Rationalising Automobility in the Face of Climate Change

by Laura Bang Lindegaard (Author)
Monographs 214 Pages
Series: Political and Social Change, Volume 2


The book investigates the negotiation of governmental rationalities of car-dependent life in the face of climate change. It appears that current forms of governing are bound up with a specific utilisation of the freedom of the governed. Accordingly, the book demonstrates how the governing of automobility unfolds as people account for and, hence, conduct their transportation practices. In this way, it unravels how villagers in a small Danish village negotiate a municipal strategy and conduct their transportation practices in ways that merely sustain the villagers’ already maintained car-dependent life forms.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Studies of governmentality
  • The Foucauldian heritage
  • Powers of freedom
  • Morality, rationality and regimes of practices
  • Discontinuities, contingencies and resistance
  • 3. Ethnomethodology
  • Garfinkel’s studies in ethnomethodology
  • Sacks on sequentiality and categorisation
  • Recent debates on sequentiality and categorisation
  • An endogenous approach to moral order
  • Politicising ethnomethodology
  • 4. Considering commensurability
  • 5. Site, data and approach
  • Land of Opportunity: Energy Village Horslunde
  • Focus group data and ethnomethodology
  • Analysing focus group data
  • 6. The conduct of transportation conduct
  • Biking, freedom and fulfilment
  • The inevitability of cars
  • Summary
  • 7. The negotiation of a transportation strategy
  • The utilisation of ‘someone else’
  • The utilisation of category membership
  • The utilisation of autonomous knowledge
  • Summary
  • 8. Reconsidering rationalities of automobility
  • Bibliography

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1. Introduction

When the Model T was launched, the owner of Ford Motors, Henry Ford, is known to have remarked that the consumers could get it in any colour they wanted as long as they wanted it in black. Ford’s Model T was the first automobile produced on moving assembly lines with completely interchangeable parts, and the introduction of this new mode of production is widely considered to have democratised automobility. With the reduced production costs, automobility was no longer restricted to the economic elite but affordable to the growing American middle class. Hence, even though the Model T was a standardised product that left the consumer with few alternatives, it quickly came to epitomise individual autonomy. Thanks to the wonder of assembly line production, the American consumer could get what he (or, rarely, she) wanted and go where he wanted, unrestricted by route plans and time schedules. He could go On The Road as Jack Kerouac famously did in the 1950s, and as generations have done ever since. Indeed, the fantasy of unhindered automobility extends well into the future where the automobile has transcended the last infrastructural restrictions on individual mobility and colonised the sky. Consider, for instance, the stark contrast between the streets below and the sky above the city of Los Angeles in Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic Blade Runner. While the streets of Los Angeles are crowded by an impassable mélange of people, objects and cultures, flying automobiles move unimpededly in the uncrowded sky above.

Today, a century after the introduction of the Model T, automobility has proved to be a severe, if not unsurpassable problem for contemporary Western societies. The physical infrastructure in larger cities is under constant pressure, and expansions of the existing capacity simply generate additional traffic and relocate the problem to a not so distant future. Ironically, then, the fascination with ‘the flying car’ in twentieth-century science fiction is not simply an extrapolation of the automobile’s technological development, but also, and perhaps foremost, an extrapolation of an inherent antagonism within automobility and a desire for a neat technological fix. Indeed, if automobility were in fact universalised, then the pursuit of individual mobility would probably terminate in infrastructural congestion and collective immobility. In addition to what are, after all, merely practical problems, automobility is intimately connected with contemporary societies’ dependency on fossil fuels and, by implication, the current climate crisis. According to Van der Hoeven et al. (2012), the transport sector accounted for twenty-two per cent of the world’s energy-related CO2 ← 9 | 10 → emissions in 2010, and road transportation accounted for almost three quarters of the transport sector’s overall emissions, and it is generally acknowledged that automotive mobility is a harmful co-constituent in the current crises (for instance, Böhm et al., 2006; Paterson, 2007; Urry, 2008 and 2011). Yet, automobility is still a, if not the, preferred mode of transportation in the West, and there is little to indicate that this will change in the foreseeable future. According to Urry (2004), Western societies are “locked in” in “systems of automobility”, that is, “self-organizing, self-generating, non-linear world-wide systems of cars, car-drivers, roads, petroleum supplies, and many novel objects, technologies, and signs” (27), and change will only happen if a whole range of minor, unpredictable turning points happen to happen at the same time, thereby causing a tipping point that will lead to new systems after the car (27).

