Are Cars the Ultimate Myth of Individual Choice?

bookOne of historian Lewis Mumford’s many complaints about modern society was that compulsory action often posed as freedom of choice. In his 1970 book The Pentagon of Power, for example, he marveled at the free-loving, drug-taking, war-protesting hippies at Woodstock, who believed they were defying society’s expectations by acting out against the establishment. He thought that the revelers were just naïve pawns of music-producing record companies. Mumford, then in his seventies, might be forgiven for a curmudgeonly vision of 1960s counterculture. But it was an elaboration of a point he had made already about “authoritarian” technology and the illusion of individual choice: “one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered… in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires.”[1]

Few technologies represent the tension between freedom and compulsion better than the automobile. Americans in particular seem to have a pathological aversion to public transportation, and in consequence much of the landscape is characterized by city sprawl, interstate highways, toxic smog and perennial traffic jams. The staggering number of deaths in cars is an ineffective deterrent. In fact cars routinely are used as a reference point for other risks: how often do we hear that a person is far more likely to die in a car accident than fall prey to cancer, have a heart attack, or come to some other unpleasant end? Yet we still drive them. For better or for worse, automobiles have a reputation for being an individualistic goal that people want so badly they are willing to ignore the environmental consequences and the immense annual toll on human life.

In Car Country, Christopher W. Wells seeks to dismantle the idea that America’s car-dependent landscape is a result of such individualism. While it is true that many people prefer and would choose cars for a host of reasons, Wells places much more responsibility upon the government agencies that made it virtually impossible for Americans to operate in any other way. For Wells, cars do not represent freedom or individual choice. Quite the opposite. He sees city planners designing communities dependent upon cars, and government investment in infrastructure—including the military-based interstate highway system—forging a future that necessitated use of the automobile.

To comment on Car Country, I invited David Blanke, Professor of History and Department of Humanities Chair at Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi. Like Wells, Blanke has probed the origins and meaning of “car culture” in the United States. In his book Hell on Wheels, he tackles head-on the problem of car accidents and the tensions between freedom and risk. He sees Americans’ experiences with automobiles as crucial to an evolving public discourse about risk and safety.[2]

Our second commentator, Martin V. Melosi, is the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor of History at the University of Houston. His prolific writings on environmental history often touch on technology and energy, and he has written extensively about urban infrastructure. In his award-winning book The Sanitary City, for example, he revealed the development and standardization of sewers, water supply, and waste disposal, highlighting the interplay between technological systems and the professional administrators who helped to design them.[3]

Offering our final comment is Thomas Zeller, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland. He brings to this roundtable an eye for international dimensions. An expert on environmental history in Germany, he has written comparative studies of American and German roads and landscapes. His book Driving Germany, is an environmental, technological, and cultural history of the Autobahn from the 1930s to the 1960s. He shows how the iconic roadway underwent a cultural transition in the postwar years, having begun as a symbol of the many promises of the Nazi party, among them a plan to reconcile nature and technology.[4]

See the full roundtable, with a response by Wells, here.

Before turning to the comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

[1] Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970); Lewis Mumford, “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” Technology and Culture 5:1 (1964), 1-8. Quote on p. 6.

[2] David Blanke, Hell on Wheels: The Promise and Peril of America’s Car Culture, 1900-1940 (Lawerence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2007).

[3] Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

[4] Thomas Zeller, Driving Germany: The Landscape of the German Autobahn, 1930-1970 (New York: Berghahn, 2007), translated by Thomas Dunlap.