(Driven to Destruction is a series outlining how America became so dependent on the personal automobile, and how we must break this dependency if we want to create a sustainable way of life for future generations.)

As the horror of the Gulf oil spill unfolds, the fingers are pointing at BP, the Coast Guard, Congress, the President, Sarah Palin, and everyone who has ever shouted “drill, baby, drill.” But how many people are turning their hands around and pointing at themselves, at the individual consumer?

It is perhaps our biggest blind spot as a culture. We rarely include our own consumer choices in the blame games that inevitably follow corporate catastrophes. Each time we fill up our tanks; each time we do some driving that we don’t have to do; and each time we choose our cars over public transportation – we are empowering the BPs and Exxons of the world to inflict the destruction they so often inflict.

Ironically, the reason we don’t take individual responsibility for our corporate failures is that we are too individualistic. We are so focused on ourselves that cannot see how our personal decisions factor into the larger systems of society. It’s not that BP and the politicians who pushed for deregulation are not to blame. They most definitely are. Our blind spot is that we do not see ourselves as part of the oil industry (even though we buy their gasoline) or as part of the government (even though we are the ones who vote them into power).

This head-in-the-sand version of American individualism has it origins in the first colonists who came over from Europe. These immigrants sought freedom from tyranny and religious oppression, and they forged a new life in a harsh and lonely environment. These same circumstances were faced by the pioneers who forged westward in later centuries.

On these frontiers, rugged individualism was required for survival. But so was a strong sense of communalism. Both the original colonists and the pioneers banded together in tight communities to survive threats such as harsh winters and Native American attacks. This combination of self-reliance and community dependence forged the spirit that propelled the United States to eventually become the most powerful nation in the world.

By the end of the 19th century, however, most Americans no longer faced a frontier existence. Life was by no means easy, but it did not require the same sense of immediate community that earlier generations needed to survive. As a result, people had more freedom to make their own way in the world, giving rise to the myth of the self-made man – the Alger hero who creates his own success through hard work and perseverance. So the individualism of the early settlers was retained, but the communalism gradually faded.

All of which laid the foundation for the development of the car culture. As the twentieth century unfolded, technological advances made the personal car affordable for a majority of Americans – and a century long love-affair was launched. As has been detailed in earlier installments of Driven to Destruction, our oil addiction has been fueled by advertising, corporate shenanigans, and massive government spending. But the spark that created the fire was provided by this innate sense of individualism, by this love of personal freedom and the illusion of self-reliance.

Today, this individualism is a hollow shell of the spirit that allowed the early settlers to survive and expand. We have more or less forgotten about the community side of the equation. Instead, we have elevated the self and our selfish desires to god-like status. Among other things, this modern form of idolatry leads us to believe that we have the right to drive anywhere we want, anytime we want, without having to consider the costs.

This distorted form of individualism has led us to brink of disaster, and it prevents us from understanding our own culpability. The oil industry lives and breathes because we continue to buy their gas. The government turns a blind eye to their negligence because we as citizens don’t hold them accountable. But somehow, we as citizens and consumers see ourselves as victims rather than partners in the crime.

Perhaps the solution lies in returning to the complete version of that frontier spirit. The early settlers knew that their survival depended on a combination of individual responsibility and corporate accountability. In coming installments of Driven to Destruction, we will explore some ways that our culture can begin to reclaim this communal sensibility, and ways that we can develop transportation for the future that does not result in the many layers of devastation we see today.

(Driven to Destruction is a series outlining how America became so dependent on the personal automobile, and how we must break this dependency if we want to create a sustainable way of life for future generations.)

As the horror of the Gulf oil spill unfolds, the fingers are pointing at BP, the Coast Guard, Congress, the President, Sarah Palin, and everyone who has ever shouted "drill, baby, drill." But how many people are turning their hands around and pointing at themsleves, at the individual consumer?

It is perhaps our biggest blind spot as a culture. We rarely include our own consumer choices in the blame games that inevitably follow corporate catastrophes. Each time we fill up our tanks; each time we do some driving that we don’t have to do; and each time we choose our cars over public transportation – we are empowering the BPs and Exxons of the world to inflict the destruction they so often inflict.

Ironically, the reason we don’t take individual responsibility for our corporate failures is that we are too individualistic. We are so focused on ourselves that cannot see how our personal decisions factor into the larger systems of society. It’s not that BP and the politicians who pushed for deregulation are not to blame. They most definitely are. Our blind spot is that we do not see ourselves as part of the oil industry (even though we buy their gasoline) or as part of the government (even though we are the ones who vote them into power).

This head-in-the-sand version of American individualism has it origins in the first colonists who came over from Europe. These immigrants sought freedom from tyranny and religious oppression, and they forged a new life in a harsh and lonely environment. These same circumstances were faced by the pioneers who forged westward in later centuries.
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Jim Moss

Jim Moss