Driving home: reflections on cars, domesticity, and the environment

Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI displays trains, planes, and automobiles that reveal the history of their technical evolution.  On display are early vehicles—including steam and electric powered cars—some made by the many auto companies that died out early on.  Walking through the exhibits one can see the many false starts, detours, and economic pressures behind the current automobile industry, but the genius of the museum is that it also presents a history of how the automobile was incorporated into society as people found new uses for it.

This social history can be read in many of the old advertisements for automobiles that are found throughout the museum.  Some of the earliest ads targeted doctors, showing how a sedan could serve as an ambulance.  Others targeted the elderly, claiming that with the automobile, old age was no longer a barrier to freedom of movement.  My favorites were the ads that targeted women: One ad from the 1920’s targeted the “new women” and showed the automobile as an investment.  Other vehicles were depicted as easy to use cars that were specifically designed for women.  But the ads that I find most interesting were those that linked the automobile to the ability to discover nature.

Henry Ford himself built motorized campers that he used to tow his friends and servants into the wild on long vacations.  He lent another camper he owned to Charles Lindbergh, who used it to see America and write.  The museum shows how the idea of using the automobile to escape from cities into nature grew increasingly popular amongst those who could afford cars—embodying the American notion that a car and the frontier are synonymous with freedom.  Looking at these documents, I perceived that the invention of the car was essential to Americans beginning to widely care about and appreciate wilderness.  It also helped them bring their homes (sometimes in the form of RVs and sometimes in the form of suburban houses) further away from cities and to help cultivate the ideas of wilderness and home (not always complementary concepts) as retreats from human pressures.  The irony that struck me throughout this exhibit was that the automobile helped created our appreciation for nature, even as it unintentionally began to destroy the very environments that it allowed us to appreciate.

Today, many of us live suburban or small town lives that we value because they provide space for families, quiet neighborhoods, and affordable prices in which we can build our own house/retreat.  All the better if our homes located against a scenic backdrop.  And yet, like the travelers who first ventured outwards, our ability to sustain this life is also predicated upon the use of the automobile and its pollution.  As Mormons, we place particular cultural value on the notion of the home as a calm sanctuary, but it seems worth reflecting on the fact that in order to produce structures that physically embody these ideas, we might well be harming the world around us.


  1. I could not agree with you more. The funny thing is that now you have to have the money to fly to be really world wise. No longer will driving around educate you to the big wild world out there.
    We have lived without a car for the past three and a half years and only miss it when we have to go on long trips on the bus.
    Living in CR we have an awesome transit system, and taxis are very cheap. Too bad you have to live inner city in the States to have access to a good public transit system.

  2. Excellent.

    With personal automobiles so entrenched in American society, it is interesting to step back and look at how this happened.

    I sometimes lament that participation in my ward is based on having a car. I use my car to get to and from church, to go home teaching, to pick up kids for seminary, to go to the temple. Cars are a mixed blessing/curse.

  3. The automobile is definitely a double edged sword, and personally, I feel that the negatives outweigh the positives.

    Between the human casualties, the environmental destruction (both from the cars themselves and the lust for gasoline and oil to fuel them), and the dehumanization of urban planning, the automobile has had an enormously negative impact on society.

  4. I was recently asked by a car rental attendant on the phone if I’d like to donate $1 to an environmental fund to offset my carbon footprint from the car rental. I was taken aback and offered her my intentions with the car – and that was to drive as far and as much as possible, use as much gas as I could, and otherwise find means to enjoy and appreciate more of that part of the world than I would otherwise see were I to seclude myself in the hotel room out of some guilt complex about the environment. Today’s modern automobiles are infinitely more ‘clean’ than the early iterations, so much so that a 100 mile car journey now will leave a lower carbon footprint than would a 10 mile Sunday drive just 30 years ago.

    It’s true that we should be aware and concerned about the environment, however, the earth was given to us for our enjoyment, use, and stewardship. Responsible use of the earth IMO includes enjoying the scenic beauty and the means to do so.