Acknowledging the relevance of material configurations, this book suggests that social change (or the lack thereof) is not simply a consequence of the blind and unpredictable happenstance of complex systems, but also of traceable governmental rationalities at all levels. Drawing on both studies of governmentality and ethnomethodology, the book adds an as yet underdeveloped perspective to already existing research on automobility: it adds to the relatively few qualitative enquiries into the interdependency of current forms of mobility and climate change by suggesting that in order to properly understand this interdependency, it is necessary to go beyond a systems-oriented approach to automobility and focus also on how the governing of car-dependent living is mutually constituted as the government of others and the government of the self intersect in discursive interaction. Accordingly, the book reports on an empirical study of the execution of a municipal transportation strategy in a small village in Denmark, aiming at ‘greening’ the everyday transportation practices of its citizens. Through meticulous analyses of focus group data stemming from sessions with villagers both before and after the execution of the municipal strategy, the book aims at demonstrating two interrelated phenomena. Firstly, the analysis of data stemming from before the transportation strategy focuses on demonstrating the subtle ways in which the villagers rationalise their transportation conduct. Secondly, the analysis of data stemming from after the execution of the strategy focuses at demonstrating the discursive accomplishment of the contested intersection of, on the one hand, the municipal aim to conduct the transportation conduct of the villagers, thereby turning them into ‘green drivers’, and, on the other hand, the villagers’ resistance to having their conduct conducted. That is, the second part of the analysis shows that whereas the Municipality attempts to govern the citizens not by crushing their capacity to act, but by utilising it in getting the citizens to act differently (cf. Rose 1999), the citizens skilfully utilise this way of ← 10 | 11 → governing to rationalise their everyday practices, particularly, their transportation practices, as already being as sustainable as possible. Significantly, the analysis demonstrates how the villagers negotiate the municipal strategy in ways that merely sustain their memberships of ‘sustainable movers’ and, by implication, their car-dependent life-forms, and as such the book illuminates the ways in which our car-dependent living is bound up with a particular way of governing which relies on continuous processes of rationalisation.

Considering the blatant fact that automobility accounts for an extremely high amount of human-caused environmental pollution and CO2 emissions, it may be no surprise that energy use reduction and climate change mitigation currently feature prominently on the academic transport research agenda. Recent studies within this domain emphasise the need to broaden the research perspectives beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries in order to meet the challenges of the increasing climate and energy crises. For instance, both Schwanen et al. (2011) and Banister et al. (2012) speak from the point of view of transport studies, such as transport geography, but they both point out that transport research would benefit tremendously from insights, concepts and methods from other disciplines, the social sciences in particular. Considering such developments within transportation research, it may, on the contrary, be a slight surprise that there are still only relatively few studies focusing on energy use reduction and climate change mitigation within the more designated field of mobilities research and within the social sciences as such. However, there has been done some work concerning sustainable mobility (Dudley et al. 2011; Freudendal-Pedersen 2009), climate change and future fuel systems (Urry 2008 and 2011) and a little more concerning somehow critical automobility studies (Böhm et. al. 2006; Conley & McLaren 2009; Cresswell 2010; Paterson 2007; Scott 2013; Sheller & Urry 2000; Urry 2004).

