Reflections on Disposability, “Mobile Privatization,” and the “Wastelanding” of Houston’s Streets

Posted by on Nov 1, 2018
Reflections on Disposability, “Mobile Privatization,” and the “Wastelanding” of Houston’s Streets

Recently, I was having a conversation with several colleagues about driving in Houston. The usual horror stories were being exchanged when the conversation turned to road rage. Why is it, wondered one member of the group, that we’re willing to shout things in our car that we would never dream of saying in “public?” Offhandedly, I commented that Matthew Huber, whose work on “mobile privatization” has greatly informed my own thinking, might have something to say on that topic. In the last two weeks however, I have had cause to think seriously about the question of “mobile privatization” in Houston, and how this city’s driving culture fosters an affect of place-based disposability.

A little under two weeks ago I came off my bike in the middle of the Kirkby/West Alabama intersection. I was cycling fast catch a green light, and at the last minute, a driver decided to make an illegal left turn into my path. I guess he hadn’t seen me. Somehow I ended up on the floor about four inches from the driver’s front wheels. It took me a moment to get up (I was very dazed) but once he saw that I was at least able to walk, the man drove off; as I was limping from the road the intersection filled with traffic. I walked away with no more than a cracked helmet, a strained neck, and a renewed interest in “mobile privatization.”

Originally coined by Raymond Williams, the term “mobile privatization” refers to a way of life that allows for the private sphere to become mobile, to leak into our life outside the home. As Huber notes, the “internal combustion engine” is one of the most defining features of mobile privatization in the 20th and 21st centuries as it allows “for a privatised command over and experience of space” (Huber 74). The automobile allows for an extension of the home, or more specifically, it allows for an extension of the impression of being at home. This, of course, is one of the reasons that people are happy to shout obscenities at drivers who cut them off, despite the fact that one would likely never dream of being so aggressive in person. But, as well as helping to explain road rage, perhaps, reflecting on mobile privatization might also help us to explain what I shall term “road apathy.”

In Holy Land, D. J. Waldie’s hypnotic and disturbing reflection on the prototypical Californian suburb of his youth, the renowned essayist describes each house in his neighbourhood as being like “its own enchanted island” and recalls how parents would “arrive like pilgrims” after their day at work (Waldie 14). The issue with pilgrimages, of course, as Vittoria di Palma’s work reminds us, is that just as they have the potential to name certain spaces as holy, they also have the power to denote whole landscapes as places designed to test us, places which must be endured, in other words, “wastelands” (Di Palma 23). For those who drive in Houston, the daily commute can seem just like an intrepid journey through a “wasteland.” This city is mercilessly built around the concept of automobility, with little thought given to aesthetics. Moreover, for those drivers speeding along, even many of the smaller roads will seem inhospitable. Under fifty percent of Houston’s roadways are flanked by sidewalks and there is regularly nowhere to walk safely: a wasteland indeed.

Apathy then, is a logical by-product of this dominant (il)logic of petromobility. A recent article in the Houston Chronicle which names this city’s drivers as the “nation’s most deadly,” speaks not only of sickeningly high mortality rates (640 deaths-a-year to be precise), but also of hit-and-runs, of a brazen disregard for the speed limit, of a law “meant to give cyclists and pedestrians room to travel” which has only been enforced a “few dozen” times since 2013. Indeed, what the situation would seem to amount to is a collective, tacit agreement, to allow motorists to continue moving with as much freedom as possible through the wasteland which separates their places of work and leisure from the “enchanted islands” of their homes. Such an arrangement though, doesn’t account for human mortality, it also doesn’t account for the fact that there are people in the “wasteland”: people cycling, people waiting for buses, people walking–even on roads without sidewalks. In fact, such an agreement requires us not to consider anything other that the privatized spaces of our automobiles, it requires us to become apathetic. Houston’s car culture then, constitutes a project of what Traci Voyles would call “wastelanding,” in which millions of commuters never have to consider the place they pass through or those moving at a different pace within it.

So, why write any of this on a blog concerned with the energy humanities and environmental research? Earlier this year I was lucky enough to attend Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer’s plenary lecture at the annual Petrocultures conference in Glasgow, U. K. In their talk, Howe and Boyer discussed how Houston’s infrastructure, its building practices, its zoning-laws (or lack thereof), and its reliance on an essentially unstable industry, all tend towards disposability: Houston is always already poised for abandonment. It seems to me that Houston’s car culture can be added to this list. In their particularly virulent embodiment of an (il)logic which can be found all over the United States, Houston’s roadways foster a fundamental apathy towards Houston as a physical place inhabited by organic life.  A pilgrimage through the city to one’s home is only one step removed from a pilgrimage away from the city itself and those left behind. A sustainable energy future in Houston (and in the U.S. more generally) is not just about finding a renewable alternative to the oil industry or replacing trucks with electric cars, it is also about creating a collective experience of place. Without a sense of place, it will be very hard to encourage lifestyles which foster sustainability, whatever that may mean in the future. Measures which work to promote accessibility and public mobility will be vital if we are to undo the “wastelanding” of Houston’s streets. With this “de-wastelanding” might come a waning, not only of “road apathy,” but of ecological apathy also, in the process, Houston might well be able to overcome its engrained disposability.

Works Cited
Begley, Dug, and St. John Barnard-Smith. “Out of Control Houston’s Roads, Drivers Are Country’s Most Deadly.” 31 Aug. 2018,
Boyer, Dominic, and Cymene Howe. “Melt/Rise: A Song of Flood and Ice.” Petrocultures. Petrocultures, 31 Aug. 2018, Glasgow, U. K.
Di Palma, Vittoria. Wasteland: A History. Yale University Press, 2014.
Huber, Matthew T. Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Voyles, Traci Brynne. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Waldie, D. J. Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. Kindle ed., W.W. Norton, 2005.