The religion of the automobile

I. Liturgy of the divine mover

With the four-wheeled god what usually happens with gods happens: they are born to serve the people, magical spells against fear and loneliness, and they end up putting people at their service. The religion of the automobile, with its Vatican in the United States of America, has the world on its knees.

Six six six

The image of Paradise: every American has a car and a gun. The largest number of automobiles and also the largest arsenal are concentrated in the United States, the two basic businesses of the national economy. Six, six, six: of every six dollars spent by the average citizen, one is dedicated to the automobile; of every six hours of life, one is dedicated to traveling by car or working to pay for it; and out of every six jobs, one is directly or indirectly related to violence and its industries. The more people are killed by cars and guns, and the more nature is destroyed, the more the Gross National Product grows.

As the German researcher Winfried Wolf says, in our time the productive forces have become destructive forces.

Talismans against helplessness or invitations to crime? The sale of cars is symmetrical with the sale of weapons, and could well be said to be part of it: traffic accidents kill and injure more Americans each year than all the Americans killed and wounded throughout the Vietnam War, and The driver's license is the only document necessary for anyone to buy a submachine gun and shoot the entire neighborhood with it.

The driving license is not only used for these purposes, but it is also essential to pay with checks or cash them, to carry out a procedure or sign a contract. In the United States, the driver's license serves as an identification document. Cars give people identity.

The allies of democracy

The country has the cheapest gasoline in the world, thanks to corrupt presidents, sheikhs with black glasses and operetta kings who are dedicated to underselling oil, violating human rights and buying American weapons. Saudi Arabia, for example, which appears at the top of international statistics for the wealth of its rich people, the mortality of its children and the atrocities of its executioners, is the main client of the American arms industry. Without the cheap gasoline provided by these allies of democracy, the miracle would not be possible: in the United States, anyone can have a car, and many can change them frequently. And if the money is not enough for the latest model, they are already selling aerosols that give a new scent to the old thing bought three or four years ago, that Autosaurus.

Tell me what car you have and I'll tell you who you are, and how much you're worth. This civilization that adores automobiles is terrified of old age: the automobile, the promise of eternal youth, is the only body that can be changed.

The cage

This body, the four-wheeled one, is devoted to most of the advertising on television, most of the hours of conversation and most of the space in cities. The automobile has restaurants, where it is fed with gasoline and oil, and at its service are the pharmacies where it buys medicines, the hospitals where it is checked, diagnosed and cured, the bedrooms where it sleeps and the cemeteries where it dies.

He promises freedom to people, and there's a reason highways are called freeways, and yet he acts like a walking cage. Human work time has been reduced little or not at all, and on the other hand, the time needed to get to and from work increases year after year, due to traffic jams that force us to move forward with difficulty and elbows.

You live inside the car, and he won't let you go.

Drive-by shooting: without leaving the car, at full speed, you can pull the trigger and shoot without looking at who, as is now popular on the nights of Los Angeles. Drive-thru teller, drive-in restaurant, drive-in movies: without leaving the car you can withdraw money from the bank, dine on hamburgers and watch a movie. And without leaving the car you can get married, drive-in marriage: in Reno, Nevada, the car enters under the arches of plastic flowers, the witness appears from one window and the pastor from the other, with Bible in hand declares to you husband and wife, and at the exit an official, equipped with wings and a halo, hands over the marriage certificate and receives the tip, which is called Love donation.

The automobile, a renewable body, has more rights than the human body, condemned to decrepitude. In recent years, the United States of America has waged a holy war against the demon of tobacco. In magazines, cigarette advertising is accompanied by mandatory public health warnings. Advertisements warn, for example: "Tobacco smoke contains carbon monoxide." But no car advertisement warns that much more carbon monoxide is contained in car smoke. People can't smoke. The cars, yes.

II. The exterminating angel

In 1992 there was a plebiscite in Amsterdam. The inhabitants of the Dutch city resolved to reduce by half the already very limited space occupied by cars. Three years later, the transit of private cars was banned throughout the center of the Italian city of Florence, a ban that will be extended to the entire city as trams, subway lines, pedestrian paths and buses multiply. Also the cycle paths: soon you will be able to cross the entire city without risks, anywhere, pedaling in a means of transport that costs little, spends nothing, does not invade human space or poison the air, and that was invented five centuries ago , by a resident of Florence named Leonardo da Vinci.

