How Corporate America Created Car Culture—And What We Can Do To Change It
Paris Marx on the Liberatory Potential of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ideas About Technology
Ursula K. Le Guin had a unique way of telling a great story that forced us to confront contradictions in the way our society is organized. She believed that empowering people to use their imaginations to think of a better world was “dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary,” and she showed this to be true through her fiction.
In 1976, Le Guin published a coming-of-age novel called Very Far Away from Anywhere Else that explicitly engaged with questions of mobility and the place of the automobile in American society. The protagonist of the novel was a teenage boy living in suburbia who was figuring out his identity, and finding that it clashed with the prevailing wisdom in his community. In an internal monologue, he explained, “I didn’t know who I was, but I knew one thing: I wasn’t the seat-fixture of an automobile.” He saw himself as someone who preferred to take the bus and to walk because “I really like the streets of the city. The sidewalks, the buildings, the people you pass. Not the brake lights on the back of the car in front of yours.” But he was having an altogether different identity thrust upon him.
In a moment when Silicon Valley constrains how we think about technology to serve its commercial interests, Le Guin offers us a liberatory alternative.
For his birthday, his father had gifted him a car, and he deeply resented it:
You see, in giving me that car my father was saying, “This is what I want you to be. A normal car-loving American teenager.” And by giving it to me he had made it impossible for me to say what I wanted to say, which was that I had finally realized that that’s what I wasn’t, and was never going to be, and I needed help finding out what I was instead. But to say that, now, I had to say, “Take your present back, I don’t want it!” And I couldn’t.
In his view, foisting a car upon him was also part of a larger pattern of pushing a particular idea of masculinity that did not define him. His parents were engaging in an unconscious process that happens every single day when parents normalize the existing social conditions and downplay the harms that accompany them to their children. But in this case, it was not working, and that may have been a reflection of broader social dynamics playing out in the mid-1970s.
Three years earlier, the world had experienced the first of the oil shocks of that decade. In October 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries declared an oil embargo on the countries supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, but it also caused the price of oil to soar even for countries that were not embargoed. The high oil price and limited supplies naturally had wide-ranging impacts, and that included how automobiles could be used—if they were used at all.
On January 2, 1974, President Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which set highway speed limits at fifty-five miles per hour—an act that was not repealed until 1995. But due to the high energy prices that resulted from the embargo, much more changed. Americans, along with people in other Western countries, became more concerned with energy use, and that was reflected in how people lived. Rather than big, gas-guzzling vehicles, US drivers began switching to fuel-efficient Japanese cars, and there was a push to increase the efficiency of engines after the introduction of fuel economy standards in 1975.
By 1983, the New York Times was reporting that people had been using their bikes instead of their cars and going on walks to relieve their stress instead of taking long drives. People also wanted to economize on heating costs, which led them to keep their homes cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer, and the size of new homes actually shrank. The oil shocks of the 1970s presented a rare opportunity for the United States to rethink how it used energy and planned communities.
President Jimmy Carter, who was inaugurated in January 1977, put solar panels on the White House and invested federal funds into developing renewable energy. But the change did not take hold, as anyone can see if they visit US towns and cities today, where most people continue to depend on their cars and trucks, not so much out of choice but necessity.The change did not take hold, as anyone can see if they visit US towns and cities today, where most people continue to depend on their cars and trucks, not so much out of choice but necessity.
Rather than entrenching and learning from the changes that took place during the 1970s, US corporate interests rejected them and doubled down on automobiles and fossil fuels. The United States extracted more oil and gas at home, and launched new wars to ensure foreign supplies were not disrupted. By the 1990s, some people were abandoning fuel-efficient cars once again for sport utility vehicles, in part because they were subject to less stringent fuel economy standards. In Texas, there was a major push to invest in coal instead of renewables in the aftermath of the oil shocks, and it even had the support of President Carter.
