Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Losing the Green Future

Yet another of those sacred pillars of the American Empire is evidencing some particularly ominous cracks: the auto industry. As domestic automakers were some of the biggest losers and/or crybabies of the Great Recession, the character of the industry was profoundly changed. The federal government had to quasi-nationalize General Motors, long seen as the figurative engine of the American industrial economy.

this is called a factory. we used to have these in this country.

(But of course, the industrial sector in the United States has long been in decline. Just ask Wisconsin workers.

Or, for that matter, take a look around many places in rural America. Or Northeast Minneapolis. Or the Southern California urban sprawl where I was born. You can see the hollow shells of industry everywhere like the concrete exoskeletons of shellfish behemoths. All the crunchy capital and gooey labor long since fled to friendlier - aka more oppressive - climates.)

But the problem with the automotive industry isn't strictly its finances, despite the war on United Auto Workers the last few decades. It isn't government regulations, which every industry encounters eventually (if the government knows what's good for it). The problem isn't even design. I have no patience for the arguments that Americans only want big gas-guzzling SUVs and hostile-looking mini monster trucks. Those are the fault of advertisement campaigns and the dismantling of city planning and the cancer-like spread of suburbia as much as it is any dream of the American public.

The problem is systemic. The problem is the auto industry's linkage and co-strategery with oil interests. This is an alliance that has dismantled public transit in key metro regions (especially Los Angeles, where commuters sit trapped in their cars for hours with right-wing hate radio pumped through their car speakers).

By de-socializing transit, the capitalist system in America not only placed the burden of commuting on each family, but also spun a nationalist narrative that equated freedom with machismo and geographical dominance. Goading said families into accepting this burden. Even valuing it. To the point where the car loan is right up there with the other heavy hitters in the world of modern debt slavery: medical bills, student loans, and the car loan's dialectical opposite: the sacred home loan.

As consumerism rose and real wages stagnated the last 30 years, consumer debt became one of the quiet underpinnings of the U.S. economy. Now more than ever U.S. workers are searching frantically for good deals on commodities and services to make ends meet. The more progressive elements of the working class - including college graduates, many of whom can't find the high-paying jobs they were promised - also want to do their part to help the environment.

climate change has turned my home region into a tinder-box

But government initiatives to expand green, high-speed mass transit between urban centers keeps getting cock-blocked by teabaggers hissing about budgets that have come unbalanced (because of right-wing corporate tax cuts, mostly). And the working class hasn't woken up to the reality of car ownership yet - and it will be a struggle to do so, considering our suburbs have developed along auto, not mass, transit channels. (Massive retrofitting required - but that would also bring jobs back in massive numbers, if we can figure out how to pay for it....)

So the U.S. auto industries do a little bit, as part of their green PR campaign, to capture the green progressive demographic. Problem is, they want to offset R&D and capital and production costs by marketing hybrids and electrics as luxury cars. As if the fate of the planet, and the species, is a luxury.

Not exactly doing their duty as a human institution to make their own sacrifices for the good of the planet. While we spend our own hard-earned cash on new lightbulbs, energy-saving appliances, and candles for brownouts (something we Californians are pretty used to), they generally look for every feasible way to lower their own costs, including passing off that cost to consumers and the environment. Would they ever consider operating at a loss to fund green research and low-cost, low-emission transit options?

Not in your life. So don't believe any talk of "shared sacrifice." As in so many other realms - budget cuts are one popular example right not - there is more sacrifice to business than from business.

But, as long as the environment remains fashionable - and it should, considering it's not exactly poised for a rebound anytime soon - rest assured automakers will continue their lackadaisical wandering towards cheap green transit ... eventually ... in their own good time.

That's where China comes in. Apparently the F3DM, while doing next to nothing to redeem the stereotype of boring communist consumer goods (more of an industrial-era thing, you know, silver is the new Fordian black), is the first mass-produced hybrid. In the world.

You heard right. Cheap hybrids for everyday folks.

they also have high-speed rail.

A little bumpy, yeah, but what working person doesn't have something that's falling apartment? Nice things are for rich people - just look at Comrade X and his coffee pot. I'm being a little facetious, yeah, but it would be nice to own something so cheap that we didn't feel trepidation when trying to open it up and customize the damn thing.

All this once again underlines the role of government in business. As if the fat profit sharing GM autoworkers are going to get didn't hammer it home well enough for you. (Remember, GM was the one that got nationalized.) For Chrissake, as if the very internets you're reading this on wasn't evidence enough that government involvement in business can be good for both business and workers.

'Course the Chinese gov't treats their workers far, far worse than we do here (uhh, right?) and that needs to be changed. But this is just further evidence of a fraying American empire, unable to meet the stringent demands of the 21st century - the very century it has played such a central role in creating.

A couple other slick readings for you: ECW's discussion of last year's holes, which includes a good rendition of oil's significance true significance, and a recent post from Mr. Thomas L. Friedman that I, frighteningly enough, almost completely agree with: use Libya as an excuse to get off oil dependency once and for all. Friedman even says "history is back," which has interesting repercussions. Slowly the amber lets go of the Middle East, coagulates around the United States....

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