Category Archives: Stop Signs

Capitalism kills — our oceans the deadly proof

For 21st century capitalism the more disposable the better. Ocean life and human health be damned.

According to a recent Ellen MacArthur Foundation study, the world’s oceans are set to have more plastic than fish by 2050. At the current rate of production and disposal the net weight of plastic in the oceans will be greater than that of fish in a little over three decades.

There are currently 150 million tonnes of plastic debris floating in the world’s oceans. Most of it takes centuries to break down. Thousands of large animals – such as turtles and birds – die every year from indigestible plastic debris in the ocean. Millions of other sea creatures suffer when they consume plastic.

The Canada-US Great Lakes – the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world – have also accumulated large amounts of plastic. A study released in December concluded that almost 22 million pounds of plastic debris are dumped into the Great Lakes annually. Microplastics in the lakes “act like sponges for certain pollutants and are easily ingested by aquatic organisms, including fish and shellfish, which may ultimately end up on our plates.”

During the second half of the 20th century plastic production rose 20 fold and it’s on pace to double over the next two decades. More plastic was produced during the first decade of the 21st century than in all of the 20th.

Approximately half of plastic is for single use. Some 70 billion plastic bottlesand 1 trillion plastic bags are produced every year globally. The first disposable plastic pop bottle was produced in 1975 and the first plastic grocery bag was introduced a few years earlier.

Before wreaking havoc on ocean fauna, plastics also harm human health. In 2014 Mother Jones published an expose titled “Are any plastics safe?” It noted, “almost all commercially available plastics that were tested leached synthetic estrogens—even when they weren’t exposed to conditions known to unlock potentially harmful chemicals, such as the heat of a microwave, the steam of a dishwasher, or the sun’s ultraviolet rays.” The Mother Jones story draws a parallel between the plastic and tobacco industries.

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act provides the federal government with a tool to restrict toxic substances while Environment Canada operates a scientific review to test for possible harm. Yet few plastic products have been outlawed.

Controversy over the use of BPA (bisphenol A) in baby bottles and some toys prompted the federal government to ban use of this chemical in baby bottles but BPA is still used in other plastics. Similarly, in 2010 the government announced it was banning Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) flame retardants, which have been linked to cancer and other health ailments, but it didn’t outlaw the toxins from new plastic consumer items such as TVs until December and continues to allow PBDEs to be used in manufacturing items.

The toxins in plastics should be better regulated. Plastics can also be made less damaging by producing them from waste products and improving their decomposition. Additionally, measures to promote recycling are necessary. But, as Ian Angus points out, recycling is often a way for the industry to divert “attention away from the production of throwaway plastics to individual consumer behavior—the ‘solutions’ they promote involve cleaning up or recycling products that never should have been made in the first place.”

To that end activists have pressed universities to stop selling plastic bottles and for cities to restrict free plastic bags. While helpful, these efforts are overwhelmed by an economic system enthralled to wasteful consumption.

Based on externalizing costs and privatizing profits, 21st-century capitalism is turning our seas into a plastic blob.

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Left thrives in compact communities, dies in suburban sprawl

Suburban sprawl is an enemy of the Left and progressives should support efforts to discourage it, including tolls.

In opposing tolls on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, a number of leftists cite political strategy. They argue the tolls will elicit a rightist populist backlash and alienate potential supporters.

On Facebook John Bell complained, “to all the ‘progressives’ who support road tolls, and then wonder why a Ford or a Trump gets elected give your head a shake.” Slightly more restrained, Nora Loreto wrote, “if progressives want to have a hope in hell in reaching the average Mississauga commuter” they should oppose tolls.

The Toronto tolls are no doubt highly unpopular among suburbanites who currently use the two highways without paying either through fees or municipal taxes. But, Bell and Loreto’s statements are short sighted. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Rob Ford and Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected if not for the vast sums in public funds (mainly roadway and mortgage subsidies) spent partly in the hopes of atomizing communities.

Since at least the European revolutions of 1848 elites have repeatedly sought to undermine progressive organizing by dispersing communities. In Toronto Sprawls Lawrence Solomon traces the ways in which the city’s dispersal was a reaction to the breakdown of social control that accompanied growing migration from farms. In the early 1900s, Toronto’s elite became concerned about the growing number of single women and immigrants living in the city, as well as the success unions were having in organizing urban workers. Government officials responded by razing buildings in high-density areas, banning apartment buildings and promoting single-family dwellings more conducive to the traditional family.

