[Editor's note: Please join us today at 3pm Eastern (noon Pacific) for a livechat with the authors of Carjacked: The Culture Of The Automobile And Its Effects On Our Lives]
Over the last several weeks, the Toyota recall scandal has reopened the national discussion about car ownership, raising new questions about the role of personal responsibility in our relationships with automobiles. Here at TTAC, we’ve argued passionately that a major lesson of the Toyota recall is that consumers can not rely on brand reputation or the assumption that cars will always work as we expect them to in order to protect ourselves and our families. But responsible car ownership doesn’t end there. To maintain a functioning relationship with our cars, it’s important that motorists understand that the vehicles we cherish come with high costs. And anyone who thinks that the awesome power of the private automobile doesn’t come with great responsibilities would do well to read through the relentless documentation of these costs that makes up the book Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect On Our Lives.
A number of our readers will doubtless interpret Carjacked as an explicitly anti-car text, and from the cover image of a man straining under the weight of an SUV to the conclusion’s exhortations to support public transportation, there’s little to disabuse the reader of that impression. Indeed, upon a first reading, the car-loving reader might be tempted to dismiss the authors as irrationally car-hating ideologues. But at the end of the introduction to Carjacked, its authors offer an insight that should give pause to those who would discard the book as a mere screed:
asking individual Americans to take a close look at the problems caused by the automobiles can elicit a defensive gut response. Just as suggesting that a loved one sit down with a marriage counselor or a nutrition advisor can evoke fears of divorce or draconian diet restrictions, asking a driver to examine the full impact of the car on his life can prompt deep anxiety that he will be forced to give up his car. But for most of us, the choice is not between the car and no car. It is about whether it is possible to drive less and pay less for it; it is about recognizing the powerful lure of car advertising ad educating ourselves about the schemes of the dealership; it is about making careful choices about where to live when we move…
This sensibility alone prevents Carjacked from descending completely into the politically-driven, auto-hatred of the far left. The authors, anthropologist Catherine Lutz and marketer/investment banker Anne Lutz Fernandez, do indulge in a certain amount of utopian anti-car-ism, but their approach is more rooted in the problems of our daily life than garden-variety political demagoguery. And what red-blooded pistonhead can’t admit that the fantasy of our love for automobiles is rarely echoed in reality?
Car lovers having a hard time dealing with their “defensive gut reactions” to Carjacked‘s frontal assault would be well advised to start with Chapter Seven, which addresses the problem of traffic. While many of the book’s beefs with the automobile involve broader social challenges like economic inequality, poor health and the dire results of effective marketing, the section on traffic, sprawl and road rage help illustrate how car obsession hurts car lovers as much or more than anyone else. “Sartre’s much repeated line, ‘Hell is other people,’ may hold as a truism more on the nation’s highways than anywhere else in the public sphere,” write the authors. “Americans tend to treat traffic and its related hassles as a problem caused by others, failing to recognize our own role as drivers.”
It’s a pity, then, that the authors force readers through 150 pages of comprehensive and relentless criticism of all things car-related before giving motorists such an approachable example of the problems of car culture. Despite having admitted that “for most of us, the choice is not between the car and no car,” the authors blame car marketing for perpetuating the myth that cars equal freedom before ever getting to the infinitely more common sense critique that our actual, day-to-day freedom is more dependent on the number of other cars on the road than the ground clearance of our SUV, or the amount of horsepower under our hoods.
This is emblematic of the fundamental problem with Carjacked: it falls into the convenient trap of blaming everyone from oil and auto companies, to government policy and the entertainment industry for the automobile’s ills, reducing individuals to mere pawns of these malignant forces. Not only does this approach confuse the symptom (the negative effects of automobiles) with the disease (the broader social values and historical legacies of modern America) but it also alienates the authors from the average reader who, according to the statistics, are more likely to own two or three automobiles than none at all.
This is a shame, because the authors do wrap up the book with some solid advice for individual motorists who struggle with the all-too-common reality of feeling like their car owns them instead of the other way around. But it’s also telling that, once the authors are done dishing out advice to help Americans take charge in their personal relationship with the automobile and help address the larger issues around auto-dependence, it urges the reader to “get political” by lobbying for improved public transit, less car-friendly land-use policies and higher fuel efficiency standards.
Though its fair to include political advocacy at the end of Carjacked, most readers who make it through to the conclusion probably agreed with the book’s politics before they picked it up. Motorists who want to better understand the impacts of their personal relationship with the automobile (let alone the multiplied impacts of our national relationship with cars) without distracting wedge issues (Anthropogenic global warming and a section titled “why Rush Limbaugh likes sprawl” come to mind) will have to look elsewhere.
Ultimately, Carjacked is packed with perspectives that car lovers typically avoid, and unfortunately it gives them plenty of reasons to avoid it. Carjacked seems to have been written for people who already dislike and fear automobiles, rather than those who appreciate and use them most. Which is a minor tragedy, considering that the book is understandably unable to plot a clear course away from our dependence on private automobiles. Since even Carjacked‘s authors seem to admit that the automobile is here to stay, they probably should have focused their book more on the people who do love, appreciate and regularly use automobiles. Because love can be blind, but functional relationships are based on truly understanding the impacts of our own actions.