do recent reports about the world’s soon to be third biggest killer, a BMW
driver in China killing a peasant bicyclist, a Global Witness analysis on
corruption in extractive industries and the World Bank refusing to adhere to
recommendations by its own commission have to do with each other? Car
A week ago Tuesday the World Health Organization launched a campaign to combat the negative health effects of traffic crashes, which are expected to nearly double by 2020 becoming the world’s third biggest killer. (1) Already 1.2 million people die and 50 million more are injured from car crashes every year. (2) Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists and public transport users are most likely to be harmed, especially in poorer countries.
China leads the way when it comes to crash deaths with more than 100,000 people dying last year alone. (3) The recent “BMW collision affair” is a striking example of the class nature of auto related injuries in China. The wife of an engineering tycoon, Su Xiuwen, complained that a farmer, Dai Yiquan, scratched her $96,000 BMW with his vegetable wagon. Then “after slapping Dai, an enraged Su climbed behind the wheel and plowed into 13 onlookers, killing the farmer’s wife,” reported Newsday. (4) The BMW driver got off with only a two year suspended sentence, angering many.
The “BMW collision affair” highlights the rising bitterness over the growing class divide in Chinese society where a minority of the population has accrued the benefits from the sell off of state assets and the shift towards capitalism. A significant manifestation of this class divide is the rising dominance of the car at the expense of non-car transportation methods. For non-car drivers, the vast majority, transportation is becoming more dangerous and as cars congest routes more time consuming. Deference towards the all mighty car, especially in some big cities, is mounting. It’s within this context that a BMW driver feels a scratch of her car warrants a violent reprisal. The intensifying feeling of entitlement to the road (and all transportation routes) that Chinese car drivers seem to be displaying mimics North America where it is understood that roads are free for cars yet public transit users must pay and where bike paths are non-existent, however, a bicyclist who attempts to take up a lane on the road will be viciously harassed by car drivers.
This car hegemony has a slew of negative domestic cultural side effects such as unpleasant cities and rising obesity. (To read a more in depth analysis read "Bumper to Bumper on the Road to Ruin") These side effects, however, pale in comparison to the global consequences of car dominance. Cars burn up between one-third and half of all oil consumed in the world. (5,6) (Led by driving, especially big cars, inclined Canadian and U.S. residents) Oil consumption is a major contributor to global warming. And last summer the Guardian Weekly reported “the earth is warmer now than it has been any time in the past 2,000 years, the most comprehensive study of climatic history has revealed.” The climate will continue to warm as SUV sales rise in North America and status-seeking wealthy people in poorer countries adopt North American transportation ideals.
In 1990 there were 1 million cars in China a number that ballooned to 10 million by mid-2003 and is expected to reach 28 million by the end of the decade. (7) (10 years ago gasoline for cars made up 10 percent of China’s oil consumption. Now it’s about one-third and is expected to reach 40 percent by the end of the decade. And overall Chinese oil demand in the first quarter of 2004 increased 18% over the first quarter of 2003) (8,9) By comparison in the U.S., a country a quarter the size, there are some 230 million cars and trucks. (10) Considering how far poorer countries have to go to catch up with North American driving rates it’s not surprising that the most dire prediction - unless you are the auto, tire, pavement, steel, plastic, rubber, upholstery, advertising, insurance, credit, and of course petroleum industries - sees a trebling of the number of cars in the world from 800 million today to 2.5 billion by 2030. (11)
As a result, oil consumption, in the not too distant future, may contribute to the destruction of vast swaths of the planet’s life forms, including human beings. Already oil management leads to a variety of international evils. Does anybody believe the hundreds of dead in Fallujah aren’t connected to the desire to control Iraq’s oil fields? How about the role of petrol dollars in the corrupt Saudi Arabian regime’s propagation of Islamic fundamentalism? Further, the Financial Times reports, “one argument made by many NGOs and some academics is that extractive industries in poor countries do more harm than good by entrenching a destructive and predatory elite.” (12) That seems a correct assumption. Global Witness released a report 3 weeks ago that highlighted how oil has fostered corruption within the ruling cliques in oil-rich Congo, Angola and Equatorial-Guinea. In all 3 cases major Western oil companies are heavily involved in supporting the regimes' corrupt practices.
The evidence that oil extraction does little to alleviate poverty and is devastating for the environment appears convincing. Not for the World Bank, even though a WB commissioned, Extractive Industries Review, recently recommended the WB stop financing oil and coal projects in developing countries. The WB, according to the Financial Times, “will oppose the idea that the Bank should phase out all oil projects within five years.” (13) (Recent protests have successfully pressured the WB into a bit more transparency, namely independent reviews of its procedures, however, we are not yet strong enough to force the WB into adopting important progressive proposals.) The WB’s reluctance to stop funding oil projects, even when its own commission concludes there are serious environmental downsides and little developmental benefits to these projects, should not be surprising. It is after all an institution controlled by the leading capitalist nations whose energy companies dominate the world’s energy markets and have plenty of influence over the political processes. And Western oil corporations consider WB money and approval vital for many risky oil projects in poor countries.
Immediately after the Extractive Industries Review was leaked, oil companies denounced its recommendations. Also quick to act, 16 major banks collaborated and sent a letter to WB President James Wolfensohn opposing the Extractive Industries Review’s proposals. (14) Auto companies did not get involved. There was no need for them to urge the WB to continue subsidizing oil extraction for the benefit their sales. Other elements of the business class - energy and finance - and the political establishment stepped up to do the bidding for oil and ultimately the car. In the same vein, in order to expand sales in China or the rest of the ‘developing’ world the auto sector no longer needs to buy up trolley public transport systems and run them through the ground, as they did in dozens of North American cities throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s.
Today Chinese politicians go out of their way to build roads and highways and lure car manufactures to produce for the internal market. Politicians see car expansion as part of modernization. It’s all part of today’s car hegemony.
I, and a companion, will be traveling by bus across North America as research for a book on cars and the experience of being car-less. We would appreciate hearing from anyone who has an extra room available and/or is willing to share information about cars and urban development in their communities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yves Engler recently finished his first book, Playing Left Wing from Hockey to Politics: The Making of a Student Activist.
Other Articles by Yves Engler