With a perverse push in public relations, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced recently that it would be lifting its ban on women driving automobiles. According to a story in the NY Times,

Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive, ending a longstanding policy that has become a global symbol of the oppression of women in the ultraconservative kingdom.

The change, which will take effect in June 2018, was announced in a royal decree read live on state television and in a simultaneous media event in Washington. The decision highlights the damage that the ban on women driving has done to the kingdom’s international reputation and its hopes for a public relations benefit from the reform.

There’s so much to rip apart in this clearly cynical move on the part of the Saudi’s, from much more serious oppressions they oppose upon women to their need to distract from the bloody carnage they’re perpetrating in Yemen (courtesy of U.S. weaponry), but I’m more curious about how the automobile is central to this drama, to the American story, to the environment, and back again to Saudi Arabia via the geopolitics of oil.

A greasy bargain

While the gas-powered automobile is traced back to Siegfried Marcus in Germany in the late 19th Century, the mass production of cars is credited to an American, Henry Ford, a generation later. And it’s America that defined car culture, and its wedding to gasoline via its internal combustion engine. And that relationship was reinforced by collusion of General Motors, Firestone Tire, and Standard Oil to replace electric street and trolly cars with gas-powered busses. While battery-powered, electric cars were popular at the start of the 20th Century, they were limited in speed and distance they could travel without recharge, in contrast to petroleum. With gasoline as the fuel of choice for the rapidly expanding car market, demand for petroleum skyrocketed. According to the University of Michigan,

Gasoline consumption soared from less than three billion gallons in 1919 to approximately fifteen billion in 1929, 46.5 billion in 1955, and more than 135 billion in 2002. By 1973 transportation was responsible for more than half of all consumption of petroleum in the United States; by 1990 almost 64 percent. Since 1975, the United States has consumed more oil for transportation than it produced. Today, automobiles alone are responsible for almost 90 percent of the energy consumed for travel in the U.S.

While waste and pollution from automobile emissions was of unknown concern in the early oil boom days, where getting rich quick trumped concerns about conversation. Again, from the University of Michigan,

The basic urge to get rich quick, however, usually meant depleting supplies as quickly as possible, despite warnings from geologists about the dangers of extracting too much, too quickly or wasting substantial amounts along the way. Through the “Rule of Capture,” which dominated the production of oil until the 1930s, those who owned the surface property over a common oil pool could keep all the oil and gas that they took from wells, regardless of the possible drainage from adjoining property. In most respects, the problem of waste at the wellhead was viewed as an economic problem. Conservation practices, when implemented, ultimately produced oil in a more rational fashion by protecting prices and limiting wild fluctuations in supply. These practices, however, were usually limited to large companies—not wildcatters—that controlled major sources of supply and benefited from industrial stability.

Over the subsequent decades, demands for oil profits put constant pressure upon risks to human safety and the environment, whereby not just America, but much of the world is choking under impacts of the gas-dependent internal combustion engine, while new, cleaner technologies are slow to meet the needs of societies and the ecosystem. A greasy bargain, indeed.

Loco motion

I didn’t need horror stories involving maniacal drivers intentionally using vehicles as weapons to understand the danger of driving, to pedestrians and drivers alike. In fact, 2016 resulted in the highest number of traffic-related deaths in U.S. history: upwards of 40,000. But while we’re conditioned to call these incidents “accidents,” statistics also show that two-thirds of traffic fatalities are caused by aggressive driving, and more than one-third involve a firearm. Which brings me to a question I’ve been pondering for as long as I’ve been driving: what the hell is it about driving an automobile that makes us crazy?

Even with a peaceful demeanor, I fall pray to the aggressiveness that driving an automobile amplifies. The perception of anonymity provided by the isolation and protection of metal and steel, can turn simple impatience into potential danger. Not much relative damage I can do feeling impatient on my couch. According to recent research, however, there’s another element that belies a lot of aggressive driving: entitlement. According to a story in the Philadelphia Enquirer,

Three studies over the last five years show that people driving expensive cars were more likely to cut off other motorists and less likely to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.

“This suggests that wealthier drivers may reflect adherence to ethical codes geared towards maximizing one’s self-interest, often at the expense of others,” says psychologist Jeremy Boyd, formerly of the Human Development Program at the University of California, San Diego.

In other words, says Paul Piff, a University of California, Irvine, professor of psychology and social behavior who conducted a motoring study of his own, “money makes you more likely to exhibit the characteristics of being a jerk.”

Why am I not surprised.

Middle East hustle

While knowledge of history – short of history of Hollywood marriages – is a thin reed for much of America, understanding complicity of U.S. military and covert intelligence to influence and control Middle East geopolitics to protect the West’s access to oil is essential to see how religious fanatics, like the Saudi Royal Family, became so wealthy, influential and dangerous. Here’s a short primer, from Robert Kennedy, Jr.,

For Americans to really understand what’s going on, it’s important to review some details about this sordid but little-remembered history. During the 1950s, President Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers — CIA Director Allen Dulles and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles — rebuffed Soviet treaty proposals to leave the Middle East a neutral zone in the Cold War and let Arabs rule Arabia. Instead, they mounted a clandestine war against Arab nationalism — which Allen Dulles equated with communism — particularly when Arab self-rule threatened oil concessions. They pumped secret American military aid to tyrants in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon favoring puppets with conservative Jihadist ideologies that they regarded as a reliable antidote to Soviet Marxism [and those that possess a lot of oil]. At a White House meeting between the CIA’s director of plans, Frank Wisner, and John Foster Dulles, in September 1957, Eisenhower advised the agency, “We should do everything possible to stress the ‘holy war’ aspect,” according to a memo recorded by his staff secretary, Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster.

Racing in the Street

I like to walk, particularly in the downtown of the South Florida city where I live, and in New York City, where I sprouted and still inhabit as much as I can. While I once felt relatively safe as a pedestrian, that is no longer the case, as the combination of texting and entitled disregard for human life has turned pedestrian life into a veritable game of chance with my limbs, and even life. Traffic signals, a police officer offered, and merely a suggestion these days. I understand that pedestrian life is considerably safer on the west coast, but here in the east we’re just too busy for courtesy and safety.

Driving tends to bring out the worst in the best of us, and turns the worst into soulless killers. And, not forgetting, much like parenting, driving is an activity many should not be engaging in.

To fall in celebration for the Saudi public relations ploy as a victory for women is to be a victim to the most cynical type of identity politics, rivaling that of Democratic party. And why not? When the recent U.S. Senate vote to approve a half-trillion dollar Saudi weapons deal needed a few Democrat votes to pass, those who prostituted themselves to the weapons industry delivered the goods. Coincidence? I think not.

For all its initial promise as a new technology in transportation, automobiles and their supportive industries and culture have nearly brought humanity to its knees. Turns out our collective racing in the streets has quite a price tag.

For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me we’re gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins off our hands
–Bruce Springsteen