Knowing through philosophy that a dangerous idea is defined as “any object apprehended, conceived or thought of by the mind that is propelled by a stimulus of public and/or private nature with the ability to affect change and produce consequences; a manifestation both large in scope and extension, thus becoming objectified and resulting in a causal chain of events” (Payne, Dangerous Ideas – Introductory, 2014), one must concede that the automobile was, and continues to be, a dangerous idea. Not only is the auto iconic to American culture, it is no longer deemed a convenience but rather a necessity. How many of your personal acquaintances lack one? How many Americans realize high debt to own one? Grinding away, hopeful for a leisurely weekend where we might hop in our vehicles and flee urban sprawl. That is, after we make our hefty car payment. We are increasingly reliant on this tool despite its numerous consequences.
To be credited as the “largest industrial idea of the twentieth century” (Cabadas, 2004), the automobile has transformed culture and nature. Prairies have given way to roads, country acres have given way to vertical integration, leaving mankind to evolve into a methodical, productive mechanism valued more for his output than his input or contribution to society.
Our modern world, now scarred by atmospheric changes and holes in the stratosphere, has blatantly compromised air quality. Environmental legislation cannot undo what’s been done. Society persists in its pursuits of commercialism and industry and we will continue to suffer for it. The consequences abound: smog, fallout, poisonous gases, emissions, skin cancer, lung cancer and obesity (Sherman, 2004). We have become a country weaned, built and increasingly dependent on fossil fuels. Many of our health ailments can be attributed to the by-products of our reliance on these scarce resources. All for the sake of a tool of convenience: the automobile. “Not that smog was caused just by cars….power plants; smelters and factories contributed only half its precursors” (Sherman, 2004). Aside from being environmentally negligent, automakers tended to be arrogant regarding consumers. In the book “The People’s Tycoon” the author quotes Henry Ford as once stating that “Thinking of consumers as having definite incomes is only going back to the old days when the saturation point for goods was supposed to be fixed” (Watts, 2005). It goes on to proclaim that Ford often remarked how he was “deeply worried about consumer excess” (Watts, 2005). Reflecting back on the past century and the thick air surrounding us, it would appear that a few more of the “old days” might do us good.
It is often remarked that with brilliance, comes madness. Perhaps Henry David Thoreau was more than a wise and witty American writer, perhaps he had a premonition. One must wonder if he knew what lay on the horizon for mankind when he penned in his 1845 journal that “men have become the tools of their tools” (Olson, 2006). The same rule applies with the automobile. Originally conceived in 1885 by a German inventor named Carl Benz of Germany, the first gas powered automobile was not actually introduced to America until 1893 when the Duryea brothers ran their first automobile race in Chicago and won, thanks to an idea manifested by a Detroit railroad mechanic named Charles Brady (Cabadas, 2004). Brady’s idea would soon propel early twentieth century life into the modern, industrialized culture his friend Ford and others envisioned. Now increasingly dependent on the automobile for convenience, prestige and maneuverability we must contemplate to what end the automobile may take us.
Once revered as the auto capital of the world, the city of Detroit is now officially “bankrupt”. A century ago, this same area bustled with united auto workers, tidy subdivisions and growing entrepreneurial investments. Now plagued with debt, record unemployment and boarded-up homes and shops vaguely reminiscent of the industrial revolution and all its glory, it is testimony to the causal chain of events generated from an idea intended as a tool for us, the consumer. Did we, philosophically speaking, sell our soul for the sake of mass production?
First and foremost, we compromised our environment. Our world’s global climate changes have been proven to be direct causal chains of industrial fallout. In hindsight, we rally for green power and plant trees. This soothes our social conscience. Aside from this, we have forsaken desolate expanses for modes of maneuverability: the road. Here and there and everywhere, automobiles buzz along emitting toxic waste and hurrying us along to our next destination. Do we truly aspire that the joy in life lays not in the destination but the journey? Were that the case, would we hope for a different outcome to this iconic idea of man?
It is prudent to note the errors of our ways and return to the days of old when mankind was beholden to no tool. The teachings of Thoreau forewarned us when he penned in Walden, “at present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, when fences shall be multiplied, and mantraps and other inventions invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be considered trespassing” (Dover Thrift Publications, 1993).
Were his words a premonition or sheer brilliance? I shall take a walk and a deep breath as I ponder it.
Cabadas, J. P. (2004). River Rouge: Ford’s Industrial Colussus. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing Company.
Dover Thrift Publications. (1993). Henry David Thoreau: Civil Disobedience and Other Essays. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.
Olson, S. P. (2006). Henry David Thoreau: Naturalist Writer and Transcendentalist. New York, NY: Rosen Publishing Group.
Payne, D. (2014, January 24). Dangerous Ideas – Introductory. Petoskey, Michigan, United States of America.
Sherman, J. (2004). GASP! The Swift and Terrible Beauty of Air. Vermont: Shoemaker Hoard Publishing Group Inc.
Watts, S. (2005). The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.