  5. Yeah, I love enjoying that scenic beauty of the earth–like the fifty miles of I-15 (eight or ten lanes or more of concrete) between Provo and Salt Lake. It’s especially nice when a temperature inversion in the wintertime fills the valleys with smog thick enough to made Los Angeles jealous. And “me” and everyone else with a car knows that 90% of the time in a car has nothing to do with enjoying the beauty of the earth–it’s spent commuting to work, going grocery shopping, running other errands, driving to church, etc. etc. Too bad that so many Americans have no choice.

    And me’s numbers (like much of the rest of what he wrote) are wrong: today’s “cleaner” engines still produce the same amount of CO2 per gallon of gasoline burned, and average gas mileage has not changed substantially in the past 30 years.

    But, on the bright side, it’s awfully nice to have Roblynn (is that CR the Czech Republic or the Filipino’s Comfort Room?) pitying those of us who live in the “inner city.” What is that, a euphemism for “slum” or “ghetto”? Thanks, Roblynn, but you’ve got your facts wrong, and we don’t need your pity.

  6. #4 – I agree that cars are less damaging to the environment than they used to be. The fact remains, however, that you are still polluting the very place you are enjoying by using a vehicle there. I would prefer to see alternatives to personal transportation beyond the gasoline-powered automobile.

    In any case, most of the problems that I have with cars are primarily social in nature.

    Even if pollution were moved off the table entirely, the social effects of driving remain: traffic congestion, the inherent danger of collision (amplified by substance abuse), poorly designed urban areas, the hiding of real costs of gasoline and road upkeep, noise and light pollution.

    I will grant that there isn’t a clear cut solution. Obviously someone who lives far out in the country will be greatly benefited from having access to private transportation, and for them, it is probably essential. Emergency services having individual vehicles is also a very good thing.

    It is my opinion, however, that for most private citizens living in urban areas, private vehicles should be severely restricted, if not outlawed completely. Densely populated urban centers should be designed with people in mind, not commuters, with foot access to local services and a robust public transit system for commuting within the city as well as from city to city.

  7. Also, a question for me (#4) – did you contribute that single dollar?

  8. StillConfused says:

    I love my vehicle. A Honda Pilot SUV. I can cart large amounts of materials for home improvement projects; put up the third row if I need to cart around a ton of people; or otherwise just enjoy the safety and reliability of the vehicle. I work from home now. Not because of some carbon footprint thing but because I like having a 2 second commute and very low gasoline bill.

  9. Interesting points and reflections Natalie.

    My thoughts are, as I get in my SUV to take the kids to school, to church, to the grocery store, to visit family… How do I break that cycle? I would love to have better, usable public transportation- like that which is available in some of my west coast sister cities, San Francisco and Seattle. The problem is, I cannot afford to live there. I cannot even purchase the smallest, humblest home/condo/apartment in either of those cities. So I am relegated to outlying areas. And to my car. How is this solved?

  10. And yes, I know if I were environmentally responsible I would not drive an SUV, nor would I have three children, and I would only buy organic, locally produced food. But…

    My car is paid for, I love my children, and as a single mom, purchasing organic, local food is a great ideal, but I cannot afford it. It often seems the best things we can do are also the most affluent and expensive. Again, how is this solved?

  11. “It often seems the best things we can do are also the most affluent and expensive.”

    You are absolutely correct, Tracy. I wish I had a solution, but given the economic limitations that many of us face, there is no real escape for a lot of people from shopping at Wal-Mart because it is the only store that doesn’t break the budget, or driving an SUV because you need the ability to transport an entire family.

    I may be overly pessimistic here, but you and I aren’t going to be able to change things very easily. Cars are so deeply entrenched in the physical layout of our cities, our feelings of independence, and even our history, that it will take generations to change, if it ever does. (Barring, of course, a massive crisis that forces us to change at gunpoint, as it were.)

    I suppose we each do what we can, educating the next generation until public attitudes begin to change and the public will exists to support not only the change in lifestyle, but also the transformation in infrastructure that would be required to reduce the damage we do to ourselves and our planet because of our auto addiction.