Meanwhile, an official report confirmed that cars occupy a much larger space than people in the American city of Los Angeles, but no one there thought of committing the sacrilege of expelling the invaders.

Who owns the cities?

Amsterdam and Florence are exceptions to the universal rule of usurpation. The world has become increasingly motorized, as cities and distances have grown, and public means of transportation have given way to the private car. French President Georges Pompidou celebrated it by saying that "it is the city that must adapt to automobiles, and not the other way around," but his words took on tragic meaning when it was revealed that deaths from pollution had brutally increased in the city of Paris, during the strikes at the end of last year: the stoppage of the subway had multiplied car trips and had exhausted stocks of anti-smog masks.

In Germany, in 1950, trains, buses, subways and trams carried out three quarters of the transportation of people; currently, they number less than a fifth. The European average has fallen to 25 percent, which is still a lot when compared to the United States, where public transportation, virtually exterminated in most cities, only reaches four percent of the total.

Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone were close friends, and both got along very well with the Rockefeller family. This mutual affection led to an alliance of influences that had a lot to do with the dismantling of the railroads and the creation of a vast web of roads, later converted into highways, throughout the United States. Over the years, the power of automobile manufacturers, tire manufacturers, and oil industrialists has become increasingly overwhelming in the United States and around the world. Of the sixty largest companies in the world, half belong to this holy alliance or are in some way linked to the four-wheeled dictatorship.

Data for a medical record

Human rights stop at the foot of machine rights. Cars emit a cocktail of many killer substances with impunity. Air poisoning is spectacularly visible in Latin American cities, but it is much less noticeable in some cities in the north of the world. The difference is explained, to a large extent, by the mandatory use of catalytic converters and unleaded gasoline, which have reduced the most notable pollution of each vehicle in the most developed countries. However, quantity tends to cancel out quality, and these technological advances are reducing their positive impact in the face of the rapid proliferation of the automobile fleet, which reproduces as if it were made up of rabbits.

Visible or concealed, reduced or not, poisonous emissions form a long criminal list. To give just three examples, Greenpeace technicians have denounced that no less than half of the total carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons that are contributing so effectively to the demolition of the planet and of human health.

"Health is not negotiable. No more half-measures," declared Florence's transport manager earlier this year, while announcing that it will be "the first car-free European city." But in almost the rest of the world, it is assumed that it is inevitable that the divine motor will be the axis of human life, in the urban era.

We copy the worst

The noise of the engines does not allow us to hear the voices that denounce the artifice of a civilization that steals your freedom and then sells it to you, and that cuts off your legs to force you to buy cars and gym equipment. The nightmare of cities where cars rule, devour green areas and take over human space is imposed on the world, as the only possible model of life. We breathe the little air they leave us; and those who do not die from being run over suffer gastritis from traffic jams.

Latin American cities do not want to look like Amsterdam or Florence, but rather like Los Angeles, and they are managing to become the horrible caricature of that vertigo. We have been trained for five centuries to copy instead of create. Since we are doomed to copyanditis, we could choose our models a little more carefully. Anesthetized as we are by television, advertising and consumer culture, we have believed the story of so-called modernization, as if that joke of bad taste and black humor were the hocus-pocus of happiness.

III. The mirrors of paradise

Advertising talks about the automobile as a blessing available to everyone. A universal right, a democratic conquest? If it were true, and all human beings could become happy owners of this means of transportation that had become a talisman, the planet would suffer sudden death due to lack of air. And before, it would stop working due to lack of energy. We have oil left for two generations. In a short while we have already burned a large part of the oil that had been formed over millions of years. The world produces cars at the rate of a heartbeat, more than one per second, and they are devouring more than half of all the oil the world produces.