Conducive to consumerism, disconnected and depoliticized, the suburbs are bastions of conservatism and infertile grounds for social movements to back the scale between rich and poor. Surveys indicate that suburbanites are less inclined to support government programs, unless considered directly beneficial — highways and education, for instance. Compared to their counterparts in small towns and urban areas, suburbanites reports Urban Sprawl and Public Health, “place little emphasis on such social goals as eliminating discrimination and reducing poverty, and tend to reject initiatives such as park acquisition and mass transit.”

Right-wing politics reign supreme, intensifying as suburbs sprawl further outwards. Conversely, according to Robert E. Lang, Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, “at each greater increment of urban density, democrat John Kerry received a higher proportion of the vote [in the 2004 Presidential election].” Put differently, as the dominance of the car increased, so did votes for George W. Bush.

Canadian voting patterns are similar. In the 2011 election Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won almost every suburban riding in Canada’s major cities (outside of Montréal) and lost most central districts. Similarly, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford received stronger support in the outer rings of the city.

In a Globe and Mail piece headlined “The real reason Donald Trump got elected? We have a white extremism problem” Doug Saunders correctly cites “higher population density” and mass transit oriented neighbourhoods as a way to reverse white support for Trump. “White people who live in areas where they’re immersed in longstanding populations of immigrants and minorities – that is, in big cities – don’t generally tend to vote for the politics of racial intolerance. That’s called the ‘contact effect’ – you don’t get anxious about immigration if you live around immigrants. But people who live in mainly white areas that adjoin cities with greater diversity often show very high levels of support for people like Mr. Trump.”

Diffuse suburban landscapes discourage political gatherings. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit notes that “cars have encouraged the diffusion and privatization of space, as shopping malls replace shopping streets, public buildings become islands in a sea of asphalt, civic design lapses into traffic engineering, and people mingle far less freely and frequently.”

How many demonstrations take place in low-density suburbs? A diffuse geography and population denies a pedestrian scale. As a result, suburbanites’ interaction with protests — and progressive political culture more generally — is limited or mediated through the dominant media.

During the 2012 student-led uprising in Québec the vast majority of demonstrations and neighbourhood “casseroles” (pots and pans) marches took place within the core of Montréal. Yet, those living on the outskirts of the city were significantly more likely to tell pollsters that the protests were disruptive than those in neighbourhoods closer to the centre. In effect, people expressed annoyance with the political disruption in an inverse relation to which they were impacted. Or to put it differently, the more Montréalers interacted with the activism through the dominant media, rather than in person, the more it seemed troublesome.

A pedestrian scale is required for political posters to be read. Signs in the suburbs (think billboards) are enormous and usually too expensive for grassroots groups. Unlike car-oriented billboards, street posters are ideal for volunteer-run movements. Putting up posters is labour intensive, but not expensive, which makes it among the most democratic means of mass communication.

And there are other obstacles to community organizing. Where does one leaflet in a suburb with no centre or subway? The highway?

British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s description of “the ideal city for riot and insurrection,” stands in stark contrast to the modern day suburb. In an insurrectionary city, the poor majority would live in close proximity to government authorities and the wealthy. The ideal city would also “be densely populated and not too large in area. Essentially it should still be possible to traverse on foot.”

In her history of walking, Solnit highlights the vital connection between Paris as a great city for walkers and revolution. She also contrasts walkable San Francisco, with its rich history of progressive political activism, to car-dependent Los Angeles, which has seen less political upheaval. Solnit explains:

Only citizens familiar with their city as both symbolic and practical territory, able to come together on foot and accustomed to walking about their city, can revolt. Few remember that the ‘right of the people peaceably to assemble’ is listed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, along with freedom of the press, of speech, and of religion, as critical to a democracy. While other rights are easily recognized, the elimination of the possibility of such assemblies through urban design, automotive dependence, and other factors is hard to trace and seldom framed as a civil rights issue.

Instead of fearing a populist backlash for challenging automotive hegemony, all progressives need to recognize their strategic interest in promoting pedestrian, bike and mass transit scale urban spaces.

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Car culture and geography harm the poor far more than tolls

There’s no doubt tolls hurt poor people, but a car-dominated transportation system does far more damage and everyone who wants a more just society should support measures that help rid our over-heating planet of private automobiles.

