Car culture and global energy conflict

Posted Feb. 15, 2010, at 7:37 p.m.

This ad (herein condensed) did not make the Super Bowl roster, but Sarah Palin probably likes it:

“My name is Ram and my tank is full. I’m fueled by optimism. Driven by passion and stopped by nothing. I’m a can-do spirit in a get-it-done body. All brawn. All brain. I’m built not to last, but to outlast. Not to achieve, but to overachieve. I’m built to reward the doers who climb behind my wheel every day by working even harder than they do. I carry reputations. I carry livelihoods. I deliver the goods without fail. The road ahead of me is long, but I know my destination. I will not downshift. I will not coast to a stop.”

(To see the full text and video, search “My name is Ram” at jalopnik.com.)

Michael Klare, author of “Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet,” remarks that plentiful oil spurred the development of an auto culture, which is one of the defining characteristics of U.S. society and an example to other nations. We feel we are entitled to cheap oil and gas-guzzlers.

The risk of violent energy conflicts, however, is growing as more nations compete for diminishing reserves. Nationalism is intensified, making energy conflicts even more intractable.

David Campbell, author of “The Biopolitics of Security,” agrees that Americans regard cheap oil as a birthright, but suggests that oil’s iconic status cannot be explained merely by its historic abundance. Oil became one of the ways by which we have sought to define ourselves as a people and to validate that definition. Oil is cru-cial to one of the central values of this culture, mobility. Mobility is a consequence of and contributor to another key U.S. value, technological prowess.

These values have been validated by viewing as threatening those who appear to have different values or who have characteristics that can be portrayed as anathema to our core values. Thus in the 17th and 18th centuries Native Americans, perceived as having no concept of private property and no interest in technological bet-terment, were portrayed as shiftless, and aggressive.

Today, environmentalists who have qualms about at least how we achieve mobility are often portrayed as effeminate, soft, etc. These portrayals in turn have often encouraged and been sustained by bellicose nationalism. Critics of rapid natural resource exploitation are viewed as dupes of foreign influence. Recently, nonviolent protesters of energy exploration have been vilified as “environmental terrorists.”

Well-guarded geographic borders expressed and reinforced the sense of the mighty and self-sufficient U.S. machine, but today these borders are breaking down. Immigration is widely highlighted, but capital goods, money, diseases, media messages and financial capital all cross geographic borders even more rapidly. Climate change and energy wars, perhaps nuclear, loom as the ultimate cross border challenge. All limit our options and reshape our expectations. We are, as Campbell says, part of complex networks.

In the face of flux, many strive to reseal our geographic borders but others seek to shore up conventional identity through various cultural means. The auto, the way it is advertised and even designed, is an attempt to secure new boundaries. The SUV is portrayed as security in a world of crime, dangerous traffic, a reminder of U.S. military triumph and thus an antidote to the “Vietnam syndrome,” and a means to and expression of individuality. Like gated communities, the Ram and the SUV are capsules that appear to seal us off from challenge but actually increase international oil conflict and risks at home.

We can’t, however, stop Alaska drilling merely by pointing out that little of our total needs can be derived from there. “Drill baby drill” has a compelling, cheerleader resonance, speaks to a visceral anger toward environmentalists from a squeezed working class experiencing flux. Drilling now bespeaks a take-charge mentality.

Ending this vicious circle requires willingness by environmentalists and social justice advocates to engage the core values and identify anxieties central to car culture. One counter is to ease immediate economic burdens and foster jobs that recognize the talents of displaced workers.

We might also address critics in more respectful ways by acknowledging we too hold core values we can’t fully prove. We might tap and-or respond to other interests working class critics themselves may find undervalued in this materialistic culture, such as time with family or enjoying the wilderness rides those SUVs were supposed to enable.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may reach him at jbuell@acadia.net.

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