If there is one true religion in the US, it leads us to worship at the altar of technology. Christian or Jew, Muslim or atheist, we accept the doctrine of this shared faith: that technology provides the main path to improving our lives and that if it occasionally fails, even catastrophically, it will just take another technology to make it all better. It is this doctrine that connects BP's Deepwater Horizon and Toyota's sudden acceleration debacles – and the responses to them. There are more obvious parallels between the two, of course. Both involve tragedies precipitated by our being a nation huffing on oil fumes: one associated with deaths at sea, the other, deaths on the road. But it is our belief in technology that has reassured us, along with oil company advertising and US Mineral Management Services encouragement, that drilling offshore – way offshore – could be done safely while we kept on refilling our tanks. It reassured us, along with car company marketing and NHTSA clearance, that our cars – increasingly electronically complex – would keep our families safe while we put ever more miles on the odometer.
Though our high priest may be Steve Jobs, the automobile, not the computer or phone, is the icon we venerate with the greatest fervour. The car is the most important, most expensive piece of technology most of us own. It is the technology of this and the past century, and neither BP nor Toyota would be as large and powerful, without our passionate call and response.
Simply walk on a Sunday into one of our houses of worship, an auto showroom, or drop some coins in the basket and enter, on a high holiday, one of the cathedrals that are the Detroit, New York, or Los Angeles auto shows. Witness the evangelists gazing at the gleaming new vehicles, snapping cell phone pics of spectacular concept cars so they can spread the good news.
Of course, corporations don't see this as their first mission, operating as they do on cost containment and profit maximisation, not cutting-edge technology as an end in itself. But their customer base has been convinced that each time they buy a new car, they are buying the future and lucky that the world's smartest geologists and engineers are helping fuel their experience of it. Never mind that the technology they are largely buying is media and telecom gadgetry, not the electric or more environmentally sustainable power technologies that headline auto shows or attract, like the not-yet-for-sale Nissan Leaf, tens of thousands of Facebook followers. (In fact, less than 1% of all new vehicles bought worldwide over the next five years are estimated to be electric or electric-hybrid).
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Our response to BP and Toyota's failures expose the danger in our faith. Deep anxiety aroused by the deaths in the water and on the interstates is calmed by the ameliorating belief that technology will save us, and if not now, soon. After all, the promise of technology is in the better life to come. A readable black box or failsafe brake override resolves Toyota's snafu, reassuring us that there can be such a thing as a safe car. An engineered capping and better blow-out preventers promise to restore confidence in our ability to tap into fossil fuels wherever they may be.
We haven't quite realised that the idea that technology will save us from the problems that technology has created has been sold to us by people with a deep interest in our treating each of their disasters as an isolated "accident", soon and easily solved. Don't worry. Go back to driving – maybe some other make for a few years, stopping at a gas station under another sign for a while – but get back to driving into the bright, new and improved car future.
BP and Toyota also share a public perception in the US as "foreign", to the good fortune of American multinationals like ExxonMobil and Ford. But this exceptionalism will not serve us well. BP may have recently made poorer choices than other oil companies, but serious threats to our way of life are endemic to the practice of drilling (especially in the peak-oil period as it becomes increasingly hard to access and new techno-fixes are developed to get us to the dwindling supplies). Toyota may have produced too many cars too fast, but 1.2 million people are killed globally each year in car crashes, and likely would be whether they were fuelled by gas, electricity, or hydrogen.
Simply put, technological progress alone is not a strategy for a sustainable future, and finally capping the Deepwater Horizon still leaves technological faith the source of the devastation that will live on for decades. America is in dire need of behavioural and political change in areas ranging from public leadership to corporate responsibility to the individual choice to drive and consume less. Only a hard turn in this direction can avert the slow-motion, head-on collision coming between America's love of technology and a quality of life for the world's future generations.