The primary left-wing complaint about tolling two Toronto highways is it will harm the poor. One activist responded to my criticism of toll opponents by posting, “some folks are so desperate for a war on the car they are willing to settle for a war on the poor disguised as such.” Another individual wrote on someone else’s Facebook page: “It’s almost embarrassing seeing people who think of themselves as progressive supporting policies that would disproportionately hit those with the least the most. It seems like the very definition of privileged, ivory towerism.”

To the extent lower income folks drive the Gardiner Expressway or Don Valley Parkway a $2 toll is obviously a greater burden (though income-contingent tax rebates can remedy this). But driving and income are inversely correlated. Poorer people own fewer vehicles and drive less since shoes, a bike, or bus pass are cheaper than a personal car.

But tolls — and the modest, imperfect, challenge to auto-hegemony they represent — should be examined through a broader wealth/inequality lens. In a variety of ways, structuring transport and urban landscapes around the private auto entrenches class and wealth divisions and negatively impacts poor people.

For example, although they drive less, lower income folks are more likely to live on heavily trafficked streets/neighbourhoods. Increased car noise and pollution leads to various ills, including higher rates of asthma and cancer.

Poor and working-class communities have also borne the brunt of community destroying automotive infrastructure. Innumerable poor and working class neighbourhoods across North America have been bulldozed to build highways.

As well as indifference to the negative impact of highways on poor communities, planners require parking spots for each new lodging unit, which increases the cost of housing. “Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people,” writes Donald Shoup in The High Cost of Free Parking. “By increasing the cost of housing, parking requirements make the real homelessness problem even worse.”

Then there’s the ideological element. As an important means for the wealthy to assert social dominance, the private car heightens cultural inequities. “The automobile’s a credit card on wheels,” writes Heathcote Williams. “It’s pushy to tell people how much you make, so you tell ’em through your automobile.”

While allowing the rich to flaunt their status, the private car also shields drivers from “undesirables.” During a stop in Portland as part of research for Bianca Mugyenyi and my book Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay an Oregonian columnist writing about street youth shared a reader’s letter detailing the lengths he went to avoid the homeless. In the morning he entered work through the underground parking. At lunch he eschewed the nearby restaurants and slipped into his car to avoid panhandlers. Finally, he used the parkade exit to avoid street people on his way home from work. “Many of us, myself included,” a businessman from northeast Portland emailed the paper, “drive garage (home) to garage (downtown) to garage (home) and never leave the building because of this [street youth] problem…It’s easier just not to deal with it.”

One reason some choose personal vehicles over public transit is to avoid the poor or perceived social inferiors. A couple years ago a union colleague strongly implied that was why he didn’t take the bus to work. In Down the Asphalt Path Clay McShane writes about the history of the elite’s disdain for public transit riders: “Trolleys were dirty, noisy, and overcrowded. It was impossible for middle-class riders to isolate themselves from fellow riders whom they perceived as social inferiors. Distancing themselves from blacks, immigrants, blue collar workers, and, in general those stereotyped as the ‘great unwashed,’ was often precisely why the middle classes had moved to the [streetcar] suburbs.”

The private car has made it possible for the wealthier to live far from the poor (or anyone else without an automobile). Partly to keep “undesirables” out, many suburban municipalities have blocked transit projects from their boundaries or underinvested in mass transit.

A 2013 study looking at how social mobility varies across US cities found that the poor are less likely to rise the socio-economic ladder the more residents are geographically segregated. In other words, the further apart different social classes live the more entrenched inequality becomes. The “Equality of Opportunity Project” study shows that relatively compact cities such as San Francisco, New York and Boston have greater social mobility than more sprawling counterparts Memphis, Detroit and Atlanta. In relatively transit and pedestrian oriented San Francisco, for instance, someone born into the poorest fifth of income distribution had an 11 per cent chance of reaching the top fifth while in car-oriented Atlanta this number was only four per cent.

At a global level the world’s poorest are the chief victims of the climate crisis. Automobiles are a major source of Canada’s extremely high per capita carbon emissions. Transport represents over 40 per cent of Toronto and Montréal’s greenhouse gas emissions and in both cities it’s growing while other sectors decline.

