Occupy the Motor Industry

The following article was written by Dawie Coetzee and published on the Artisanal CarsMay 6th, 2012.

The main thing is to end dependence on motor vehicles. Anything else is at best inadequate; at worst it exacerbates the problem. All the little incremental efficiencies touted on every street corner will not begin to add up to the proportions of the ecological problem facing us. Most of them would actually reinforce the very mechanisms that have allowed an oligopolizing industry to cultivate so widespread and thoroughgoing a dependence on its products.

Every popular blurb on “What You Can Do for the Environment” contains, after much sound advice about composting and basic generic household chemicals like vinegar, borax, and ammonia, the suggestion to consider buying a new car, as it is more “efficient”. I urge quite the opposite: buy the oldest car that will do the job, regardless of efficiency or emissions. Buy a car that its manufacturer had hoped would have been scrapped long ago, the longer ago the better, and further subvert the industry by doing whatever is necessary to keep it running.

Starve the industry of the sales it needs in order to ensure that its productivity remains above the critical threshold below which it cannot operate viably. This is the nature of the problem: the motor industry does not respond to spontaneous demand, be that practical need or spurious “greed for more stuff”; it responds to the requirements of its technical operating basis, a basis chosen and cultivated precisely because it requires huge production outputs of which only a powerful industrial elite is capable. Once this is established the industry goes about generating a market for its output. It does this primarily by manipulating states, through transport planning and road-building, to create living environments that do not allow for easy living without a car. More recently, as markets have come closer to saturation, the industry has manipulated states into all kinds of supposed safety and environmental regulations, firstly to curtail product life and take second-hand cars out of the market, and secondly to enforce designs that raise critical production-volume thresholds even further, by outlawing any alternative.

That really is what those regulations are about.

Reject the electric car and the hybrid. They exist only in order to entrench the power of the motor industry even further. The extent to which the design of a car depends on the current operating basis is not constant: some designs serve that basis better than others, and indeed all modern cars are designed specifically to be virtually impossible to make in any other way. In this the modern electric and hybrid represent an unprecedented advance. They would simply not work in a context in which vehicle sales, replacement rates, distance travelled, and traffic congestion do not increase significantly. Never before has anything come so close to a single-use, disposable car.

Excessive carbon dioxide production is a pure function of fossil-fuel consumption: but even so, fuel efficiency is moot. This is not only because real alternatives to fossil fuels exist, but because likely incremental improvements wouldn’t be nearly enough, especially if the motor industry engineers more sprawl, longer commutes, quicker scrappage, and more cars to achieve the per-unit numbers. A system can be sustainable at any given level of efficiency, and if anything more easily at lower levels; it all depends on its need structures. End vehicle dependence and total systemic vehicle-fuel consumption falls by well over 90%.

Good work is being done by the open-source movement, but while it labours under the misconception that its agenda is aligned to the purposes of existing safety and environmental regulations, and moreover expends its energies trying to achieve extreme levels of fuel efficiency, it will pose no real threat to the existing motor industry.

Likewise emissions are neither here nor there. None of the “traditional” pollutants, for the control of which, ostensibly, catalytic converters were forcibly introduced, are stable compounds. Both carbon monoxide and unburnt hydrocarbons soon oxidize, leaving only the carbon dioxide and water that the catalyst is supposed to emit; it just takes a bit longer. Likewise, small concentrations of oxides of nitrogen fit easily into the natural nitrogen cycle. As long as concentrations are low and there is enough time, “uncontrolled” vehicle emissions are not problematic. Old cars are not, in themselves, “toxin-spewing jalopies”, even when in questionable tune. Vehicle emissions become problematic only when the intensity of vehicle use reaches the levels required by the motor industry’s technical operating basis. Then one gets photochemical smog and acid rain.

Buy the oldest car that will do the job, to starve the motor industry of custom. Do this not to bully the motor industry into making “cleaner” or “more efficient” products – nor even to change its operating basis, supposing that it could – but to kill it. The motor industry needs us more than we need it, especially as long as automotive technology has a deep vernacular penetration in society. In other words, as long as there are people around who know how to repair, modify, and ultimately to make cars, and as long as there are cars out there that even vaguely conform to their knowledge.

Do not expect the motor industry to die without a fight. Remember that it is really an organ of the State, and has much of the mechanism of government at its disposal. But be clever. Be creative with old parts. Stockpile whatever you can find, regardless of its apparent usefulness or desirability, as long as it is legally “grandfathered”. If they impose annual-mileage limits for “historic” cars, fit a tachometer to judge speed and drive with the speedometer cable disconnected. Or run twelve old cars, if you can afford the licensing, etc. If they impose “events only” use restrictions, form a club and organize your own events. Keep a step ahead of them. If all else fails, get about without a car, and make a huge noise about how difficult it is. None of this legislation is about making it any easier to be without a car. It is about effectively being compelled to buy new cars often. And keep the technical knowledge and the skills alive. Refuse to be a Pure Consumer.

Above all, spread the word.

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