Of course, advertising lies. The numbers say that the automobile is not a universal right, but a privilege for a few. Only 20 percent of humanity has 80 percent of the cars, even though one hundred percent of humanity has to suffer the consequences. Like so many other symbols of the consumer society, this is an instrument that is in the hands of the north of the world and of the minorities who in the south reproduce the customs of the north and believe, and make people believe, that those who do not have a driving license cannot It has permission to exist.

85 percent of the population of the capital of Mexico travels in 15 percent of the total vehicles. One in ten inhabitants of Bogotá owns nine out of ten cars. Although the majority of Latin Americans do not have the right to buy a car, everyone has the duty to pay for it. Of every thousand Haitians, only five are motorized, but Haiti dedicates a third of its imports to vehicles, spare parts and gasoline. A third is also dedicated to El Salvador. According to Ricardo Navarro, a specialist in these issues, the money that Colombia spends each year to subsidize gasoline would be enough to give away two and a half million bicycles to the population.

The right to kill

A single country, Germany, has more cars than all the countries in Latin America and Africa combined. However, in the south of the world three out of every four people die in traffic accidents on the entire planet. And of the three who die, two are pedestrians.

In that, at least, advertising does not lie, which usually compares the car to a weapon: accelerating is like shooting, it provides the same pleasure and the same power. The hunt for walkers is common in some of the large Latin American cities, where the four-wheeled armor stimulates the traditional arrogance of those in charge and those who act as if they were in charge. And in recent times, times of growing insecurity, the panic of assaults and kidnappings is added to the usual unpunished thuggery. There are more and more people willing to kill whoever gets in their way. Privileged minorities, condemned to perpetual fear, step on the accelerator to crush reality or to escape from it, and reality is a very dangerous thing that happens on the other side of closed car windows.

The right to invade

A tiny part of the world's cars circulate on Latin American streets, but some of the most polluted cities in the world are in Latin America.

The slavish imitation of the life models of the great dominant centers produces catastrophes. Copies multiply the defects of the original to the point of delirium. The structures of hereditary injustice and fierce social contradictions have generated cities that grow beyond all possible control, gigantic Frankensteins of civilization: the importation of the religion of the automobile and the identification of democracy with the consumer society, have, in those kingdoms of every man for himself, effects more devastating than any bombing.

Never have so many suffered so much for so few. Disastrous public transportation and the absence of bike lanes make the use of cars mandatory, but the vast majority, who cannot buy one, live cornered by traffic and suffocated by smog. The sidewalks are getting shorter, there are more and more parking lots and fewer and fewer neighborhoods, more and more cars crossing each other and fewer and fewer people meeting each other. Buses are not only scarce: to make matters worse, in many cities public transport is run by dilapidated junk that spews deadly fumes from exhaust pipes and multiplies pollution instead of alleviating it.

The right to pollute

Private cars are obliged, in the main cities in the north of the world, to use less poisonous fuels and less filthy technologies, but in the south the impunity of money is more murderous than the impunity of military dictatorships. In rare cases, the law requires the use of lead-free gasoline and catalytic converters, which require strict controls and have a limited life: when the law requires, it is followed but not fulfilled, according to the tradition that comes from colonial times. .

Some of the largest Latin American cities live dependent on the rain and wind, which do not clean the air of poison, but at least take it elsewhere. Mexico City lives in a state of perpetual environmental emergency, caused largely by automobiles, and the government's advice to the population, in the face of the devastation of the motorized plague, seems like practical lessons to face an invasion of Martians: avoid exercises , close the houses hermetically, do not go out, do not move.

Babies are born with lead in their blood and a third of citizens suffer from chronic headaches.

"Either you stop smoking, or you will die in a year," the doctor warned a friend of mine, a resident of Mexico City, who had not smoked a single cigarette in his entire life.

The city of San Pablo breathes on Sundays and suffocates on weekdays. Year after year, the air in Buenos Aires is poisoned, at the same rate as the vehicle fleet grows, which last year increased by half a million vehicles. Santiago de Chile is separated from the sky by an umbrella of smog, which in the last fifteen years has doubled its density, while the number of cars has also doubled, coincidentally.

* Eduardo Galeano
Published in Brecha, Montevideo, in 1996.