Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives

May 6, 2010

Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez believe that a tipping point has been reached. While querying voices "are usually lost as history is written by the winners within the car system", the sheer size of the US and global fleets and "the fact that so many more people now lose out in that system means that a critique of car dependence can begin to have more of an impact", they believe.

Sisters Lutz and Lutz Fernandez are an anthropology professor and an investment banker turned English teacher, respectively. Their book was prompted by the death of a relative, and presents both the sustained critique that such an affective genesis would suggest, and the rounded approach implied by the authors' backgrounds and expertise.

Their gender arguably gives them the additional advantage of an Archimedean point from which to critique a masculinised car culture.

The book's 10 chapters are clustered thematically. The first two, "The United States of automobiles" and "Dream car: myth-making, American values and the automobiles", point to the book's American emphasis. Is it realistic to imagine that a place that has made much of being in the vanguard of automobile culture could be similarly advanced in the decommissioning of the same?

In chapters three ("The pitch: how they sell") and four ("The pitch: how we buy"), we learn that "automakers spent an average of $630 (£408) in advertising for each car they sold in 2005", with luxury brand Aston Martin leading the pack at $3,698 per car. Cars are marketed through emotional as well as rational or tangible appeals; the car has a tenacious hold on both hearts and minds.

The costs of dependence on the car in the US, including the expenditure on the Iraq (oil) wars and subsidies for oil companies, are tallied in chapters five ("The catch: what we really pay") and six ("The catch: the rich get richer"). "Transportation takes a hungry 15 to 28 per cent bite out of household budgets in all but the top one-fifth of households by income", the authors note, and lack of access to a car spells unemployment and poverty. While the poorest US citizens are the "greenest", they are also more likely to drive old and inefficient vehicles. Income, age, ethnicity and gender are factors that limit or compromise car access.

Chapter seven ("What drives us") on commuting, stress and road rage, and chapter eight ("Getting carsick") on the health risks associated with driving, which include pollution, obesity, asthma, cancer and heart disease, lead neatly into chapter nine, "Full metal jacket: the body count". Here, the authors point out that the average American spends 18.5 hours per week in the car, or two full months of waking time every year.

Family and friends have been both connected (via mobile phones) and separated (by in-car DVD players) as a result of the ingress of media technologies. Sociologist Jack Katz's characterisation of an "automobilized person" is used to explain road rage, but it also explains why "when my car is in the (work)shop, I feel emptiness inside", as one driver cited here puts it. To change our relationship with the automobile is, to some extent, to depersonalise ourselves.

Carjacked's conclusion invites direct action: keep a driving diary to identify unnecessary car journeys; downsize your car; sell or donate extra cars; postpone new purchases and buy used, hybrid or electric cars; use a car-sharing system; prioritise safety; combine errands and shop online; work from home; walk, cycle or use public transport; drive at lower speeds; avoid long commutes; lobby government representatives; and support advocacy groups.

This is a timely, vigorous and painfully enjoyable critique of the automobile in a world of depleting resources and sharpened priorities.

Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives

By Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez.
Palgrave Macmillan
2pp, £20.00.
ISBN 9780230618138.
Published 16 December 2009

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