The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Sept./Oct., 2000.

Societal Implications of Automobile and Petroleum Dependence

[an exerpt from a Masters Thesis titled “Future Light-Duty Vehicles: Predicting their Fuel Consumption and Assessing their Potential” by Felix F. AuYeung, MIT 2000]

The automobile revolution has exploded over its short existence of a century. From a few daring prototypes running on unpaved roads, it has grown in the United States to include two of the most powerful global industries in petroleum and automobiles, multiple cars per household with about three passenger vehicles for every four Americans, and highways and urban roads over the entire country. But this industrial phenomenon has a price that we have been passively paying in the past, now, and for a long time to come.

Virtually all personal transportation and recreational vehicles in the United States are powered by petroleum, from the family car to the lawnmower, from the weekend boat to the snowmobile. While serving transportation demands of people, the combustion of fossil fuels for energy is also a destructive burden on the environment in which all living beings dwell, and the dependence on fossil fuels for our perceived daily needs is a barrier to world peace for which we all aspire.

In the next three subsections, I will put this thesis in a context of society by explaining first how our oil dependence creates what may seem to be external or institutionalized problems, then why individuals in industrialized countries share the responsibilities of these problems, and finally how people could strive toward a better civil society simply with their daily decisions and actions.

Accompanying Penalties

Many problems associated with oil and cars may be attributed to a few individuals at the top having too much power to protect their self-interest. Starting at the beginning of the process, the extraction of fossil fuel, there is already destruction. The most contemporary example is Occidental Petroleum: to satisfy world demand and to make a profit, the company has been trying to drill in Colombia for the past eight years and coming in direct confrontation with the indigenous U’wa people who are trying to protect their homes and ancestral lands. The Colombian military and para-military, with funds coming from U.S. taxpayers channeled through the U.S. government, including the most recent attempt of US$ 1.7 billion military aid package, was used to forcibly remove people from the proposed drill site. Currently, a court injunction by the Colombian courts preventing Occidental from drilling has just been overturned, and the battle between a multi-billion transnational corporation and three thousand marginalized indigenous people continues.

The Gulf War, originally presented to the public as the defense of a small country invaded by an aggressor a decade ago, is now generally accepted as a war for oil. Publicly disclosed documents make it general knowledge that the industrialized powers provided Iraq with all of its war-making capabilities, including chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, prior to 1990. Furthermore, the contradiction to other similar, contemporary, global problems is clear: in regions with little U.S. interest, there was no intervention despite worse atrocities and human rights violations. The current and continuing intervention in the region is to defend the same interest, oil. For years, Turkey was the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid, and now is a NATO member and provides the bases for U.S. military action in the region. And over the past decade, after being “bombed back to the stone ages” according to President Bush, Iraq continues to suffer under a comprehensive sanctions that has directly resulted in 1.7 million deaths by U.N. estimates, leading to condemnations by numerous countries, human rights groups, and private citizens, as well as the resignations of three high-ranking officials in the U.N.

The power game for oil extends from its worst consequences, the oppression of weaker peoples, to more long-term effects, namely the environment and its subsequent health impacts. Eco-system stability, viability, and diversity, including natural habitats and wildlife refuges, are constantly under attack from companies eager to find new drill sites, causing many citizen groups to expend precious time and energy to fend their attempts off. Meanwhile, current drilling stations, tanker ships, and local refueling stations leak and spill toxic materials into the ocean, earth, and groundwater, but with the damages shared unfairly among the affected people, and the altered eco-system, and sometimes, the responsible party.

