The Black Heart of Suburbia

In April, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and US Senator Edward Markey pledged to reintroduce the Green New Deal, intended to enable divestment from fossil fuels, stimulate jobs in renewable industries, and spur the decarbonisation of America’s economy by 2050.

An encouraging development within mainstream environmentalism, the Green New Deal commits to considerable levels of public investment in renewable energy and green infrastructure. However, like many social-democratic solutions to climate change, it is underpinned by a Keynesian assumption that technical fixes, rather than broader structural changes, are the key to solving political problems. Much of modern environmentalism is impeded by a naive technological utopianism that commits to elaborate spending plans on major green infrastructure projects, remaining oblivious to the fact that a broader reorganisation of society is required to reverse the effects of climate change. Spending millions of dollars on the rollout of electric vehicles does little to dissuade the use of cars, create cycle lanes, or to change the fact that vast swathes of America were designed to enable car usage.

In fact, much of American society, from rampant consumerism to dependency on artificially enhanced food from chemical and agricultural corporations, is based around providing a consumer market for the products of the petroleum industry, which rose to prominence in the aftermath of World War II, securing both domestic and international success. To understand the extent to which American consumer capitalism has become inextricably linked with the power of petroleum, it is necessary to trace the emergence of the fossil fuel industry to the post-War era, in which the United States sought to dominate the world through the exertion of financial and military power. 

American dominance in the post-war era involved achieving two aims which would safeguard the untrammelled might of the oil industry: firstly, the transition from a world economy based on coal to one based on oil, which would disintegrate organised labour and subjugate European powers to American hegemony via dependency on the dollar for ERP funds; secondly, a culture of consumerism based on constructing identical suburbs whose value was kept high by segregation and redlining, alongside widespread car ownership which necessitated a drastic change in the layout of America’s cities.

The dollar would become the predominant global currency, in which the values of all other currencies were to be expressed, facilitating the construction of a geopolitical settlement based on the flow of Middle Eastern oil into European countries, who would buy the products of American petroleum companies using dollars. Though commonly misconstrued as an example of great power benevolence, in which the United States generously rebuilt the economies of Western Europe to ensure mutual peace and prosperity in the aftermath of history’s bloodiest conflict, the Marshall Plan prostrated European economies to American influence. Tim Mitchell, in his book Carbon Democracy, described the process whereby the militancy of coal miners was curtailed, and the reorientation of the global economic order took place. He wrote:

“The corporatised democracy of postwar Western Europe was to be built on this reorganisation of energy flows. ERP funds helped pay for building oil refineries and installing oil-fired industrial boilers, putting in place the infrastructure needed to convert from coal to oil. The US encouraged the building of roads, gave ERP countries $432.5 million to purchase American vehicles, and subsidised Italian and French car manufacturers.”

Between 1948 and 1951, more than half the oil sold to Western European countries by American companies was paid for by funds gained from the Marshall Plan. Companies such as Standard Oil and representatives of the Rockefeller family had lobbied Congress for the Marshall Plan to be approved, with the end goal being not to create prosperity, but to ensure dependency.

Crucially, the switch from coal to oil had the advantage of changing the relationship between energy and labour. Previously, with coal-dominated economies, labour had been concentrated in certain areas, with economies of scale accruing around coal deposits, largely in Central Europe. But with the advent of oil, the atomisation of organised labour was made possible. Oil, unlike coal, could be extracted from the Earth using a relatively small workforce, supervised at close quarters. Pumping stations and pipelines, unlike railways, did not require overseers to constantly monitor production and transportation processes, meaning that it was far easier to neutralise the power of an otherwise militant labour force. To quote from Mitchell again:

“In the case of oil, the capacity to slow down or interrupt the supply of energy on a large scale was much harder to organise. Oil workers found it difficult to carry out a successful sabotage — a difficulty that would impede their efforts to build with oil an enduring mechanism for advancing democratic political claims.”

He also wrote:

“Compared to carrying coal by rail, moving oil by sea eliminated the labour of coal heavers and stokers, and thus the power of organised workers to withdraw their labour from a critical point in the energy system.”

The aftermath of World War II demonstrated the effectiveness of these tactics; not only was labour subordinated to capital by the Taft Hartley Act, which aimed to suppress ‘Communist’ infiltration alongside other draconian provisions, but a clear path to global American hegemony had been established. A wave of strikes had succeeded FDR’s New Deal; in 1945, 3.5 million workers took part in 4,750 strikes across the US, as General Motors, in addition to steel and electrical industries, witnessed a sustained period of labour militancy unrivalled in US history. 