Although hardest hit by climate change, the terrible irony is that Africa among all continents is least responsible for the problem. Per capita emissions in most African countries amount to barely one per cent of Canada’s rate, yet the Climate Vulnerability Monitor concludes that climate disturbances are already responsible for 400,000 deaths per year, mostly in Africa. Nigerian ecologist Nnimmo Bassey has dubbed growing carbon emissions a “death sentence for Africa.”

Overwhelmed by capitalist culture and enmeshed with unions tied to automobile production, socialist parties and movements have largely failed to challenge car-oriented transport for exacerbating inequities. Much the same could be said for an environmental movement highly dependent on rich philanthropists.

If we want a more egalitarian society, we must reverse geographical segregation and build communities and cities where people can get around without the private automobile. Tolls that discourage driving can be one step in accomplishing this.

Urban areas liberated from the danger, pollution and ecological devastation of the private car enjoy both heightened quality of life and equality of residents. Proportionately, poor people benefit the most.

This is the third in a four-part series on the ‘Great Toronto toll debate.’

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Auto industry requires massive public subsidies to survive

When are capitalists in favour of public ownership? When it earns them a profit. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than when looking at car companies.

As auto interests have pocketed stupendous profits over the past century they’ve also pushed to socialize huge amounts of urban land. While this may contradict textbook economics, capitalists often prioritize socialized costs/privatized profits over “free markets.”

Ignorance of the auto industrial complex’ drive to socialize public space was highlighted in a number of leftists’ recent criticism of tolling two Toronto highways. Bemoaning Mayor John Tory’s “neoliberal policies” and “neoliberal lens of public infrastructure,” Nora Loreto argued the tolls might pave the way to privatization. “Getting people used to paying to use the Gardiner and the DVP [Don Valley Parkway] would make it possible to start talking about full-scale privatization of these roads,” she wrote. “If you’re opposed to privatization, a toll plan under a right-wing administration is effectively creeping privatization. If you can’t put that cat back into the bag, do everything you can to not let it escape in the first place.”

While it’s not inconceivable the city would privatize the Gardiner and DVP, the broader concern reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the auto industrial complex (car, tire, oil, asphalt, etc. companies, as well as big box retailers and suburban developers). Cars are produced for profit, owned by private individuals, but are completely dependent upon public roads. It is even hard to conceive of a large-scale privately owned road network. While there are a good number of toll highways financed and operated by private corporations, it is almost impossible to envision an entire city road system — let alone that of a province or nation — financed and operated privately. Simply put, cars need roads and the state must pay for them; otherwise most of us would still be riding public transit because an unsubsidized private automobile would be too expensive and too inefficient.

The private car’s ability to offload costs onto the public is at the heart of its rise to dominance. German auto historian Winfried Wolf explains: “In road transport there is a possible separation, based on modern technology, between the transport infrastructure (the motorway or road) and the means of transport (the car, truck etc.) This transport technology can therefore be easily organized according to the principle of private appropriation of profit, socialization of costs and losses. Private profits are appropriated by the vehicle manufacturers, the insurance companies, and the motorway construction firms; costs are socialized by means of public financing of motorway construction, policing, hospitalization of the injured and repairs to the environment.”

Out of every economic sector, the auto industry receives by far the most public support. In 2001, reports Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning, the world’s 30 richest governments spent $1.1 trillion (1,100,000,000,000) on road transport. The costs of auto infrastructure are so great Carfree Cities claims: “The savings on street maintenance in a car free city probably exceed the operating costs of the transport system.”

Curbside parking alone sucks up tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies each year. A century ago North American cities began devoting tens of millions of dollars to widen streets and cut down trees to increase parking space. Today it’s hard to find a street without space for curb parking, which the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup, argues, “may be the most costly subsidy Americans cities provide for most of their citizens.”

For those of us of left-wing persuasion, it’s counterintuitive to call for the privatization of public lands. But, often the less public space there is in a neighbourhood, the more pleasant it is. And the less of a toll it takes on the planet. Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that we have trouble seeing it: Most public land in urban areas is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis.

Of the 40 per cent of Toronto that is public land, roadways make up 27.4 per cent, while parks and open spaces cover 13 per cent. Many beautiful, walkable, old cities have less than half as much public land. On the Old Urbanist blog Charlie Gardner writes, “the traditional city of narrow streets and small squares, typified by towns of medieval plan, find ten or fifteen per cent [public space] perfectly adequate.”

So, privatizing the arteries that feed the automotive cancer could lead to healthier, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable cities.

