Book Review: Carjacked: The Culture of Automobiles And Its Effects On Our Lives

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

[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.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • DweezilSFV DweezilSFV on Feb 27, 2010

    Sorry. I am not buying it. My choice to live where I live and drive what I drive is predicated on what I can afford and will improve my quality of life. If that means living in the Valley [in what was once a "suburb"] and having a commute, then that is what I will do. Would have loved to have lived closer to my job, but got sick of the noise, lack of space, parking, inconvenience, bums and freaks in the "hip and trendy urban walkable" neighborhood where I had my first condo.Same with the apartment I rented a few blocks from work.Dealing with assholism up close and personal on a daily basis did not improve my life.It detracted from it. I guess I am supposed to tolerate all that crap for the "common good" right? Hang what I want. "Interacting" with my asinine busy body neighbors on far too intimate a basis after "interacting" with people all day long finally took it's toll and I looked for my own house where I wasn't forced to live the social engineer's and urban planner's dream, but my own. As far as "cost to society": I am not a unit of production for the state. My neighborhood benefits from the roots I have put down and the investment I have made in it. The shops and businesses I use in my city benefit as does the tax base. I have more than repaid my "cost to society" via my property taxes, gas taxes, bond issue obligations placed on my property for public transit and schools [and I don't have children] and all sorts of other crap my renter neighbors have decided I can afford to pay, but they don't have to. Gotta love that sense of "community" and "interaction". Add in the fact that I have assumed the financial risk, the committment to a "community", that if I have to commute 15 miles to my job, the reward is still far greater than the cost of spending time "isolated" from "others" in traffic. That time is golden and just as valuable as if I were sitting at home. I know it drives the social engineers and urban planner nannies nuts, but my life is much improved over living that "urban,walkable neighborhood utopian" lifestyle. Being '"owned by my automobile" works out to my benefit. Go figure. Damn why won't I just do what they want me to do, live the way they think I should. Such a caveman. Btw: my house is less than 1000 square feet, for the first 10 years I used a clothesline to dry my clothes, I don't require a new car be made for me every 3 years and when I do it's a compact sized one [and not an SUV] with good mileage because I am cheap, combine shopping trips with trips home from work, hit the grocery store once a month and rarely drive anywhere on Saturdays or Sundays, or at least 1 day a week. And I have 2 other cars as well. Their cost is worth it to me as they are as much hobbies as they are "tools". They are the where I chooce to spend my money as opposed to golf, fine dining, chasing women [or men], doing drugs, chasing the latest electronic gadgets, or in futile attempts to "interact" with my neighbors by impressing them with my gourmet kitchen or the latest automotive vulgarity. I've paid my dues. And it's about choices and trade offs. But then we're all so mindless we just blindly become people of Walmart, aimlessly driving about getting in the way of our betters. These two can piss off.If they had their way we'd only be able to operate our electric carriages with someone walking along 100 yards in front of us waving a red flag to warn the horses.

    • See 2 previous
    • RogerB34 RogerB34 on Mar 27, 2010

      Problem is that the commute emotional pressure mounts as years go by and sooner for most, they regret the choice.

  • Ra_pro Ra_pro on Jun 05, 2010

    Geography (and demography) are people's and countries' destiny. The reason why people in NA live in the suburbs and why the suburbs even exist in the first place is that there is a lot of land available and usually it's not too expensive as it is in Europe. A lot of land means lower house prices and bigger houses. Since everything is a bit bigger (houses, offices, streets etc) it translates into large distances when everything is added up. This makes it a necessity to own a car. It's impossible to live without it otherwise a simple chore becomes a half-day expedition. When I go to visit my parents in Europe I can live there for weeks (with the whole family) without a car and indeed many people do. Any way you look at it the car is just completely superfluous for many people in Europe and in fact is a pure luxury item and/or matter of prestige, a gadget that makes ones life a touch more out of the ordinary. Yet most families (I estimate) do own at least one. This book would make a lot more sense if written for the European public.

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