Therefore, the introduction of the Marshall Plan and conversion of the economy from coal to oil can be seen as part of a wider initiative to subdue workers’ autonomy, which also included buying off union leaders by offering pay increases in exchange for uninterrupted production and relative docility. The post-War era, despite being widely regarded as an era of high wage growth and untrammelled prosperity, in fact, according to Michael Yates, created “an ideologically loyal and industrially moderate labour movement, which bargained for concessions without challenging basic dispositions of a business society.”

The emergence of the USA from the War as the world’s preeminent economic force carried with it the untrammelled power of the petroleum industry, in a domestic context, as well as internationally. American oil wells and refineries had supplied six out of every seven barrels of oil used by the Allies during WWII, and between 1948 and 1972, domestic oil consumption tripled from 5.8 to 16.4 million barrels per day. In a 1950 report, Conoco (The Continental Oil Company) told its shareholders that “the main contributing factor to the high level of business activity of the country was the continued high demand for housing and automobiles, two industries which vitally affect the consumption of petroleum products.”

From 1947 until 1960, the motor and petroleum sectors produced one-third of all manufacturing expenditures. The booming automobile industry employed 19% of the total workforce, facilitating a considerable advancement in the material conditions of millions of Americans, but also necessitating a reorientation of the country’s topography; reaping the rewards of consumer capitalism would require the construction of neighbourhoods where car ownership was essential, and where cheap land and lax regulations could allow mass production of homes and goods to satiate the burgeoning appetite of affluent, white suburbia. Nuclear families living in suburbs required lawn mowers, fridges, furniture, and a host of other consumer goods available to the rising class of white, skilled workers, all of which cemented the power of petroleum.

The structure of the suburbs, located away from cities where redlining prevented ethnic minorities from securing the capital or investment required to move into these areas, ensured the provision of a large-scale market for goods produced by fossil-fuel driven sectors. The domination of the new American suburbs by grotesque McMansions phased out public transport, ensuring that millions of Americans were dependent on cars for travel, and that roads and parking lots replaced rail and pedestrian infrastructure. For example, Lester Brown calculated in 2001 that the US had enough miles of road to encircle the Earth at the equator 157 times. According to author James Kunstler, the automobile boom that drove the construction of highways at the expense of public transportation was: “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.”

This demonstrates that transformative action on climate change cannot merely involve spending on various projects likely to ameliorate fossil fuel emissions, but must involve a drastic re-thinking of why it is that the American economy and society are structured in the way that they are. Simply spending more on clean energy, while worthwhile in extricating the economy from dependency on fossil fuels, does little to incentivise decarbonisation. Rewilding and urban densification, with their potential to limit excess resource use and curtail mass dependency on cars, ought to be vital aspects of a genuinely transformative environmentalism.

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that handing out vast subsidies to electric cars, which are often expensive and only available to a small number of consumers, will have a negligible impact on the climate in comparison to disincentivising private car ownership in general through the provision of cycle lanes and pedestrianisation. The fact that these alternatives, which include carbon capture and regenerative agriculture are largely sidelined in environmentalist discourse is illustrative of the extent to which consumer dependency on fossil fuels for everyday products, cars and houses has been ingrained into American lifestyles.

What is required is a form of environmentalism which attempts to divest from consumerism and reorient production in a more self-sufficient direction, prioritising family farms over large, agricultural behemoths which, at present, control 67% of food supply despite making up less than 4% of all farms across the United States. Family farms currently supply just 26% of food despite making up 90% of all farming operations, due to the huge subsidies accrued by Big Agriculture, in addition to their vast economies of scale. Globally, family farms could double food production in ten years if given an opportunity, according to a 2011 UN study.

The emergence of the United States from WWII as the predominant world power was catalysed by the rise of the petroleum industry alongside a powerful industrial sector and a neutralised labour force, bereft of militancy. In the decades since, the climate crisis that fossil fuels have been largely responsible for aggravating has necessitated a radical environmentalist agenda. Such a programme would entail challenging the basis of consumerism and the assumption that infinite, endogenous growth is necessarily beneficial for the economy, attempting to divest from the large factory farms that dominate the American economy, and expanding regenerative agriculture and pedestrianisation to eclipse the undifferentiated mass of suburbs which the petroleum industry required to assert its supremacy. This article has attempted to provide an insight into why these changes currently seem inimical to the way in which American society is organised at present, and to outline an alternative vision for the future.


Tom Perrett

I write about politics, history and current affairs from a socialist perspective. My writing has covered a variety of topics, from the American opioid crisis to the Libertarian to Fascist Pipeline. My intellectual influences include Eric Hobsbawm, Emma Goldman and Murray Bookchin.

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