Why Cars are Destroying Our Society

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.

Childhood Brainwashing

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
photocredit: lifeisbutadrink.com

44 Responses to Why Cars are Destroying Our Society

  1. Where I grew up, it was (and still is today) no surprise to see 2 brand new vehicles and an old classic car fully restored in the driveway of an old shack or ran down single wide trailer.These people would rather have a nice rides than have a nice home and financial security just so that they can deceive people about their status. I was under that same veil until I moved away and realized how crazy that was. Most people that do this don’t even know they are doing it and think they are doing good. If people would just quit worrying about status-quo and more about their financial future, they would realize that a new car is nice, but a debt free life is much better.

  2. I’ve never been into cars. The only cars I’ve ever owned were rather pedestrian in terms of price and looks (Pontiac Sunbird, Geo Storm, Nissan Sentra, Chevy Blazer, Pontiac Grand Am, and 2 Honda Accords) and until recently all domestic brands. I think it’s because my father always drive basic cars and was never one to buy anything flashy. My attitude now is just as his was–a car is a utility that gets me where I want to go and back, so I don’t need to have all of the options and accessories since I don’t spend enough time in it to get my moneys worth.

    I will never argue your point about the immediate savings leading to higher costs later on. I’ve smelled first hand just how environmentally poor older cars may be, and now that emissions tests are going the way of the 8-track, it’s much worse. Like so many subjects of debate there is no cut and dry solution to this problem. Biking or walking everywhere will never be a valid solution, as it’s just too impractical if you live outside of downtown LA, NYC, Chicago or similar places. Public transportation is also a poor option outside of these metro areas. The time wasted on the commutes just do not substantiate the effort.

    • 20sfinances says:

      Interesting point. Research could be done to compare the times spent in the car and whether it would be worth it to splurge on a nicer car. I like your viewpoint on cars being something taking you from point A to B.

      Do you think it is the no clear answer that keeps people ignoring the problem? Maybe a simple solution such as driving 10% less would make a difference…

      • Where I grew up, we didn’t NEED cars to get around most of the time, so for me, personally it was never a big thing.

        I think the biggest problem isn’t so much that it’s being ignored, but that there are so many conflicting parts to the whole. People want to keep the environment clean, but they also want to lower their costs of living. Well I hate to break it to them but innovations and new technology takes money to develop which gets passed on the the end users, so only one side of that equation is possible. Then you have the people who want all of these features and design inclusions but bitch when the price of gas goes up. Of course people will swallow the gas prices to keep their 20 inch rims and v8 engines with all of the features that lower fuel economy.

        Don’t even get me started on the “evil cars” “evil technology” “the world will be a better place with no modern conveniences–let’s go back to the dark ages” people…it was a long tax season and I don’t think I have the energy to argue with any of that.

  3. WorkSaveLive says:

    I wouldn’t just say cars are destroying our society, but yes, it plays a huge part. Our general greed and desire for nicer things is what is destroying our society overall and it plays itself out in the NICER cars and houses.

    I hate cars and it’s ridiculous how we’ve come to view them.

    • 20sfinances says:

      That’s a great point Jason. I agree that there is more to the problem, but it seems that focusing on cars gives us a window to look at the big picture without being overwhelmed by the complexity or abstract.

  4. POST OF THE WEEK!
    When I was in high school, all of my friends had cars and used to love talking about all the things they wanted to do to their cars. And I just never understood the fascination with cars. I never wanted a car growing up. I was happy to bike everywhere, or use my parents car in the winter. And since University, I have always positioned myself in a way that I can bike/walk almost everywhere I need to go.
    We need to engineer a major societal and cultural shift when it comes to cars, but for that matter, like WorkSaveLive said, that shift needs to extend beyond cars into all categories of consumption.

    • 20sfinances says:

      Absolutely – sometimes focusing on the big picture we lose any concrete results. For example, saying we need to be less greedy might be a great principle, but how do you regulate or track that? Instead, saying I’m going to commit to buying a practical car instead of one that looks shiny has more teeth to it.

  5. I 100% agree. I think they are way too much of a status symbol. I would much rather have put money into my home than a car. I have seen too many people with super nice cars and a junker for a home.

  6. Christa says:

    I’ve never been a car person, but that VW Power Wheels in your first picture is really calling my name. How sad is it that I want to buy a $250 mini car for my child before she’s even born?! Sigh…anyway, I do agree that the quest for a bigger and better (or in my case, smaller and more “powerful”) car is a huge factor in our American lifestyle of debt and pollution.

  7. My parents set a good example. They drive cars for hundreds of thousands of miles and then when cars die, they give them to junk yards. When my mom wants a new car, she gives my dad her old one. I bought a used car two years ago, fully intending to drive it until it will no longer drive.

  8. JT says:

    I think there’s plenty of negative consequences coming from the superficial, and not just in having a nice car. For example – most accidents are pretty minor bumper-to-bumper collisions…until someone decides to throw $600 at a tiny, dime-sized scratch.

    I drove a damaged car for a long time. It was older, but had plenty of life left. The front end needed some serious work, mostly just to replace the quarter panel and part of the grill. It would have cost $1500, which would have made the car look like “new” again, but the car was worth only $2500 or so. In no way did the damage affect its ability to go from A to Z.

    A more utilitarian approach to things like cars could certainly help us save our resources. Truth is, I could have put $1500 into the car, wasted several hours of a mechanic’s and painter’s time, and had a good looking car, but in no way did it matter what the car looked like. I think a lot of it has to do with over-insurance with cars – people would be far less likely to waste needless money on repairs if they didn’t feel like the insurance money was free for the taking.

