Car Nation

Car lot, Brownsmead. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I was in the United States for a few years before I bought my first car. It was a long, white used Cadillac, with lots of problems, including bad brakes.

The man who sold it to me was a customer in my uncle’s “Sailors Drive In,” a tiny restaurant in South Chicago. I spent some of my college vacation working in that restaurant.

I don’t really know why I bought the car. Its owner was very convincing and I knew nothing about cars.  Yes, I drove it around and spent additional money to increase its safety. But was I trying to impress girls? Was I convinced cars were made for fun?

I suppose the answer to these questions is, probably, yes. Being a twenty-something, in the early 1960s, I, too, was caught in the deception of advertising.


I did not have a clue about the gases coming out the tailpipes of the car, much less their effects on clean air and climate change. I could not fathom car companies would be so criminal to manufacture a machine that would poison the very air we breathe.

I find it difficult to accept I was so illiterate, especially when I drove that car in South Chicago, a suburb-like part of Chicago, a megalopolis of enormous pollution, strong winds  and frequent dark skies.

I did not drive that car very much, however. I used to take the bus and the downtown elevated train to the University of Illinois in Chicago. In fact, after a while of being in an apartment in South Chicago, I moved to Ohio Street in downtown Chicago, not far from the university.

I exchanged my Cadillac for a much smaller car. I then drove that small green car to Wisconsin where I started my doctoral history program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin.

No more cars for me

Ever since Wisconsin and Harvard, where I did my postdoctoral studies in the history of science, I drove less and less. Starting in the 1980s, I almost stopped driving.

This coincided with the increase of my knowledge about what we do to ourselves and the natural world.

My enlightenment started at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Despite my unpleasant experience, my first years were tolerable. I had time to read and carry out my own studies, listen to colleagues with lots of experience, and see the results of the implementation of laws or their neglect, especially that.

Cars and the bomb

Now, in 2019, I see the private petroleum-powered car for what it is: an engine of pollution that has shaped America as much as the nuclear bomb.

The car made possible the spread of the public-be-damned culture of large farms, irresponsible medicine, highways without end, polluting transport and polluting industry and climate change. The bomb consolidated this private empire by sowing fear.

Yes, it’s convenient to jump into your car and drive anywhere you want at any time of the day or night. You do that in a fog of ignorance and brainwashing by the petroleum companies, commercial television, and car manufacturers and car salesmen. This cabal of economic interests is delighted with your impulsive driving. It is selling cars for profit, the more the better.

But a look at the highways crisscrossing the country and slicing the cities, surrounding them with a toxic 24 / 7 belt of pollution and climate change gases, suffices to show the futility of car dependence for most of our needs: going from point A to point B. The number of cars keeps increasing, poisons keep climbing to the clouds making us sick and warming the planet. It’s a hopeless game.

Seeing is believing 

One of my worst experiences that captures this hazardous race with polluting automobiles happened in late October 2019. I was riding a SuperShuttle van from Claremont to the Los Angeles International Airport.

My travel to the airport took place late in the evening, after nine o’clock. When the small SuperShuttle bus got very close to the airport, a river of cars filling six lanes came close to a complete stop, moving no more than a mile an hour for an hour to the gates of the airport.

I talked to the bus driver and to the passengers. We were angry but impotent to do anything but go with the toxic flow.

Do the math

Multiply this incident and the enormous pollution of hundreds and thousands of stalled cars by thousands of times in countless airports and highways and city streets and you have a substantial amount of greenhouse emissions rising to polluted heavens – every day.

In 2017, the Trump EPA underestimated the total greenhouse gas emissions from the United States to be 6,457 million metric tons of CO2 (carbon dioxide) equivalent. Astonishingly, agriculture was assigned 9 percent of the total national emissions and the gigantic climate change footprint of the Pentagon was absent. Even this grossly inaccurate assessment rated transportation with 29 percent of the total American contribution to global warming.

In early 2019, there were about 276 million operating cars in the United States. Cars and trucks emit about a fifth of all US greenhouse gases. A typical gasoline-powered car is responsible for about 4.6 metric tons of COper year. In addition, the car emits methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and, if the air conditioner is leaking, the car is emitting hydrofluorocarbons.  Cars burning diesel emit about 15 percent more CO2 per gallon.

