Can We Transform the Auto-Industrial Society?

Eggleston Artistic Trust
William Eggleston: Karco, 1983–1986; from ‘William Eggleston: Democratic Camera: Photographs and Video, 1961–2008,’ a recent exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The catalog of the exhibition is published by the Whitney Museum and Haus der Kunst, Munich, in conjunction with Yale University Press.

The cataclysm of the American automobile industry has been an odd combination, so far, of immediate and historical anxieties. The government loan of $13.4 billion to General Motors and Chrysler in December 2008 was presented by the outgoing administration as an unsolicited gift, lest a “disorderly liquidation of American auto companies” should “leave the next President to confront the demise of a major American industry in his first days of office.” It was restricted explicitly to the very short term: “The firms must use these funds to become financially viable…. In the event that firms have not attained viability by March 31, 2009, the loan will be called.”1

But there are also intimations of the deep past and the distant future. The present and impending disorder of the automobile companies is a reminder, even more than the decline of the housing and banking industries, of the desolation of the Great Depression. It is a reminder, too, of economic history, or of the rise and decline of industrial destinies. When the listing of the “Fortune 500” began in 1955, General Motors was the largest American corporation, and it was one of the three largest, measured in revenues, every year until 2007.2 GM was the “largest industrial corporation in the world,” in its own description of 1989, and it was engaged, at the time, in “the most massive reindustrialization program ever attempted.”3 It was an incarnation of American economic change, as a GM vice-president suggested during the earlier automotive crisis of 1973: “To say that a company that has successfully grown over a period of 65 years—a period marked by two world wars and a major economic depression—will suddenly be unable to adapt to the changing challenge…flies in the face of common sense”; it “denies history.”4

The distant future, in these frightening times, includes the prospect of a low-carbon economy. According to the energy plan outlined by the Obama-Biden campaign, overall US emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will by 2050 have been reduced by 80 percent, from more than twenty tons per person per year in 1990 to some 2.6 tons per person.5 Cars and light trucks now account for about 20 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, or more than four tons per person per year, and more than 40 percent of US oil consumption.6 “The UAW shares the growing national concern about climate change,” the president of the United Auto Workers union told a congressional committee in 2007; even the president of GM said that “GM is willing to engage in…

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