Or, an alliance of environmentalists, urbanists, public health advocates and housing rights activists could campaign to turn roadway into co-ops/social housing. But, a prerequisite for this type of “Leap Manifesto coalition” is leftists recognizing the need to move beyond the private automobile.

This is the second of a four part series on the “Great Toronto toll debate’.

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Are tolls a ‘flat tax’ or one step in building a sane (carless) society?

What’s left and what’s right? Usually it is obvious, but sometimes you have to take a step back and consider the bigger picture.

For example, the Toronto toll debate has exposed a lack of scrutiny of the leading source of corporate profit over the past century by many supposed leftists. Absent a political economy of the auto industrial complex, many Marxists have objectively allied themselves with the private car’s awesome political, cultural and ideological power.

“There is no progressive argument in favour of road tolls,” bellowed Nora Loreto, author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement, on Facebook. “I’m perplexed and confused by anyone purporting to be a progressive and at the same time supporting regressive taxes such as tolls or user fees”, wrote leftist former head of the Ontario Federation of Labour Sid Ryan. “How on earth are these taxes considered to be anything but a burden placed on the shoulders of working class people who use the Gardiner Expressway and DVP [Don Valley Parkway] to get to work.”

The tolls are no doubt a terrible idea. Anyone serious about livability, pollution, safety, lack of exercise, weakening corporate power or the climate crisis should demand both the Gardiner and DVP demolished. (41% of Toronto’s greenhouse gas emissions are from land transportation and despite dropping 24% in other sectors between 1990 and 2013 transport emissions rose 15%.) But, since getting rid of these expressways isn’t on the agenda, forcing drivers to pay a Tooney is a small jab at the ‘God-given right’ to take 3,000 pounds of metal 10, 30, 50, or 100 km a day without paying any road costs.

The stated plan is to spend the money raised on “transit” infrastructure. However much is channelled to Toronto Transit Commission projects will be socially useful while the funds devoted to roadway will not.

One objection cited to tolling the highways is that it would simply push vehicles on to alternative routes. It’s possible, but increasing costs or making driving less comfortable generally curtails car travel.

The primary “left” criticism, explains Loreto, is that it’s a “flat tax that roots out those who can pay from those who can’t pay.” To the extent lower income folks take these two highways that’s correct, but driving and income are inversely correlated. Poorer people own fewer vehicles and drive less.

Calling a toll a “flat tax” is a tacit acceptance of a transport system where roads, highways and parking are endlessly subsidized (through public funds or hidden in prices everyone pays in higher store prices, rent, etc.). Few call fees at Canada Post, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Sasktel, Toronto Hydro, Toronto Transit Commission, etc. a “flat tax”. Yet, at least hydro is a greater necessity – to cook or stay warm – than driving a highway.

Left-wing opposition to tolls disregards the longstanding financial incentives, notably road and mortgage subsidies, for people to purchase large single-family suburban homes. But, it’s also a brazen denial of auto hegemony. Toll critics act as if their opposition doesn’t contribute to rightists’ wild attacks against bike paths, trolleys, car-free days, etc. It’s as if former mayor Rob Ford didn’t denounce a supposed “war on cars” and the leader of the provincial Conservatives isn’t seeking to restrict Toronto’s right to raise revenue from its own highways by saying the move would “start a war of tolls” between Ontario municipalities (amen to that).

Objectively, toll opponents are taking the side of the auto industrial complex — car, oil, tire, asphalt, insurance, etc. companies, as well as big box retailers, appliance makers and suburban developers — having fallen victim to the car’s immense ideological/cultural/political power. Since the early 1900s the auto industrial complex has funded consumer groups and university programs. The highly profitable sector has also produced films, pamphlets and books promoting roads and depicting automobiles as a barometer of progress.

Far and away the largest advertisers, car companies have conquered nearly every sphere of human consciousness. Whether you’re at a party, online, at the mall, playing videogames, at the movies or writing checks, there is an endless promotion of both brand names and automobility.

The auto industrial complex is a powerhouse of colossal proportions in their dealings with the media. “Top auto executives hold frequent, off-the-record meetings with the nation’s leading publishers and editors, enjoying a level of access that most politicians can only dream of,” writes Keith Bradford former Detroit bureau chief of the New York Times. When unhappy with editorial decisions car companies have repeatedly pulled their advertising.

