How the Forces of Capital Got Us Where We Are

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

Quite recently, I offered some thoughts on the startling warm winter weather we’re having. While I talked about the probable impact of global warming (greenhouse gases), I didn’t directly address the sources of much of it.

Let’s be clear. Much of it, perhaps most, is cars. Some folks may be thinking—“uh oh—here he goes again with that back-to-nature, John Africa talk again. He actually wants us to give up our cars!” But how many of us know that in the good old days—say, in the first 20 years of the 20th century, cars were electric cars—run on batteries?

In the early third of the 20th century, most American mass transit was an electrical affair—relatively quiet, with far fewer pollutants being belched into the air.

What happened? Greed happened. Corporate crime happened. Then mass pollution happened. Writer and researcher Mark Zepezauer, in his brilliant 2004 book , Take the Rich Off Welfare (Cambridge, Ma.: South End Press), tells the story with brevity and clarity, as he writes:

“The extent to which automobiles dominate our lives didn’t just happen by accident—at least part of it was the result of a criminal conspiracy. Back in the early 1930s, most people living in cities got around on electric streetcars. Concerned that this wasn’t the kind of environment in which they could sell a lot of [cars and] buses, General Motors (GM), using a series of front companies, began buying up streetcar systems, tearing out the tracks, buying buses from itself, and then selling the new, polluting bus systems back to the cities—usually with contracts that prohibited the purchase of “any equipment using fuel or means of propulsion other than gas.” Sometimes the contracts required that the new owners buy all their replacement buses from GM.

“GM was soon joined by Greyhound, Firestone Tire and Rubber, Standard Oil of California (also called Chevron), and Mack Trucks. In 1949—after these companies had destroyed more than 100 streetcar systems in over 40 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oakland, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Salt Lake City—GM, Chevron, and Firestone were convicted of a criminal conspiracy to restrain trade. They were fined $5,000 each, and the executives who organized the scheme were fined $1.00 each.” [p. 139]

Boy—what does that tell you about “equal justice under law”?

(Speaking of John Africa, I’m reminded of the opening words of his The Judges Letter, which reads, “The courts are the tools of industrial plague, granting big business privilege to poison our earth.”)

There are some 520 million cars in the world today; 200 million (38.5 percent!) are driven in the U.S. The U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, and drives nearly 40 percent of the cars.

When we are faced with the chilling spectacle of global warming, with the rising of the oceans along with temperatures, and with the very real threat to coastal cities and populations all around the world, there’s a reason for it.

And some big U.S. businesses made plenty of money off it. The pollution in our lungs, the warming air currents melting the arctic snow and creating rising sea levels, the very same man-made temperature changes that have spawned stronger, more destructive hurricanes was translated into billions of dollars in U.S. corporate coffers, amassed over decades. It is the very essence of capitalism.

It didn’t have to be this way. It could’ve been very different.

Only people, awake and aware—and determined to build a new world, can begin to change it.

Time is running out for over a half-billion people, whose living space is seriously threatened with flooding. It’s not too late to reverse this monstrous trend. But, it can’t be kept for later.

Copyright Mumia Abu-Jamal, January 14, 2007