Instead of doubling down on suburbia and automobility, the United States could have taken another path—the path taken by parts of Europe. By the 1970s, the automobile was taking hold in Western Europe. The postwar reconstruction and economic expansion began the process of remaking European cities for the automobile by turning public spaces into parking lots, shifting street space to cars, and even leveling neighborhoods to remake them for the automobile. Europe had not adopted personal vehicles to the same degree as the United States, but the postwar period presented various corporate interests with the opportunity to imitate a process similar to that which was ongoing in the United States, and from which they would profit immensely. But they ran into trouble.
Road deaths in Europe, especially among children and young women, soared as automobile adoption increased, similar to what had happened in the United States a few decades earlier. Amsterdam, which is today known as a bicycle mecca, was not spared from this desire to transform and to modernize by making way for the car, and by 1971, 3,300 people were killed annually from cars, including 400 children. In 1975, the traffic death rate in the Netherlands was 20 percent higher than in the United States. Naturally, residents demanded action.
Among the groups that were formed to oppose the remaking of the city for the automobile was Stop de Kindermoord, which translated to “stop the child murder.” The group’s name was reminiscent of the evocative language that was seen on US streets in the 1910s and 1920s. Its members held demonstrations for bicycles, closed roads to allow children to play, and even occupied the sites of car crashes. They gained the ear of people in power, then received public funding and helped to develop policies to deemphasize the automobile’s place in Dutch transport policy. The growing death toll was one reason for the shift, but the oil shocks also played an important role in building momentum.Rather than entrenching and learning from the changes that took place during the 1970s, US corporate interests rejected them and doubled down on automobiles and fossil fuels.
After oil prices soared in 1973, the Dutch prime minister asked citizens to change the way they lived so they could conserve energy, and Sundays became car-free days. Those experiences affected policy decisions, and by the 1980s Dutch cities and towns were promoting bicycle use by giving them dedicated lanes and redesigning streets to reduce vehicle speeds. Meanwhile, across the continent governments were promoting energy efficiency and European automakers were building smaller, more efficient vehicles.
Decades later, per capita energy use is lower in Europe than the United States, vehicles and homes are smaller, transit use is higher, and the automobile has not been adopted with the same fervor as in North America. The United States could have taken its foot off the pedal of auto-oriented development in the 1970s. In November 1972, the governor of Texas even called out the “wasteful use of energy in every segment of our society.” But instead it shifted into a higher gear as soon as the crisis had passed, with a major suburban expansion through the 1980s and 1990s at great environmental and human cost.
In a 1986 essay on the “carrier bag theory of fiction,” Le Guin criticized common narratives in history and storytelling that focus on the masculine hero with his “sticks and spears and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things,” but ignore the essential feminine role of the carer or gatherer with her carrier bag that was essential to human evolution. She wrote that “the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd,” and explained that there is more than struggle and competition to the function of society and the improvement of the human condition. But those narratives filter out into the broader society and distort our understanding of the world around us.
Le Guin was particularly critical of what they do to the way we understand technology and science, narrowly associating those terms with high-tech fields and the “hard” sciences, which are positioned as “a heroic undertaking, Herculean, Promethean, conceived as triumph.” In a later essay, Le Guin argued that positioning technology in this way makes us believe it refers only to “the enormously complex and specialized technologies of the past few decades, supported by massive exploitation both of natural and human resources.” Instead, she wanted to see a more expansive definition, for technology to be understood as “the active human interface with the material world.” As she put it:
technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are (animal? human? water? wind? electricity? other?) what they build with and what they build, their medicine—and so on and on. Perhaps very ethereal people aren’t interested in these mundane, bodily matters, but I’m fascinated by them, and I think most of my readers are too.
In a moment when Silicon Valley constrains how we think about technology to serve its commercial interests, Le Guin offers us a liberatory alternative. Instead of fetishizing digitization, her broader conception allows us to embrace more mundane technologies that have stood the test of time—for instance the bicycle, the bus, and the train—and to see how they can materially improve our lives in a much more equitable way than the elite, apolitical visions on offer by the so-called visionaries of the tech industry.
Excerpted from Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation by Paris Marx. Copyright © 2022. Available from Verso Books.