Disregarding the political climate when criticizing tolls is highly disingenuous. It’s akin to those who oppose university fees for women’s centres without discussing patriarchy or criticizing First Nations tax breaks without mentioning the land theft, pass system, residential schools, etc. Simply put, blanket condemnation of tolls reinforces an unjust, unhealthy and ecocidal transport/urban planning status quo.

Most leftists opposed to the tolls say they support expanding public transit. To overcome private automobility we unquestionably need major investments in new light rail, metro lines, bus lanes, bike paths, as well as incentives for employment near transit, car free streets and an end to car centric zoning. But, the car won’t be dethroned without also increasing its costs (be it highway or street tolls, luxury vehicle fees, registration fees, parking fees, higher gas taxes, etc.). The short term financial inequities of some of these measures can be mitigated through tax rebates, as well as free transit passes, prioritizing transit services in working-class neighborhoods and building social housing near transit hubs.

To be “progressive” in 2016 must include a political commitment to upending a transport/urban planning system structured around the private automobile.

This is the first in a four-part series on the ‘Great Toronto toll debate’.

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A first step in ending global warming — ban automobile ads

A Metro should never be wrapped in car ads.

On this past week, the whole front of Montréal’s Metro paper promoted Kia. All of page 2 and the back of a paper targeted at the city’s transit riders also promoted an unhealthy, lethal, inefficient and utterly unsustainable mode of transportation.

Incredibly, public transit systems regularly glorify the private automobile. Car ads are not uncommon on buses or in metros. During a trip to Philadelphia a few years ago, the great hall at the city’s beautiful old train station was covered with a 50 ft x 30 ft car ad. It seemed more than a little out of place. Would you see a promotion for trains at a car dealership?

On the contrary, the automotive industry has regularly disparaged mass transit. In the mid-1990s GM ran ads in US subways with pictures of the Aurora under the headline “Tear Up Your Monthly Pass” while more recently BMW covered bus shelters with the statement: “In the land of the bus shelter the guy with a car is king.” Numerous TV and online auto spots have depicted men unable to find dates because they bike or ride the bus and don’t have cars.

The auto industry has long been the biggest advertiser. Whether you’re at a party, online, at the mall, playing videogames, at the movies or even writing checks, there is an endless promotion of both brand names and automobility. Car advertisers have conquered nearly every sphere of human consciousness.

The scope of the industry’s promotion can be startling. On May 14 2007 Montreal daily La Presse devoted 43 pages entirely to cars: a twenty six page auto section; an eight page Mercedes broadsheet pullout; an eight page Mazda supplement in tabloid format.

There was also a full page car ad as well as a Porsche ad taking up a tenth of a page (in an eight page sports section). In addition to the 43 pages entirely devoted to cars, the front page of the business section had a seventh of a page devoted to a Hyundai dealership ad.

Add to this the eight page Actuel section where nearly half a page was dedicated to auto classifieds. In the sixteen page front section, a fifth of page two was an Accura ad; an eighth of a page five was another Acccura ad; a third of a page nine was a Ford ad; a sixth of page ten was a Lexus ad; more than half of page eleven was a Honda dealership ad; and nearly half of page twelve was a Chevrolet ad. Finally, three quarters of page sixteen was devoted to Subaru.

Imagine if all the money used to sell cars were put into promoting cycling and mass transit. To even the playing field, health and environmental agencies could run public education campaigns describing the private automobiles’ dangers, pollutants, space consumption, financial burdens, toll on the climate, etc. Malmö Sweden, for instance, ran a “No Ridiculous Car Trips” campaign to reduce journeys of less than five kilometres.

Public transit agencies should be pushed to devote their space to anti-car messages. How about covering light rail with: “Cars Pollute. Take the Train” or buses with: “Free the City. Kill the Car”. Transit authorities could also give bike makers a discount to put up messages that challenge the cultural dominance of the automobile. Heck, maybe Nike would pay to cover bus stops with “Just Do It. Ditch your car.”

Those who want a landscape more amenable to pedestrians, cyclists and trolley riders must challenge the promotion of a product many times more damaging than cigarettes. Car advertising should be (as with tobacco) steadily eliminated (and immediately appropriated).

The dominant media, ad agencies, and carmakers will no doubt resist bitterly so let’s build momentum towards this end by prodding media outlets with ethical advertising guidelines (campus newspapers, green groups etc.) to get rid of car ads. Public transit agencies should also be encouraged to reject auto advertising.