    I just wish I had a better answer than wait a few generations. :(

  12. Re (1) – The funny thing is that now you have to have the money to fly to be really world wise. No longer will driving around educate you to the big wild world out there.

    Those who think that “flying” is required to educate oneself to the big bad world is ludicrously out-of-touch, and obviously haven’t seen anything of America’s beauty.

    My family and I do a couple of big US-based vacations a year on less than what one plan-based trip would cost. We find that we’re much more cost-effective driving our car that has >30MPH than we are flying/renting a car/etc.

    Those who weep at the site of a car haven’t looked a map of the US and figured out how to get to all the really cool areas (without a car).

  13. (We’ve done the international trip a few times as well. We haven’t limited ourselves to just the US. Yes, you need a plane to go to Europe. But then you have to deal with the Euros… ;) j/k)

  14. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 11
    Electric cars powered by cleanly-produced energy would allow us to have our cake and eat it too.

    Israel may lead the way:

  15. Natalie B. says:

    #10: One of the interesting things I noticed from my time in NYC is that organic and free range food was actually much cheaper and more widespread there than in the town where I currently live (where free range meats generally aren’t even available at the average grocery store.) I’ve hypothesized that when people start demanding more sustainable things, then the costs will go down. There are some things, though, like smaller, denser houses that generally are more affordable and more sustainable.

  16. Natalie B. says:

    Here is one more food-related thing we could do (though more to improve nutrition). One of the reasons that foods that are bad for us are so much cheaper is that we subsidize corn and other grains rather than foods that are better for us. We could write our representatives and express our frustration with these subsidies. Of course, so long as Iowa goes first in the primaries, Congress might be reluctant to change course.

  17. Natalie B. says:
  18. Come on Brothers and Sisters, lets not go joining any new religions over this G. Warming lie.


  19. Mark Brown says:

    KLS, could you please, please keep him away from teh intarwebs?

  20. Stephanie says:

    In all honesty, I am tired of being beat up for driving my Suburban and living in a Suburb. I’m doing the best I can to take care of my family. Of course we want a shorter commute for DH, but we can’t afford to live there. I don’t want fewer kids. The Suburban stays.

  21. Stephanie says:

    But, DH does take the train to work.

  22. #6 Matt – As someone who has extensively used and tried to love public transit, I do not have words to express how much I despise it. As one bus driver put it, Buses are for people who are not in a hurry.

    #14 MikeInWeHo – As much as I would like an electric car myself, where are we getting this clean energy from? Most of the time, that is just shifting the pollution elsewhere.

  23. I agree with you completely, Zen. Public transit, at least in my experience, is poorly designed, underfunded, and requires a different type of city layout than private transportation does. It is like trying to mash a square peg into a round hole and it is frustrating and aggravating to try to use it. (I speak from experience – I don’t drive at all, and I have had to use public transit for almost twenty years. It is a real pain in the neck most of the time.)

    It doesn’t have to be that way, though. I think that a city designed around public transit, and that funded and ran it properly would be great. It would also be radically different from our current city layouts, and it is very likely never going to happen due to the prohibitive cost of rebuilding entire cities.

    I just look at the death and injury toll caused by automobiles worldwide, and I can’t help but think that we might have been better off if they had never been invented. I wish there were a better alternative.

    I do apologize Stephanie, if it came across as if I were condemning anyone; that was not my intent. Ideals and reality rarely intersect, and whatever our ideals may be, reality is what we get to deal with. The reality is, our society makes cars a necessity for most of us. It’s as simple as that, and we do what we need to so that we can provide for our families.

  24. I had a bicycle trailer that I used to take the kindergartner to school every day, do grocery shopping, etc. I ride my bike 7 miles to my office as often as I can (if not driving band carpool, etc.).

    I currently do drive to church because the teenagers are last-minute people. The minute they leave, I start riding my bicycle.

    It’s not entirely as hopeless as some make out, with the right bicycle baskets for shopping, trailer for hauling little ones, etc.