plants.

“There is no such thing as a green car,” the authors conclude. “Unsustainable” would barely describe the car’s environmental failure if the rest of the world were to adopt US patterns of car ownership and driving behaviour.

So why is the car such a protected species, culturally celebrated and immune from radical policy review? Because, the authors say, the car is integral to the capitalist economy and thus any criticism of the car is taboo.

Since 1925, the automotive industry has been the leading sector of the US economy, and, of the world’s 10 largest corporations, three are car manufacturers and six are oil companies.

The logic of maximising corporate profit through the car, they write, is compelling to all manner of capitalist industries that sell vastly more glass, rubber, steel, aluminium, plastic, paint and other products for the car than they ever would for the puny bike or efficient train.

With this economic power of the “auto-industrial complex” comes political power and access to huge government welfare programs. This offloads the private costs of the car onto the public purse for roads, police, hospitals and environmental repair, while government tax concessions, grants, bailouts and other subsidies are freely on offer. Public transport, denied the aura of corporate profit, is the sickly runt of the transport litter whose strongest offspring gorge on the teat of public welfare.

This need not be so, say the authors. Raising the costs of driving and restricting car space are necessary sticks to the necessary carrots of investments in pedestrian, cycling and public transport infrastructure and people-centric urban design.

Making public transport free is essential, they argue. They cite Belgium’s third biggest city (Hasselt), which enjoyed a 1300% increase in public transport use over 10 years of free mass transit, and Ockelbo in Sweden, which had a 260% rise with half the new public commuters being former drivers.

All that stands in the way of a green transport future is the “concentrated private power of corporations” in the oil and auto industries.

The car and capitalism stand together. They must fall together too.

(This review was also published in Green Left Weekly)


  • Rory, your lovely country doesn’t have our severe winters (though it seemed very rough indeed during the World Cup). Isn’t the fact that few people cycle there an outcome of fear and the perception of danger (and some very real danger of violence, in all communties)?

    Behaviour and systemic adjustments feed into one another.

  • In South Africa the car has shaped our urban landscape. Consequently in wealthier areas most people need to use a car once a week for at least one fundamental reason, in order to do their weekly shopping. Shops are no longer within walking distance and public transport is either non-existent or very poor indeed. In addition existing public transport has minimal to zero carrying capacity for people’s shopping. Under these circumstances it is not possible for people to just stop using their cars, the whole system needs to be radically changed in order for this to be possible. Of course this is absolutely no reason for not changing away from cars but systemic adjustments are required before the behaviour of individuals in this regard can change.