In a world where temperature records are broken each month, advertising cars should be criminal.

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Unions will thrive if they promote alternative to capitalism

At their finest labour unions are class conscious organizations that check the corporate elite’s influence over public policy. But, even the best Canadian unions have largely failed to provide an alternative vision to the existing system and challenge the power of big business over important areas of our lives.

Alongside collective-bargaining activities, unions have spearheaded efforts to expand the Canadian Pension Plan and Employment Insurance coverage, to raise minimum wages and to improve labour laws. While these campaigns have directly benefited all workers, unions have also been heavily involved in fights for Medicare and public daycare, programs that serve a wider interest than just people who work for a living.

Over the past few decades most unions have devoted resources to combating sexism, racism and homophobia. They have done so out of a sense of solidarity and an understanding, built upon internal union struggles, that these forms of oppression take their toll on many members and society in general.

But unfortunately unions have generally deferred to the business class regarding much of the social, cultural and even economic sphere. Advertising provides a striking example of this implicit class compromise. On a typical day most people come across hundreds of ads, which greatly influence their consumption habits and social outlook. Additionally, a media sphere funded through advertising gives corporations significant leverage over the news agenda (companies regularly pull or threaten to pull ads when they are unhappy about a story and simply refuse to advertise in leftist media outlets). Yet most unions have little to say about this expression of capitalist power or the particularly acute psychological burden advertising places on low-income people. Few (if any) unions have called for blanket restrictions on destructive corporate advertising. In fact, some unions representing media workers have called for more advertising. In response to layoffs at the Toronto Star two years ago, a union representative was quoted in a release saying, “Why cut ad staff when the thing we need most is more ads?”

In another example of how unions concede much of the social/cultural/economic arena to big business, they have given a free pass to the private automobile even though orienting our living spaces around cars is particularly damaging to working class interests.

As the least accessible and most expensive form of land transportation, car-dominated transport eats up a disproportionate amount of working-class income. Rather than promoting cars, unions should be promoting access to employment, lodging and goods by foot, bike or mass transit as this would greatly benefit lower income people, as well as society in general.

But why not “cars for all” some might ask. One important answer is the environment. A transportation system based on the private automobile is simply not sustainable. Preventing global warming requires drastically reducing the number of cars.

But even aside from the critical environmental question cars are bad for ordinary people.

For example, the automobile gives wealthy people an important means to assert their dominance through their fancy vehicle. This has been an important factor since the dawn of the auto age. Even before they had significant utility, cars grew to prominence as technological toys for the rich. As the technology advanced and the infrastructure was laid, the car became popular among the wealthy because it strengthened their dominance over mobility, which had been slightly undermined by rail.

(Prior to the train’s ascendance in the mid-1800s, the elite traveled by (the very expensive) private horse and buggy. With respect to mobility, the train and streetcar blurred class lines. Unlike the train and streetcar, which were more available to all classes of society, the automobile provided an exclusive form of travel.)

The automobile’s capacity to create social distance appealed to early car buyers and continues to appeal to supporters of inequality. In a car, one can remain separate from perceived social inferiors (blue-collar workers, immigrants, etc.) while in transit.

Unions have largely ignored the ways in which the private car strengthen wealthy people’s grip over mobility and culture — to be fair so has much of the so-called left. Even the financial burden that a car-dominated transportation system places on the working class has seldom been challenged.

In fact, many unions contribute to automotive hegemony by locating their offices in auto-dependent suburbs, subsidizing staff parking and providing car allowances (over $10 000 a year) to employees who have no work-related reason for a vehicle. In a particularly disturbing example of this pro-car attitude, Unifor calls for greater public subsidies for auto manufacturing and for individuals to “buy a car”.

Most union leaders and officials seem largely indifferent to capitalist dominance over culture/space. For them, the class struggle (they might not use this term) is generally confined to the relations of production and getting ‘more’ stuff (not necessarily more power or even a better life) for members.

But rather than simply accept corporate dominance over culture and the status quo in the way something as important as our transportation system functions unions should fight for something better. They should offer an alternative, a vision of the good life in an environmentally sustainable economy.

As the corporate elite drive us towards an ecological precipice, it’s more important than ever for members and activists within unions to push for a broader definition of class struggle. If we don’t, there may be no good jobs left for our grandchildren.

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