Cars, class and capitalism

1 December 2023
Cormac Mills Ritchard

Electric vehicles are touted as a key part of the “green transition” to a low-carbon future, and therefore crucial to saving the natural environment. Unfortunately, they don’t live up to the hype.

There are now more than 1 billion cars and trucks on the world’s roads. Collectively, they are responsible for three-quarters of transport emissions, and 18 percent of total emissions. Cities are cloaked in their smog, which fills hospitals with people suffering heart and respiratory problems. Growing up next to a main road can stunt lung growth by 14 percent, and the air pollution cars contribute to is responsible for 12 percent of all deaths.

Cars are not just destructive—they’re expensive. In Australia, the average yearly cost of keeping one (fuel, rego, insurance and maintenance) has gone from $9,000 to $15,000 in the last year, according to Carbar’s Future Finance and Mobility Report. Compare that to the most you can pay for public transport in Melbourne—a yearly myki Passpass costs $1,950. Riding or walking is inexpensive or free, and healthier.

But for most people, the alternatives are not options. In 2017, 5 million people across Australia’s five largest cities, some 34 percent of their population, didn’t live within walking distance of regular public transport, according to a report by Infrastructure Australia. Many of those that do live within walking distance of public transport know that it is not necessarily a viable alternative to cars—a door to door trip might take fifteen minutes in a car, but anywhere from one to two hours on PT.

It’s no surprise, then, that the majority of people commute by car. Driving can also be much more pleasant: a comfortable, air-conditioned bubble that goes where you need, when you need to. Think of the alternative! Trams and trains packed like sardines, frequently short-shunted and delayed. Buses loud and hot and often frankly mythical, claiming to have passed you by invisibly while you wait another twenty minutes.

Driving can also be horrible, of course—a rat race for road space, parking and time. Capitalism, not content with devouring most of our waking hours with work, tempts us with the possibility of clawing back a few minutes every morning and evening.

It hasn’t always been this way.

Motor cars were originally luxury transport for the rich. And they arrived, not on roads built for them, but on streets filled with workers and the poor. If their right to careen through the cities meant ploughing their vehicles into the bodies of the poor, it didn’t bother them. But people didn’t take it without a fight. As Jeff Sparrow details in Crimes Against Nature: “They denounced the drivers and their cars for selfishly monopolising a space that had previously belonged to everyone. The rich were widely seen as using the violence of their cars to terrorise working-class people off the roads”.

People marched and threw stones, using all the means at their disposal to hold back the advance of cars. The rich were forced to respond. They flaunted speed-limiting laws until they were lifted, issued propaganda to concoct the notion of the world’s “love affair” with cars. By 1925, their success could be measured by the 21,000 Americans, using one example, who died on the roads that year.

Pioneering the blame-shifting strategies of the fossil fuel and fast food industries after them, the auto industry invented the idea of “jaywalking”, which became a crime in Los Angeles in 1925. “The idea behind jaywalking was a radical one: that the street was not for people, but for vehicles”, Daniel Knowles notes in Carmageddon: How cars make life worse and what to do about it. At the price of hundreds of thousands of deaths, the auto industry everywhere slowly secured victory.

This victory wasn’t simply ideological, deflecting blame and brainwashing consumers. As laws and city planning more and more reflected the interests of car owners and manufacturers, soon infrastructure began to shape consumers’ choices. Trams had to share roads with cars and be bogged down with them; people couldn’t walk the streets with their families without fearing being run down by aristocratic highwaymen.

Knowles explains that roads act as barriers that make it easier to get around in a vehicle, and harder to get around by any other means. The more cars there are, the more cars there will be—a cycle that gained pace as governments built more roads to deal with traffic. This “induced demand” is borne out by a study of US cities from 1980 to 2000, which found that “a 10 percent increase in the amount of road space led to a 10 percent increase in the amount people drive”. Another contributor to this feedback loop is that, as more people drive, city outskirts become more viable as residential areas. Property developers buy the land (refusing to invest in public transport), increasing urban sprawl and, consequently, the number of people who need to drive.

Cars were not simply a way for the rich to flaunt their wealth and travel without the unwashed. The auto industry is one of the most profitable in the world, raking in trillions of dollars each year. For the capitalists, there really is no alternative—public transport basically always runs at a loss. Hong Kong’s MTR, the city’s metro rail, is a rare exception, but this is due to a “rail plus property” model, sourcing most of the returns on its investment by developing land, bought from the government at a bargain price, and selling it to private companies at a value inflated by the railway.

On the other hand, cars create profits all down the line. Everyone has to buy their own individual vehicle and will do so several times in their life. The desire to “green” these profits is why Elon Musk proposed the Hyperloop, a proposed 1,000 km/h transport system that has been described as a “death trap”, and which to date has proven unworkable.

According to Musk’s biographer, the proposal was intended to scuttle California’s plan for high-speed rail, something that would have eaten into Tesla’s profits. People like Musk, and the fact that public transport is a financial sinkhole (seen from a purely capitalist profit-making point of view) have driven today’s new obsession with electric vehicles.

Given that EVs are still individualised vehicles, the only thing they purport to resolve is emissions: they don’t address the expense, the traffic jams, the road deaths, the heat islands caused by asphalt roads or the gigantic use of urban space.

Yet their carbon credentials are also a farce. In Green Capitalism: The God That Failed, Richard Smith observes: “Only 40 percent of an average car’s pollution is emitted during the car’s ‘driving’ life stage”. Most of the damage is done in the “production of all the steel, aluminium, copper and other metals, glass, rubber, plastic, paint and other resources that go into every automobile”, as well as the manufacture and the transport of these materials.

So Tesla’s cars have huge carbon emissions well before being assembled in a factory—lithium from China, cobalt from Congo, nickel from Western Australia, electronics from Japan, a battery from South Korea and a battery chiller from Italy.

By 2030 there are projected to be 2 billion cars on the road. Boris Frankel estimates, in Fictions of Sustainability, that electrifying these vehicles would require up to 4 million tonnes of neodymium—“100 to 200 times current annual mine production”. It’s a similar story for copper, cobalt, platinum, lithium and nickel. Electrifying the world’s individualised road vehicles would require a massive upscaling in mineral extraction, with all the attendant destruction of the capitalist mining industry.

Take the Ok Tedi Mine in Papua New Guinea producing copper, silver and gold. In Fight the Fire, Jonathan Neale uses it as an example of the destruction involved in mining and processing these metals. The extraction uses “acids and great heat to separate out the desired material”, creating 70 million tonnes of acidic sludge every year. All of this is dumped into PNG’s second-largest waterway, the Fly River, where it has “poisoned the land of 50,000 people in 120 villages downstream”.

Rio Tinto’s Bougainville copper mine wrought similar devastation, provoking a rebellion from the islanders that turned into a civil war. The PNG government put it down, with Australian helicopters, and 20,000 Bougainvilleans were killed.

When Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese or US President Joe Biden talk about “embracing the future”, this is what they have in mind: a thousand Ok Tedis and Bougainvilles, from Congo to Chile, to support an emergent “green” capitalism that creates as many problems as it purports to solve.

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