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By Arjun Makhijani
Transcript of radio commentary that aired recently on KUNM public radio 89.9 fm in Albuquerque
Hello, I’m Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. The start of the war on Iraq is a brutal reminder that oil is a major driving force in global violence. Burning oil also creates half of all carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use.
Much of the US story of the spectacular rise in oil consumption relates to transportation. Some of that in turn is about General Motors. Starting in the 1920s, GM began to undermine electrically-powered public transportation systems. In New York City, the world’s largest electric streetcar system was converted to oil-fueled buses in only 18 months. Looking at the Los Angeles area today, one wouldn’t guess that in 1940 it had the world’s largest inter-urban electric train system. The trains ran from Santa Ana in the South to San Bernadino in the East to San Fernando in the North.
From 1936 to 1949, a holding company organized by GM, Standard Oil of California, and others, bought up and economically subverted street-car systems in cities across the United States. In a 1949 trial, a federal jury in Chicago found GM guilty of criminally conspiring with Standard Oil of California and others. GM was fined just $5,000. Its treasurer, who had played a key role, was fined the princely sum of one dollar.
GM has never really made amends. On the contrary, GM and other car manufacturers have resisted efficiency standards for cars even as the specter of terrible climate change hangs over the Earth. They resist mileage standards by appealing to safety. They resist safety standards by saying it would hurt efficiency. It’s essential to pressure corporations to live up to their responsibilities, even if the federal government refuses to set mileage standards.
GM should voluntarily commit itself to produce a safe and non-polluting passenger vehicle fleet that would average 60 miles per gallon by the year 2010. Chevron/Texaco, the corporate heir to Standard Oil of California, needs to make some restitution to society also. Perhaps it could donate bicycle paths to the cities where it helped destroy public transportation systems.
We must all do more individually to reduce the use of petroleum. But that will not be enough. It is also essential to put pressure corporations so that they do their part for the dramatic reduction in oil consumption that the world urgently needs. Pressuring GM would be a good place to start. For more on war, climate change, and oil, visit the web site of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, www.ieer.org. This is Arjun Makhijani.