What kind of car do you drive? Are you one of those people that worries about breaking down on the side of the road because your car is older than most high schoolers? Or are you someone who loves the smell of a new car. We all know that smell – it’s not just a sign of its recent production date, but is also about comfort, security, and assurances (aka warranties). If we are honest with ourselves, we often upgrade cars because of the fear to have our cars break down on us. Many of us are hesitant to buy used cars (and only do so because our finances require it) because you never really know what the previous owner did to it.
In other societies, we may use the term “purity” to describe the lure of a new car. There’s something about knowing it has always been in good hands and never treated badly. It may just be worth the extra coinage to have the piece of mind, right? While I can joke about the reasons we often upgrade our cars, the reason why this is even remotely funny to you is because there is truth to it. Excessive advertising overwhelms us with the lure to buy, upgrade, and add unnecessary accessories to our cars. Whether we realize it or not, this false narrative is effectively destroying our society. It is not only putting financial strain on individuals and families, but also is causing the physical destruction of our planet.
Those who deny the desire to buy a nice car must have had a different childhood from me. I don’t know about you, but I always wanted one of those electric cars by Power Wheels that young children (who often lack the motor skills to run/walk) cruise around in. I am sure that I don’t have to describe it more than that.Many of you probably had one or knew someone with a set of power wheels (notice the name – POWER).
While my parents did their best to provide for us kids, the one area of my life that I felt was missing at the time was a brand new power wheel car. Who doesn’t like the feeling of knowing you have the nicest vehicle of your 5 year old friends? Regrettably, this is just one of the fine examples that cars and the need to have/drive/be associated with them is part of the narrative that is corrupting us – even from childhood.The popular and perhaps subliminal message to children is clear from the beginning. Driving a nice car is important – it says something about who you are. And you wonder why so many people think it’s okay to finance a car…
This false narrative is invading every aspect of our lives. The trip to the grocery store is now a chance to remind children that life is ultimately about driving a really nice car. The activity that once was a chore or a pain for parents as they dragged their children along as they look for the food which will sustain their family for the next week is now made easier because of one thing: the shopping cart race car. Children love this! I highly doubt it’s part of their genes. Simply put – it’s a cultural value. A cultural value that is destroying our society.
Cars as an Image of Success
Over the past few decades, through cultural fascination with different makes and models of vehicles, western society has become obsessed with the appearance of cars as opposed to practicality. I am the first one to admit that I too bought into this myth. As an aspiring young 16 year old high school student, (deep down) I longed to fit in – to be popular. (I guess being on the Knowledge Bowl and Tennis Varsity teams didn’t cut it)
So, what is someone to do? I did what any middle-class teenager would do to improve his reputation… BEG my parents for the family car. While I’m not positive I believed it would make me popular, I KNEW that everyone were jealous and it did improve my social status (sadly). Now, some of you may be thinking why the family car would make me popular. Well, here’s the thing. It wasn’t just any family car. My first car, as a 16 year old was a 1995 Ford Mustang Convertible. For those who don’t know what that looks like, I have provided a picture of my first car below for you. Enjoy – I certainly did.
Despite my glory years in high school, I soon learned the impracticality of this car as I packed up the small, soon-to-be-discovered uncomfortable car and traveled across the country to go to college. Moving from dorm room to storage facility and back to dorm room year after year got old in the small car that I once loved. Not only did it require tens of trips each year, but it demanded a certain skill of maneuvering and sheer force to fit the large items like a dorm fridge into the car.
Needless to say, my approach to owning cars changed quickly. I graduated college, sold my “dream” car and got the most practical vehicle I could find- a used station wagon. While the station wagon has a negative connotation for most young adults (I still can’t figure out the reason), I soon fell in love. It’s large storage space and high MPG has made it the ideal car for me and my wife – and it’s a car that goes against the popular narrative.
By popular narrative, I mean the excessive and unnecessary accessories – ranging from the neon lights that are placed under cars (for which only God knows why) to the spinning wheels that cost as much as multiple months of rent. It is this same lie that convinces consumers that appearance or image is more important than practicality. For example, the popularity of (large) SUV’s surged over the past two decades. While wikipedia reports that the popularity has decline in recent years, I know many people who prefer a large SUV or truck because of the versatility that it offers. Really, people? How often do you drive off-road or tow something, or need to use the four-wheel drive?
The ‘Catch 22′ of Vehicles: Environmental Damage vs. Image Narrative
Yet, as I mentioned, people are starting to change their perspective. This has come about largely because of two reasons – the increase in oil prices and the literal destruction of the planet. Despite serious warnings of global warming, people living in western society have not made any significant move away from the dependency on private transportation. If you want to argue this point with me, let me point out that the 2008 Green Car of the Year was the one and only massive 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe. While it may be a (small) step in the right direction, the reported 21 MPG won’t save the planet any time soon.
The need to be frugal and yet also care for the environment puts us in a Catch 22. A position with pro’s and con’s on both sides of the coin. On the one hand, we can resist the advertisements to upgrade our car to the newest, fastest, and even most efficient cars, but at what cost? While I don’t have any statistical information, older cars as a general rule are less fuel efficient therefore worse for the environment. We may be able to be successful at resisting popular advertising, but at what cost to our environment? and at what cost to environment-related health conditions? Whether we realize it or not, our attempt to save a few pennies could actually be creating an environment which will have higher costs in the future, especially for our children and grandchildren.
On the other side of the coin, it seems that if we try to be more environmentally-friendly, it means a strong correspondence to the narrative that private vehicles is the image of success. I don’t know about you, but I no longer want to buy into this idea that I am defined by the stuff I own or the car that I drive.
There is no easy answer. The only appropriate answer to the question of whether we should resist buying new cars OR help save the environment by buying newer, efficient cars is YES – or in other words, both and yet neither at the same time. Our long-term goal of preserving our environment must be held up against the popular consumerist mindset. I’m not naive enough to suggest that everyone bike to work in order to save the environment and dollars on the commute – but I am hopeful enough to believe that small changes can make a difference.
Readers, do you agree that cars are destroying our society? What’s your take on the difficult position we are place in?
photocredit: marvins_dad via flickr