– by Lynne Pearce, Lancaster University, UK
Between 1999 and 2000 I found myself writing a novel set in a not too distant future stricken by climate change (principally drought) and various other environmental disasters. In line with much other dystopian fiction, urban and non-urban societies were living very different lives and communication between the different parts of the UK was severely limited – not least because very few people had access to cars or public transport. Indeed, my vision of this alternative future was driven (if you’ll excuse the pun) by my speculations on what it would be like to live in the UK as and when the system of automobility came to an end.
This fictional experiment was inspired in part by my first engagement with the academic debates vis-à-vis the future of automobility and coincided with the publication of my book chapter ‘Driving North/Driving South’ (Pearce, 2000). I remember presenting an early version of this paper to a Sociology seminar at which John Urry was present and letting out of the bag that I was also writing a novel which imagined a world without automobility. All those present were very interested, and although I never went on to do anything with the novel (which is most probably not very good as a novel given that I’m not a creative writer!) I like to think it was a springboard for some of the theorisation and speculation that followed – including one of John’s own ‘after the car’ scenarios – notably ‘local sustainability’:
In the first, local sustainability, there is the partial replacement of the current car system with a very wide range of local forms of transport and movement. Long-distance movement is uncommon because of oil and resource shortages. Many forms of life are locally centred and concentrated. Because most movement is local, feet, the bike and many new low carbon forms of transport are to be found along with more motorised forms. (Dennis and Urry, After the Car, 2009, p. 100)
Instead of an oil shortage, coronavirus has – seemingly overnight – given us a glimpse of what it is like to live in a world in which people remain ‘in place’ – in their local communities – and also to revisit our thoughts about the motor car: what its cocooned environment offers those privileged enough to own one, what its disappearance would mean at a moment like this (imagine if we were already living in a Europe where there was only mass public transport?), as well as the knowledge that its pollution has undoubtedly contributed to the demise we find ourselves in. Those of you familiar with my work (e.g. Drivetime, 2019) will know that much of my thinking about automobility is written from the perspective of ‘anticipatory retrospection’ and what the world ‘after the car’ will mean to so many qualitative aspects of our lives.
Looking back, I can see that I wrote my novel, in part, to immerse myself in the lived reality of that moment in our future history. As such, it was a nostalgic eulogy to car as well an acknowledgement of the environmental damage it has wrought. In my novel, as in John’s ‘localist’ scenario, motor transport has not completely disappeared but is limited to essential use, the motorways almost empty, and local communities seeing only a few vehicles every day. Much of the action is set in the highlands of Scotland, where I’m writing from now, in a natural environment that is still more utopian than dystopian, and where the needs of remote communities helps to distinguish all that is good about motor transport from all that is bad. Tragic as it will prove for thousands of individuals, families, and communities around the world, coronavirus is similarly granting us an invaluable glimpse of a world in which hyper-mobility is paused and the unique benefits of automobility, alongside its well-rehearsed problems, can be re-assessed.
Dennis, Kingsley and John Urry. 2009. After the Car. Cambridge: Polity.
Pearce, Lynne. 2000. ‘Driving North, Driving South: Reflections of the Spatial-Temporal Co-ordinates of Home’ in Lynne Pearce (ed.) Devolving Identities: Feminist Readings in Home and Belonging (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate)
Pearce, Lynne. 2019. Drivetime: Literary Excursions in Automotive Consciousness. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.