    If I ever wreck my newer car in an accident that was my fault, I’d never repair it. There’s no harm in driving around a beat up car – it’s a waste of resources to make repairs that have zero real effect on getting from point A to point B. I often wonder how much better American finances might be if we weren’t so reliant on cars – the resources including time, money, and parts could be dedicated to much more worthwhile endeavors.

    • 20sfinances says:

      Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Someone I know was hit by someone and it scratched the bumper of the car. After much deliberation, he filed it with insurance and got the check of $400 to do the repairs. Instead of making the repairs, he took the insurance money and put it elsewhere. That just goes to show you how messed up the system is.

  9. Michelle says:

    I am guilty of being superficial when it comes to cars. I wish I wasn’t like this, but I really do enjoy having a nice/new car. It is huge waste of money though.

  10. [...] controversy at 20sFinances – Why Cars are Destroying Our Society. Considering both the high environmental and financial impact of car ownership, there are [...]

  11. Awesome post. Missed it for our monthly reading but I will put it in the consideration bucket for May!

  12. My newest car was 12 years old when I bought it. The oldest was 30. Since I can’t afford a fully restored, classic VW Beetle, I only look for two things in a car: high MPG and low cost. I’m currently driving a 95 Geo Prizm with a cracked windshield, missing knobs on the climate controls, and a zip tie for a door handle. But it only cost $500 and gets 33mpg!

  13. You played varsity tennis? You’ve totally entered a whole new realm of cool in my opinion!

    My honest opinion, and you are welcome to disagree, is that American consumers have an unrealistic view over what and how they can better impact the environment.

    Sizeable, positive impacts are going to come from better manufacturing practises that use less energy, less/reusable materials. You’d find a larger impact in reducing the amount of materials used for a vehicle than whether or not you drive a new or used car.

  14. I love cars, and will be the first to say that Im somewhat superficial. My excuse is that I actually want happens under the hood of the car as well.

  15. I don’t buy into the belief that a car is a status symbol. It is simply something to get me from point A to point B. I didn’t always think this way, but realized it after seeing friends buy cars that are completely impractical for what they needed.

  16. Part of the problem is that roads are mostly “free”, so there is less of a personal cost to living further away, driving the car more, etc….

    Overall I don’t think they are destroying our lives, but just like credit, if it’s subsidized then we’ll tend to overuse it and run into problems.

  17. Jessica says:

    I agree that cars symbolizes the excesses of Western society. I would love to see the US to be less dependent of cars for sustainability reasons

  18. How are cities and neighborhoods developed over time is the main reason for our dependence on the automobile. As the flight to suburbia occurred along a newly constructed interstate highway system, planners failed to include land for employment centers in residential areas. Suburbia was dependent upon the highway system to get to jobs that were in cities. Over time commercial development occurred along the highway corridors and people had no choice but to use cars to get to work. The ideal for planning new construction is to include commercial space, residential and green space together so that residents work and live locally. Green space corridors allow residents to walk or bike to employment centers or retail stores. This type of development is expensive and attracting big business to these types of developments is very difficult.

    • 20sfinances says:

      I have heard of sustainable communities that have tried to re-create how we space everything, trying to locate everything within close proximity. I will have to find the reference and write a post about it.

  19. Aaron Hung says:

    I believe I’m guilty of this as well, I recently got a Infiniti G35. I’ve always wanted one. I guess it feels good to have something and different people has different perspectives. However, gas is killing me because I have to get premium

    • 20sfinances says:

      I guess it’s all about what you value. I, on the other hand, would rather be able to retired a couple years earlier. You can laugh in my face as you drive past me biking to work. ;)

  20. Jai Catalano says:

    I used to own a Mercedes and thought that I was the shit. I was the shit but not because of the car. I don’t have the car anymore.

    That lesson took years to learn.

  21. krantcents says:

    In southern California, cars are important for more than transportation. It is a symbol of independence and a dispaly of wealth. Depite that statement, I drive 2 old cars (17 & 15 y.o.)! I used to buy int this rediculous display of wealth, but no longer. My cars are efficient and well maintained. Most importantly paid for.

    • 20sfinances says:

      Yes, it seems like cars are symbol in multiple places. I am glad I changed my mind – it would cost me an arm and a leg to keep up with the status quo in NJ.

  22. [...] presents Why Cars are Destroying Our Society posted at 20s Finances, saying, What kind of car do you drive? Are one of those people that worries [...]

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  24. [...] in control, don’t we?Many of us are unwilling to give up private transportation (even though cars are destroying our society in more than one way) because we like the control that it offers us. Who likes to wait for public [...]

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  26. [...] Finance waxed philosophical this week on his wonderful post “Why Cars are Destroying Our Society“.  Corey asks,  What kind of car do you drive? Are one of those people that worries about [...]

  27. I agree… destroying so many young men’s finances too. 1/10th rule for car buying, FOREVER!

    • 20sfinances says:

      I forget, does your 1/10th rule have an income cap. In other words, if someone is making 1.5 mil per year, should they buy a car for 150k?

  28. [...] it is always a good practice to buy quality products. As I recently discussed in my article on why cars are destroying our society, buying new is not always the best option. In fact, this common belief that new is better is not [...]

  29. [...] recently, I wrote my longest post ever on 20′s Finances, titled, Why Cars are Destroying Our Society. I wanted to try writing what Sam at Financial Samurai called a whale post. I couldn’t find [...]

  30. [...] Shot asked what is the going rate for teeth? Good question!EP2: Corey at 20s Finances discussed how cars are destroying our society.  The social impact of car ownership is very high and extremely pervasive in North America and [...]

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