This year America’s collective gas bill is on track to hit half a trillion dollars. With that comes not only colossal public expenses, but crippling blows to individual finance. Some Americans are reportedly paying up to 50% of their income on their cars between insurance, repairs, fuel and other expenses. Those with the largest burden, of course, are often the poorest. A new website and project from the New America Institute is hoping to bring attention to the high cost of car ownership. The Energy Trap features personal video testimonials from all over the US talking about the time and money being devoted to people’s commutes.

This high cost is starting to take its toll (often literally). The Globe and Mail recently ran an interesting article about “Peak Cars” (RTH link), which notes that rates of driving have already been falling for some time, especially among young people. Because of the high cost of insurance, generally low incomes and already high debt burdens, it just doesn’t make sense for many young people to drive. For most younger men I know especially, it’s pretty much an either-or choice of having your own car or appartment, and I must admit that I would have trouble owning a half-decent car for less than I pay in rent. Putting this in visual and financial terms, Streamline Refinance released this ‘infographic‘ about how much commuting costs in terms of housing or how much it effectively lowers your wages. They claim a thirty mile commute is the long-term equivalent of just under half a million extra to spend on a home (after mortgage voodoo is worked out), or nearly a million if both couples drive it.

Cars provide a perfect example of how costs in our society get hidden by distribution. Governments certainly spend a lot on roads, highways and parking lots, – more than any other form of transport, and most other programs – but that doesn’t buy any vehicles. On top of the horrendous cost of roads (often tens of millions per kilometre for urban highways), there’s also the price of the cars themselves as well as their fuel and parking spaces. These costs are borne by the public, so they don’t show up on government balance sheets except as tax revenues. Instead they’re paid directly by us, or hidden in the prices of everything we buy (“free parking” at malls, trucking costs etc). Despite this illusion, the price of cars is still a very real public cost – simply paid for directly by us and not by the state.

There are, of course, a great many public costs associated with cars. Virtually every part of the industry receives massive public subsidies (oil, manufacturing, roads etc). This includes policing, the incredible increase in regulations needed for traffic management, and the criminalization of many otherwise-harmless activities like “jaywalking”. It includes health care costs related to accidents, inactivity and air pollution, as well as the incalculable price of human suffering for those affected. And then there’s the environment costs – mining, quarrying, oil extraction, roads, parking, smog, sprawl, climate change – any of these, alone, generate billions in “externalized” costs for the environment and society. Oh, and then there’s oil wars…

What this demonstrates is that demanding “jobs” or “growth” as a cure-all to economic issues can in fact lead us into traps that really aren’t economic or efficient at all. Automobile manufacturing is pretty much the primary industry in Ontario, linked by some to one out of four jobs. Taken uncritically, that’s a massive boon to our economy. But is it? We need to be wary of “progress” measured only in hours worked or money spent – neither relates directly to our welfare or quality of life. Health, safety, air quality – these things do. The more intently our economy focuses on the abstractions it creates, the more it loses focus on measuring or accounting for real world value, and the more detached and alienated it becomes.

With the decline in first-world manufacturing, most people (especially in Hamilton) are no stranger to the idea of work becoming more irrelevant and pointless. If you have any doubt that a person can be employed full-time for purposes which create next to no real-world value, I’d suggest a short stint at one of our many call centres. Complex and expensive machines like cars provide an attractive remedy to that, since they’re one of the few things we still make. Unfortunately, making pointless machines is no more useful than making pointless phone calls. Time spent building cars and roads is time which by definition isn’t spent on housing, food or medicine (all are in fact more expensive as a result). Decades of development make it fairly clear that providing a posh fleet of luxury vehicles for the wealthy doesn’t equate to feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. The last decade has shown pretty clearly what happens to the world’s poor when we try using part of our food supply (corn) to supplement our fuel supply.

It’s time to focus on our needs, and not ill-defined amorphous ways of getting them like “jobs” or “economic growth”. If we need to get from one side of town to another, there are ways of achieving that which don’t involve over a hundred horses’ power per person. There are bikes, trains, feet and buses. There are better ways to efficiently use those cars (ride and car shares), and there are far more efficient ways to build and arrange cities so a half-hour car ride isn’t necessary to reach school, work or amenities. If we need homes, let’s devote our funds and efforts toward building the best and most efficient homes possible rather than convoluted methods of financing them. If we need food, let’s grow it. If we need clothes, medicine or tools, let’s make them. Doing these tasks is “work” too, often far more rewarding than most jobs you could name (which is why so many people do them when not paid for it). If the jobs we’re working and institutions we’re relying aren’t meeting our needs, why continue to meet their demands for cash and labour?

With the growing shortages of just about any resource one can name, the environmental struggles of the past century are about to become a lot more “real”. With declining economic prospects and growing energy costs, “green living” is going to go from being a middle-class lifestyle fad into a basic demand of millions of poor people, even more than today. This is a necessary transformation if the environmental movement is to grow and evolve. Rather than asking ourselves what we can do to shame and cajole motoring suburbanites into changing their “evil” ways (cars, meat, McDonalds, Wal-Mart etc), it’s time to ask ourselves how we can help the growing chunk of society who can no longer afford to be a part of this industrial, petrochemical society. How do we help people live through the winter when natural gas and fuel oil are no longer available (Canada has already seen a fuel oil shortage, and our gas reserves are plummeting)? How do we help people get to work, school or grocery stores when they have to sell their car? If environmentalism wants to become a truly popular movement, these are the kind of questions we needs to ask. Most people don’t benefit from pollution and environmental devastation any more than we do from sky high bank and corporate profits. It’s time to stop pretending “the environment” is a separate issue from the political and economic woes faced by average people – all economic issues are ecological, and vice versa. Once we all recognize this, we may finally be able to do something about it.