The topic you discuss in Automobile Politics is increasingly relevant, considering current auto bailout legislations. What prompted you to choose this subject?
The original spur was in the mid 1990s in the UK. There were massive protests against road constructions, which broadened out to be against the dominance of car culture. Activists engaged in radical action: they were building tunnels underneath construction sites to make them very unsafe, built walkways between trees that were going to be cut down, and camping up in the trees, endangering themselves if the trees were chopped down. It was spectacular, and it polarized debate. They became very popular protests and had some impact on scaling back construction. They also created a debate about our dependence on cars, and the problems cars caused.
The other reason was that I’d been researching climate change for 5-6 years, since I’d started my Ph.D. and one of the arguments I had been developing in that research was that rather than think about individual environmental issues, we needed to think about what it is that societies do that cause all sorts of environmental problems. Cars were a very good way of exploring this, because they have health impacts at local levels, but also cause a whole range of problems, like oil dependence and climate change.
You have very recently won the International Political Economy Book Prize for this book, which is awarded each year by the British International Studies Association. What does this prize mean to you?
The prize is a nice recognition. I have received a lot of very nice emails from people paying their respects. Also, An Engine, Not a Camera by Donald MacKenzie, a sociologist in Edinburgh, an absolutely fantastic book, won the same prize last year, so it’s very humbling to be in the same league.
Your subjects of interest in terms of research include climate change politics and global environmental politics and governance. Have these topics had an impact on your analysis of our dependence on automobile culture?
It is the other way around really. Looking at automobile culture tells us about how we can respond to things like climate change, and think about global environmental governance in general. There are a lot of broad structural features of the society we live in that depend on cars first and foremost. Both economically and in terms of daily life, our dependence on cars causes significant constraints. The conclusion of the book explores whether or not we can get rid of the car, or rather get rid of the way our society is dominated by cars as a mode of transport, which is my preference, or whether we can just green it through the use of all the great technology that is being developed (fuel cells, light cars, etc.).
And if we turn specifically to climate change, and specifically decarbonization of the economy as a massive project (we are now talking about 80% or 90% reduction in carbon emission). We see it’s not just a technical issue, even though there is technology involved (wind power going to solar going to fuel cells going to hydrogen economy). It will produce all sorts of social changes about how people relate to energy (for example through the installation of smart meters that let you monitor your electricity consumption minute by minute – if you turn a light off you can see the effect immediately). Technology also produces a behavioral change. That’s how thinking about cars in a more careful way makes you think about climate change in a different sort of way. It’s not neither or between technological change and sociological change. The two include each other.
In your opinion, and considering all the challenges that the automobile industry is faced with, what’s in store for the future?
The challenge which we’ll take up, if we’re brave, which is not usually the case with politicians, is to bite the bullet and pour all the money from the stimulus package (meant for rebuilding the economy) in new technologies and efficiency research and transit infrastructure, instead of in the car manufacturers. Two or three of the car manufacturers would go under, but since they have been producing more cars that are being consumed since 1970, there is a massive overcapacity in that system anyway. Putting the money in wind, solar, new transit infrastructures such as rail, would reshape the economy and create more new jobs per every dollar than you would by investing in cars. In the end, the long term benefits of that will be better than the short term costs. So the challenge then is how do you manage the transition towards the greener jobs, because people in the auto industry will be losing their jobs, which they are already are because the car industry is not sustainable.
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