While most of the suffering are out of sight and out of mind, the affluent population of the world do notice local air quality, directly affected by the pollutants that come out of the tailpipes of their vehicles. Over the history of emissions control, the pollutants released from vehicles have been dramatically reduced. But despite the past success and proven health effects, the industries continue to drag the change process. Fuel economy and emissions regulations continue to be a struggle. Gas-guzzler taxes and CAFE requirements, already filled with loopholes such as their special status for passenger vehicles listed as light-duty trucks and the consecutive years of violation prior to penalty, have been on a standstill for almost a decade, despite inflation, better technology, and a sustained economic boom driving more people to buy more powerful, less fuel economic vehicles. The recent Tier 2 regulations, slow to be enforced eight years from now for the most polluting types of vehicles, was also fought against by the oil industry for the difficulty in transition to low sulfur content gasoline, despite already being in production (at 30 ppm Sulfur or lower) elsewhere in the world. And perhaps the grossest example of corporate interests over people welfare is the case of lead in gasoline. Although the health dangers were clearly understood and alternatives were available, lead, foreign to petroleum, was purposely added to gasoline to produce better combustion properties. The resulting health impact was so grave and so easily preventable that it was finally phased out of gasoline ten years ago, but only in countries with a strong consumer base. The oil industry continues to export leaded gasoline to developing countries.

Disregard for responsibility is also evident in the case of global climate change, the topic of numerous international conferences, negotiations, and treaties. While predicting the exact changes is debatable, it is clear that the uncontrolled, geometrically-increasing anthropological carbon input into the atmosphere will result in regional and global climate change. The problem is so vast that even if the world succeeds in capping carbon emission to the levels of 1990, there will still be a net increase, just one that is more steady and predictable. Nowhere else in the world is the science questionable except in the U.S., where the Big Three automakers, Ford, Chrysler, and lastly General Motors, took on positions contrary to their own European and Asian operations, before finally withdrawing from the Global Climate Coalition within the last year because of civic pressures. Even though they made up the backbone of support for the cover propaganda group denying the legitimacy of global climate change, their names do not appear on the materials during their time of support. Hiding behind a few unknown scientists and using a nonprofit front to lobby their corporate agendas, this powerful industry put up an active obstruction to societal interests and stall changes intended to avoid common aversions. But while corporate and governmental forces seem to generate and perpetuate many problems in providing energy and transportation needs, the link between individuals and institutions cannot be decoupled.

Self-Constructed Problem

...The fascination and dependence on automobiles are created by people. Our automotive culture has chosen a lifestyle of more cars, bigger cars, and more miles traveled, a lifestyle that takes 86 % of trips and travels 91% of the miles in private passenger vehicles21, a lifestyle that spends 63.6 - 81.3 minutes (female - male) per day inside a vehicle and occupied with 1.59 people on average25. This attitude is exemplified during a Univision Town Hall meeting this February, a Los Angeles resident that takes two buses to get to work every day asked Texas Governor and Presidential Candidate George W. Bush how the Los Angeles public transportation system could be improved. Bush responded, “My hope is that you will be able to find good enough work, so you’ll be able to afford a car.”

The sacrifices for fossil fueled automobiles are accepted by people. Our automotive society has gradually become content with highways over community space, aiding the segregation communities so people can bypass undesirable areas on their way elsewhere; with wider streets over play space, where a few speed bumps are supposed to reclaim the loss of neighborly interactions and children’s play area; and with parking lots over green space, where the typical parking space, idle during the day and empty at night, is bigger than a worker’s office space. In addition, storm water runoff washes all the pollutants and toxic fluids from automobiles directly into bodies of water, contaminating swimming and drinking water in communities everywhere.

The policies to secure fossil fuels are rationalized by people. Our automotive mentality has decided on a set of rationales that gasoline tax increase will always be opposed, despite the fact that gasoline prices in the U.S. is cheaper than anywhere else in the developed world by two to five-fold; that the oil and auto industries will be granted corporate privileges and lobbying dominance so that they can manipulate regulations designed to protect civilians, including safety requirements such as the automatic shoulder belt option instead of a driver-side airbag in the early 1990’s; and that political, economic, and military actions elsewhere in the world is an acceptable means to secure resources, even if it means repressing other peoples and creating greater inequity. It is incredibly ironic and intolerable that we have come to accept today suffering and death, in addition to environmental destruction, to obtain a product derived from death millions of years ago.

