Cars in the Modern World

By Frederik de Raat & Adam Barker-Wyatt

In the capitalist consumer world of western modernity tools are increasingly valued for their social significance rather than their practical use for us. Due to this and the excitement we feel about new technology, we have entered an era of overconsumption where consumer items are used irresponsibly. Because of these two facts, the overconsumption and the irresponsible use of tools, the world we live and think in drastically changes. In this paper we will try and create a starting point for this discussion by talking about an example of a tool which needs to be responsibly limited in its use.

Cars have shaped our environment more than we normally realize but if you take a closer look at the world around you, you can see that it has been very dominant in urban but also rural geography. In the Netherlands, and in general in all of Europe, the development of cities and its internal structures has been based on transport on foot or on a horse, which is why diving in old cities is often rather tricky; the roads are simply not made for it. Also countryside roads are often very narrow, dark at night, curvy and surrounded by trees, canals or hedges making it all together more dangerous to travel on these roads at high speeds. Especially when considering that the typical countryside vehicles you may encounter (e.g.: tractors, combines etc.) are often as big as the road. Also, according to the World Health Organization, all car accidents combined list number six in ‘top causes of death in developed ‘countries’ making it not only a very spacious but also lethal aspect of everyday life.

Other than only space for cars -roads and parking lots and such- the fact that we use cars also shapes the environment. This in the form of car graveyards, mines for the raw materials, the car factories, stock-parking lots in harbours and the ships carrying them across the seas and oceans and, of course, the global oil industry with at its base the combustion engine. All these factors make the car-industry as a whole incredibly destructive and polluting. Even the presented alternative of electric or hybrid cars is a nice gesture but they are only ‘green’ in the hands of the consumer. Before they get there, their batteries have been made out of minerals that fuel wars in the South/East, they have been shipped all over the world and even after the consumer is done driving it and it is recycled, 25% of the car’s initial weight ends up in a landfill.

As well as dramatically changing the physical world, cars have taken up a stand in the minds of us modern people and as a result have changed our desires, our fears and our expectations. First of all, think about what is involved when you buy a car. As well as buying a hugely powerful machine capable of moving one comfortably across vast distances, you are also buying a social object; an object which speaks to those around it and tells them something about you as owner. Advertising, as the medium through which things are sold, reflects this and reinforces aspects of it. This advert for a recently released car plays on the idea that the car describes it owner; a certain type of person drives the Jaguar F-Type. The car as status symbol not only differentiates people but it advances them; the F-Type driver is a more alive than the rest of us (and he has more money).

Like anything else that can be sold, the social importance of cars is reinforced through capitalist ideology but also through the physical changes that have been described above. The transformation of the lived environment by roads reflects and creates an environment in which car ownership is the norm; it becomes necessary to own a car to have enough job opportunities or visit friends separated by vast stretches of tarmac. Through this transformation people are separated, the rich can afford to move out of the city maintaining contact via the highways and separating themselves via the ring roads found in so many European cities. (e.g. London, paris etc) Another aspect which defines the modern person as a car user is how there is a common understanding of driving tests as a “growing up” ritual; it can be an embarrassment to not have a driving licence by your late 20s.

All of these factors contribute to the idea of car ownership as a vital item of social capital; it advances you in society. Because of this, cars have overgrown their usefulness in the sense that they are no longer merely a tool for getting from point A to point B, this is evident in the widely common desire to own a car, preferably one better than your neighbour’s.  This mentality needs to change if we are to start responsibly limiting our use of cars. Doing this will be part of a wider change in mind set needed to prevent further violent ecological destruction and social destruction of the global South. Not only there but also here in the west we would benefit. It will not be easy overcoming the social norms and physical obstacles but if we are able, finally we may be able to use the car as a car again, not as an ego boosts. By not shutting ourselves off in a mobile metal box we may have some positive social interaction.