I have been writing on race and culture pretty heavily recently, and decided to change gears for my weekend post. I want to examine the title of this post, a question that most people would never even think of. The mass ownership and operation of automobiles is a presupposition that underlies the current lifestyle and culture of Imperial America –from work to entertainment to provision.
I grew up in a household that owned an automobile, as did almost all Americans of my generation. The automobile was not invented and successfully produced until 1896 when Henry Ford brought out his Quadricycle. That was before my grandparents were born. Rural people, especially poor ones, did not get a car until decades later, sometimes half a century later.
When I read Michael Bunker’s excellent book Surviving Off Off-Grid four years ago, it made me begin to question some of my base assumptions about life and society. One of these assumptions was that automobiles were unquestionably good, and a sustainable system of transport. (I really need to reread that book and review it here on this blog someday).
From the beginning of time, until about one hundred years ago, man moved about the surface of the earth by his feet or by harnessing horse power. The Pyramids of Egypt and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built by men who rode horses. The men who built ancient Greece and Rome utilized horsepower, not gasoline engines. Man crossed the oceans in wooden ships and explored the earth –without automobiles. Early America and the Antebellum South were built and flourished with nothing but horsepower. Automobiles, and the gasoline engines that run them, are not necessary to create a stable and well provisioned society –or even magnificent architecture.
It is certainly fun to get in an air conditioned car and cruise down the road to a destination fifty miles a way in less than an hour. But is it necessary to life? Of course not, else humans before 1900 could not have lived. We have established that it is not necessary, but is it a good thing? I am not so sure. If one needed emergency medical care for a trauma, and the hospital was fifty miles away, than a car would seem rather nice. But when we consider the ramifications on society, the planet, and our everyday life –cars might not have been a good idea.
The car is more than a replacement for the horse; the car is an entirely new system that must be supported. The horse grazed in your field, turned his food into valuable fertilizer for the same fields, required no replacement parts, and naturally generated new horses to take his place as he aged/wore out. None of this applies to cars.
The car is a mechanical device, a creation of the industrial system – the industrial system that fractured families, destroyed small farms, and supplanted our kin and agrarian oriented culture. The car is made with heavy industry, not in a local shop by a craftsman and his assistants. It requires complicated mechanical and electric components that the local blacksmith could not fabricate. (Many of these components are now made in a foreign country and shipped thousands of miles to be assembled in a factory). The car requires gasoline to run. That means that crude oil must be extracted and refined, and then distributed to corporate refill stations along every major road in the country. Speaking of roads, now roads must be paved, or at least graveled, so that cars can cruise around at 60 miles per hour. This requires a GREAT expenditure of manpower and tax dollars. And the tires, many now made in China thousands of miles away, must be replaced with use, or even with no use as they will dry rot and weaken. Cars break down frequently, especially if they are over ten years old, so mechanic shops and parts stores must be in every town –even small towns. Orange County, Indiana (the rural county where I live) has as many auto parts stores as grocery stores, and most of them are corporate chain stores.
The ownership of an automobile requires a significant source of income. Working the family farm to provide ones needs and a few comforts was no longer enough for most families. To purchase, and then support, a car required more extra cash than the farm gave them; it required a job in town. To work the farm and a forty hour job in town is not possible, unless one had several teenage sons. And they would soon want their own car, and thus move on to the town (or a big city) and embrace the industrialized culture on their own.
Then, because of accidents causing death and great property damage, States started demanding people buy insurance if they wanted to drive their cars on the public roads. Sure you can drive around your field in an uninsured old pickup to drop off feed for the cows, but how do you get the cows (or your crops) to market without going on the public roads? Now there is another monthly bill, for insurance. And just wait until you see the rate they will charge you when you teenage children start driving! Why, they had better leave the farm and get a part time job if they want to drive…
And all the wrecks will raise the need for medical insurance. This will snowball from crisis insurance until everything little thing, even common doctor’s visits, are covered under the insurance plans. Then, in part because of government regulations, the insurance gets very expensive. Then, the benevolent (sarcasm) State demands that all people purchase insurance from an insurance company (corporation) that they have chartered. Now, working the farm is nothing but a distant memory.
And you must also get a picture I.D. driver’s license from the State. You will be photographed and assigned a number. That driver’s license can now serve as form of I.D. for the (corporate) jobs you apply to, and at the bank were you can withdraw paper FRNs that represent the imaginary credits that you corporate employer has transferred to the bank as electronic impulses…
And now local, state, and federal police will patrol the roads -looking for unsafe drivers. And they will even set up random checkpoints (goodbye 4th Amendment) to demand people pull over and show their papers. What does that have to do with safety? Black uniformed police and road checkpoints were not a part of everyday American life before the advent of automobiles.
And then there is the part about finite natural resources. Unlike air, which is recycled by trees, and water that evaporates and comes back down as rain, petroleum is a finite resource. Finite as in total contrast with infinite, finite as in a fixed amount that cannot be increased. Our worldwide oil reserves are finite, and cannot last forever. Some people believe that we have reached peak oil production, and that it is downhill from here. Even assuming that world population does not increase (which it will), and assuming that there is enough oil to power our cars at current level for another 100 years, what happens when we get to year 101? At some point the game is over, we just have not yet figured how soon that point will be reached. That is reality.
And what about pollution? I am far removed from being a left wing Greenie, but breathing clean air would seem to be a good idea to any human. Everyone knows that large cities have very poor quality air compared to the country. Smog is unknown in rural areas. And what do you do with used motor oil and antifreeze? To pour it on the ground will slowly poison our groundwater supply, what we drink!
At this point it should be obvious that Western society has gotten themselves into a mess with automobiles. Despite being convenient and fun, they have created a need for great income –and a whole lot of other messes.
I understand that Michael Bunker has acquired two horses for his homestead, and would like to transition into working his land with horses. That would be a good thing. Even when one totally separates from grid power and water, and grows their own food, that automobile trap is still there to overcome.
The Amish are just fine without cars, as they never adopted them. I have heard that one of the reasons is that they fear that they would lose their young people to the world if they owned cars. Well, 20th century American farmboys joined the system in droves to buy cars and get electric lights, and drove girls around in those cars, so the Amish might be pretty wise to what would happen to their own youth.
Now that we have looked at the situation, what does one do? That is up to each individual. I still own an automobile, a late 1990s pickup truck. I never got into cars like most guys, and have only owned two trucks in my life. I bought a 1995 Dodge Ram 2500 4 wheel drive with the 5.9 Cummins diesel engine in 2002, and I drove it until 2014. Then I picked up a 1998 GMC Sierra 1500 4×4 with only 125,000 miles and a pretty decent body. I do not know if I will ever buy another vehicle.
First, I wish to return to an agrarian lifestyle, the way of my ancestors. Second, at some point the industrial system and its automobiles must be seceded from, if we are to preserve our people and culture. Third, an EMP or economic collapse could cease all production and operation of vehicles –or any gasoline powered engines and crude oil refinement for that matter. As I think the possibility of a collapse is quite real, we may all one day be walking again –unless we have acquired a horse beforehand! I hope this has given my readers something to think about this weekend.
© Copyright 2017 by Joseph Charles Putnam of Orange County, Indiana. All rights reserved.