Only a few of these works approach car-dependent living not prominently as an unpredictable, ‘innocent’ system, but rather as a regime that is mutually constituted by a particular way of governing dispersed at all levels. However, Böhm et al. (2009) provide a lucid argument that both acknowledges Urry’s paradigmatic work on systems of automobility and, importantly, complements it. In more detail, the volume starts with the observation that whereas the growing literature on automobility has provided a heightened understanding of the phenomenon, the inherent political dimensions of the phenomenon have mostly been neglected. Accordingly, the ambition of the volume is not only to theorise automobility, but, critically, to politicise it through a move from systems to regimes of automobility. Firstly, Böhm et al. consider the term ‘automobility’, suggesting that the word invokes an understanding of “a patterned system which is ← 11 | 12 → predicated in the most fundamental sense on a combination of notions of autonomy and mobility” (4). Drawing on Laclau and Mouffe’s concept of ‘chains of equivalence’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985), they point out that the relation between these aspects has been automaticised, even though it has no a priori necessity, and they stress that when they talk of a system of automobility, they talk of the somehow systematic and patterned way in which an array of social developments have contingently reinforced each other until a point when automobility seems not only possible but, in many instances, necessary (5). Secondly, however, Böhm et al. observe that the notion of a ‘system’ may provide an insufficient understanding of the contingent but powerful patterning of automobility. They point out that Urry’s notion of a viral, self-organising, autopoietic and non-linear system (for instance, Urry, 2004: 27) neglects or leaves out important and inevitable aspects of the phenomenon of automobility, dramatically underestimating the importance of different forms of collective human agency and political power (5). On the contrary, Böhm et al. suggest that it may be more fruitful to speak of regimes of automobility in that the notion of regimes makes it possible to maintain an orientation to automobility as somehow systematic (that is, as it will continuously be unfolded, capable of rationalising itself), but at the same time acknowledge and make available for enquiry the relations of power that co-construct the very sense of a patterned and necessary system (6). Hence, taking inspiration from Foucault, Böhm et al. unfold the notion of such a regime, proposing that it is co-constituted by the interrelated and mutually supportive elements of truth, power and subjectivity (6–9).

Also Paterson (2007) is concerned with automobility as being prominently a problem of governing through the conduct of conduct which is manifestly unsustainable in its current form (27). He stresses that contemporary automobility depends on a certain governmental power through which governments at one and the same time have succeeded in promoting and sustaining car-dependent transportation and in (re)producing the modern subject as ‘autonomously mobile’. He argues that the construction of a decidedly automobile subject is the pre-condition of automobility, as the subject is the automobile’s “principal daily agent” (165), and he emphasises that this produced subject takes on multiple forms and that its ongoing reproduction depends on the complex interplay of “popular cultural forms, daily practice, regulatory interventions, surveillance and resistance” (165). In this way, Paterson points to how the ‘liberated’ automobile subject is in fact produced and thus subjected to this liberation, thereby emphasising the double sense of automobility as simultaneously liberating and dominating (142). Accordingly, Paterson, too, is concerned with the lack of policy within Urryian systems theory. He observes that Urry’s “nicely turned ← 12 | 13 → phrases that automobility is ‘immensely flexible and wholly coercive’, or that automobility ‘coerces people into an intense flexibility’” (125) fail to pay attention to “the concrete decisions and the struggles over them which favoured automobility over its alternatives” (26) and beg the question of how it ended up this way (125). Hence, Paterson’s overall point is that if we really want to understand how automobility came to be as it is and, ultimately, how we end it, it is necessary to move beyond a systems approach and acknowledge that automobility is inevitably bound up with governing the subject (223–49).1


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 214 pp.

Biographical notes

Laura Bang Lindegaard (Author)

Laura Bang Lindegaard is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Culture and Global Studies and a member of the Centre for Discourses in Transition at Aalborg University, Denmark. She is interested in the governing of climate change and the moral ordering of everyday transportation practices.


Title: Congestion