These constant emissions do two things. Warm the planet (raising the temperature in California and the United States) and, at the same time, harm human and environmental health.

A result of this perpetual pollution in California, for example, is that the total air quality is bad for most people. Air quality means the air is no longer clean. Those measuring what is in the air are trying to understand the implications of the air being poisoned. Are people safe breathing the constantly changing atmospheric air mixed with known poisons? How is that unhealthy mixture affecting other breathing animals?

According to the government of the State of California:

“More than 95% of Californians live in areas that fail to meet federal or state air quality standards, which is an increasing health hazard to you, your children, and future generations. Motor vehicles are to blame for more than half of the air pollution in California. While it’s true that cars are cleaner than they used to be, most new vehicles are still not clean enough to counteract the amount of driving Californians do. So, if we want cleaner air, we have two choices – drive less or drive clean.”

Driving clean?

By “drive clean” California means driving the least polluting car. That’s not enough in a state where cars are kings. They are nearly everywhere, defining people, and organizing society.

I am not exaggerating. I bike and walk in my “small” California town. Every house has from 2 to 5 automobiles. These cars are becoming larger: mostly small-bus like vans or sports utility giants designed for fat people.

Even Claremont’s colleges are addicted to polluting cars. I walk to the colleges’ library and I am confronting a sea of parked cars.

Affluent people in Claremont (and probably countless other small towns and large cities) love cars so much, they maintain cars dating several decades ago. I see them driving such obsolete and polluting machines like cowboys riding beautiful horses.

I arrived in China and I thought I had never left California: cars everywhere, the same car-packed highways, the same car hegemony. But I also rode a bullet train going 350 kilometers per hour or 217 miles per hour: the train was quiet, comfortable and non-polluting.

Transportation that is non-polluting and friendly

Electric bullet trains should connect cities and, in the case of California, connect cities to each other and to the Los Angeles and other major airports. Electric trams and busses should be going to most neighborhoods of large and small towns, especially at times people leave for work or drive their children to school.

Electric trains and electric busses are part of the answer to traffic congestion, air pollution, and climate change: breaking the dangerous car monopoly and reducing local pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The other component is or should be the orderly recycling or modification of all gasoline-powered cars and trucks to electric vehicles.

Complementary to such a project, should be the redesigning of cities and towns, making them more friendly to electric transport or, rather, making electric transport fit human needs: trains and trams and buses taking people where they want to go – without paying for tickets.

Free of charge

Why not tickets? Because not paying is a huge incentive for people of modest means to get rid of their cars and ride buses, trams, and trains. In addition, free transportation will surely increase the ridership of buses, trams and trains – and decrease air pollution.

In addition, free transport would be an open invitation of intelligent and responsible governments to their people to think about the virtues of public service for the protection of public health and the environment.

This pedagogy will surely have a beneficial impact in an age when high officials like president Trump, shamelessly and irresponsibly, is denying climate change.

Governments that provide such science and climate change-based services would be in a position to convert extra highways to wildlife sanctuaries for the revival of disappearing birds, insects, and wildlife.

The polluter pays

Where would the money for this giant transformation come from?  Companies that have profited for decades from our polluting means of transport should have to pay most of the costs.

General Motors, Philips Petroleum, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Muck Trucks, Standard Oil of California conspired to destroy public transit in order to sell their petroleum-powered cars, buses and trucks. They formed National City Lines to do the dirty work. The dismantling of public transport in several large American cities took place mostly from the 1930s to the 1950s. The last streetcar of Los Angeles, which belonged to Pacific Electric, came to an end on April 9, 1961.

Airlines, petroleum  corporations, General Motors, other car and truck manufacturers, commercial televisions, and other car advertisers should be taxed for a more liveable future.

Taxes should increase on those (companies and individuals) who continue with polluting means of transport.

However, climate change is coming with such speed and ferocity that a state like California should have the integrity and responsibility in admitting the truth and order, in the next ten years, the banning of fossil fuels and the transition of all of its buses and trains to non-polluting alternatives.

Such momentum should suffice for the metamorphosis of a fossil fuel economy and transportation to one powered largely by the Sun and wind. Solar electricity should run bullet trains, trams and busses. And unless scientists discover a non-polluting fuel for airplanes, petroleum-powered civil and military aircraft must be grounded.

It’s a matter of life and death that such transition takes place in California, the rest of America, and the world.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.