With concerns for our immediate self-interest, we are neglecting our mutual self-interest, one not just applicable to one person at one instant, but to all beings over a sustained frame of time.

Civil Response

The energy reduction projections of 40 % for the evolutionary vehicle and 75 % for the highest potential advanced vehicle, as compared to today’s average passenger car, would be offset by the increasing number of vehicle miles traveled, as well as the increasing number of automobiles in the world, especially with the global automakers targeting new markets in developing countries, in particular China. Meanwhile, even if some vehicles are completely non-carbon emitting, they are still not enough to balance the fleet, and net anthropogenic carbon will continue to build up in the atmosphere, just from the transportation sector. Given the severity and persistence of the global climate change, and given its root causes associated with other societal and environmental injustice, technology alone is simply insufficient in dealing with the problem.

Instead, a civil response is required to begin to take the first step to contain the adverse effects of our own creation that spans from climate change to global justice. While transportation may be a necessity, and while it would be impossible to phase out the fossil fuel automobile overnight, we as citizens still have many options in our daily lives to make change. Our everyday decisions and action, when thought out not just with self-interest, but also with inclusion of all, not only has more effect than technological upgrades, but ultimately will be the foundation of building the more ideal human community and civilization.

We can decrease dependence by considering alternatives. First, when, or rather if, choosing an automobile, we can use one that fits the purpose. There are many options with desirable features, such as high space utilization or good performance, and also have high efficiency technologies or alternative and cleaner fuels. Second, communities can imagine and explore innovative ideas such as car-sharing (operating in some cities in Europe) or inexpensive, short-term rentals. Third, we can move further away from the automobile by considering alternatives in our modal choices, such as walking, roller-skating, and biking for short distances, and mass public transportation, such as buses, boats, and trains, for longer distances. Increase uses of these modes would result in a greater demand and better supporting infrastructure. Finally, even before the modal choice, we can evaluate the task and analyze whether the intended purpose requires the distance or the trip itself.

We can weigh more carefully the tradeoffs in planning for cities. Competent urban street and road planning could alleviate traffic jams and establish pedestrian zones without sacrificing mobility. One poor example is the Big Dig project in Boston, which despite putting layers of roads underneath the ground, has no bike lanes planned for the surface. Commuter hubs could aid commuters and concentrate parking, saving valuable space in urban areas for other uses. Public transportation, in general, requires citizen support and continued or increased funding to provide route expansions and improved services. Workplace incentives could also encourage alternative modes of travel and alleviate high traffic areas which are major sources of wasted energy and urban pollution.

We can advocate for corporate accountability and sustainability research. Support for civic watchdog organizations for corporations could help disseminate pertinent information for intelligent decision making, and to provide a forum for citizen dissent and input. As a participatory democratic society, we could also work toward more effective accountability for governmental regulatory agencies. Internalizing the real cost of "externalities" with pricing, taxing, or fining policies could help repair the damages caused and fund public research, for example for renewable energy. A great deal of cleaner and sustainable energies and technologies are already available, but cannot survive on market because the dirty technologies are not paying their full costs.

Above all, first and foremost, we have to support human welfare. We have to put priority on safety technologies and policies in cars design and road planning. We have to give priority to health improvements, particularly preventable illnesses and injuries. We have to effectively oppose corporate exploitation of people or the environment, regardless of how immediate they are to our own lives; we cannot allow blood for oil foreign policies that twists our personal self-interest into aggressive national interest.

From the highway fatalities that started the national Emergency Medical Services to the court conviction of corporate collusion to undermine urban public transportation, our automotive culture has been both a blessing and a curse. Faced with well-understood environmental and social problems resulting from our dependence on automobiles and petroleum, we have an opportunity to exercise our choices and to use our daily lives to resolve these issues. Our wishes for more comfort in transportation and energy and our wishes for happiness in our lives are not mutually exclusive but intricately connected. In working for all people so that everyone will have basic needs, choices, and dignity in their daily experience, we will create a world with justice and equity, one that will be more enjoyable for all.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Sept./Oct., 2000.