“1899” Was ***NOT*** The Good Old Days

I was thinking I did not have a blog post idea for today.

Then I saw this…

[From Instagram.]

Here is the caption explaining that. Frankly, it could not be more unanchored from reality. It made my jaw drop:

Since 1899, more than 3.6 million people have died in traffic accidents in the United States, and more than 80 million have been injured. The road has emerged as the setting for our most violent illustrations of systemic racism, combustion engines have helped create a climate crisis, and the quest for oil has led our soldiers into war. When the people of the future look back at our century of auto life, will they regard it as a useful stage of forward motion or as a wrong turn? At the link in our bio, Nathan Heller contemplates the age of driving, which, he writes, may be merely a cul-de-sac in transportation history.

If the full article by that Mr. Heller is anything like that, I am sorry but I hardly know where to begin with such drivel. I suppose to start I would term it “presentism” – meaning essentially interpreting where we think we are this morning without actually attempting to factor in from where we have come to get to this morning.

Meaning how about history? The internal combustion engine on which we now rely simply cannot be viewed in isolation without any thought given to what had been before it. It is not as if it had not existed we would all dwell in immaculate urban pedestrianized New Yorker-style cartoon locales where everyone is cycling and doing yoga and going to therapy.

Wars over resources (the ancient Greek city-states fought over olive tree farms, for goodness sakes) have always taken place. Roads have always existed (except they used animal power or human leg power) and they have always been locations that included lawlessness and violence. And racism?: If we are going to talk about “violent illustrations of systemic racism,” The New Yorker has obviously missed that North American race-based slavery existed for nearly 300 years BEFORE the invention of the car… and was ended ONLY a generation after steam-powered travel had begun to take hold on land with railroads.

[Here in the UK, the steering wheel is on the right side of our car. So you drive on the left side of the road. Photo by me, April 2020.]

Driving as a cul-de-sac? What? The car, invented in the 1880s-1890s, and which began to take consumer hold in the U.S. in 1899, was actually THE START of a transportation revolution and global change that merely (thankfully) continues.

To recall a few important fundamental life realities as to what has changed. In 1899, the US population was less than 1/3 of today’s. Life expectancy was still around age 40. *Real* poverty (by today’s standards) was commonplace. In cities many of those impoverished were crowded into unsanitary, barely habitable tenements (where as New Yorkers many of our grand, great-grand and great-great-grandparents lived and even some died NOT FAR from The New Yorker’s office today) to be able to be *near* their workplaces – often earning only cents a day – because mostly they had to walk to get anywhere, and their work was often filthy and far more dangerous than even the worst work today, topped off by the fact that medical care as we know it was mostly non-existent. Even drinking water still could be dangerous.

Life before the car was much more static than since its widespread adoption. (MOST Americans STILL died in the COUNTY where they had been born.) The internal combustion engine was embraced IN THAT WORLD because it allowed a freedom for ORDINARY people not to live just walking distance from where they worked and to “spread out,” including to have access to better housing and more HEALTHFUL personal living. The appearance about the same time of trucking would vastly improve supply chains so goods could be moved faster and to places trains did not go and consequently incomes and jobs increased, too. Public safety improved as well as law enforcement became more mobile. Electricity (generated mostly from gas or oil) powered street lights better, thus making streets safer than ever before at nights. Medical treatment improved too as the first true ambulances appeared enabling quick transport (also thanks to the invention of the telephone) to also vastly improving hospitals. Above all most everyone, including Black Americans, could get in a car in, say, Jackson, Mississippi, with all their worldly possessions, and drive to Chicago or New York to seek better work, and better everything, whereas their ancestors had lived, or been held enslaved, in more or less the same isolated, rural, and impoverished place for generations.

[1929 memorial to the enslaved persons of Mount Vernon. Photo by me, 2011.]

The list goes on. For all of the downsides, uncountable millions of Americans – along with billions of others around the world – who would never have lived have lived BECAUSE of the automobile. And nearly all of us now living have lived for a century in greater comfort and with more mobility as individuals than any previous humans on the whole EVER DID for all of HISTORY only BECAUSE of the internal combustion engine.

Cars moving faster than any previous means of land transport has cost some lives over the last 120 years of course, but those ACCIDENTS must be measured against the reality that cars overall have IMPROVED most everyone’s lives.

It goes well beyond just that fueled engine in a car, too. For example, airplanes criss-cross the globe not just for trade, but also for HUMAN interaction. It could certainly be argued that since mass air travel began to appear around 1960 – allowing so many of us now ORDINARY people to visit distant places casually that our ancestors only read or heard about – ignorance of other peoples and places has dropped off in ways that may have helped PREVENT some wars and have even possibly PREVENTED World War III.

[A British Airways plane outside Heathrow Terminal 5. Photo by me, September 6, 2019.]

Air travel is what humans had DREAMED OF… forever, and we are privileged to benefit from and enjoy what is possibly the greatest invention of all time. (Although doubtless The New Yorker would choose to point to plane crashes as a reason that planes are not a good idea also.) Global travel that airplanes have made possible is the main reason we now increasingly think and talk about a “global community” at all. So leave it to this generation of historically illiterate presentists who purport to be “globalists” to forget from where that “global” mentality comes from and to act as if air travel has always been around, take it for granted and even to disparage it.

The New Yorker seems one of those that have on this issue managed to have forgotten human existence pre-1899. Moving to cleaner energy to power cars and other transport is a great idea, but let us also remember why the internal combustion engine was embraced in the first place and why it was/is still adored. “1899” stank for most Americans (and most others around the world) in ways that today NONE of us would really want to endure if we had to trade places with them if we truly bothered to learn something about how they, our ancestors, REALLY lived then… before the automobile.

On that note, I return now to proofing more of my coming novel that ends around “1815” – long before cars and planes.

Have a good Thursday, wherever you are.