As an historian, my summer reading lists lean heavily toward nonfiction history. As an advocate for bicycling, transit, and complete streets, it may strike some as odd that I’m interested in the history of the automobile, but there’s no question that, for better or worse, the automobile has reshaped our world and it behooves those of us who are critical of the car-centered transportation system to understand it in all its complexity. To that end, I will be reviewing two recent scholarly histories on my summer reading list that explore the social and environmental impact of the automobile and my reflection on what this means for moving our culture away from its auto dependency. I’ll provide these reviews serially, so that I can give sufficient attention to each.
The first study under review is Tom McCarthy’s Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2007), which explores what McCarthy sees as Americans’ “love affair” with the automobile from an environmental standpoint. According to McCarthy, this “love affair” was the result of millions of consumer decisions, and the car as a medium for Americans’ psychological and social desires. In other words, the car has played a central role in 20th century American society, McCarthy argues, because it has been much more than a mode of transportation, it has been an expression of economic success and social identity, Americans’ “chief talisman of successful belonging.” (p. 47) While McCarthy thinks Americans’ consumer-driven car culture has been significantly influenced by the auto industry’s marketing strategies, he argues that consumers have not always been passive recipients of industry marketing. He provides examples of consumers acting in ways that auto manufacturers did not expect, such as the rise of the simple Volkswagen in the 1950s and 1960s as a counterpoint to Detroit’s “bigger is better” mentality. Thus, he sees cars as providing consumers with important cultural capital, beyond the utilitarian aspect. As such, any effort to shift toward a multi-modal transportation system must grapple with the deep psychological attachment Americans have to their cars.
McCarthy’s assessment of the environmental consequences of the “love affair” with cars is the strength of this study. By the 1940s, the environmental impact of the use of automobiles and the burning of gasoline for personal propulsion became obvious and prompted an unprecedented government regulatory apparatus to deal with it. Los Angeles, “car capital” of the nation, not only had some of the nation’s worst smog, but led the effort to regulate it when it became apparent that the smog was negatively affecting the region’s carefully crafted image as a tourist destination. (pp. 116-17) It is sobering to realize that the industry resisted smog controls for decades, meaning that effective reduction of smog in US cities did not occur until the 1970s following the mobilization of the environmental movement. Ultimately, it was a mobilized citizenry demanding government regulation, rather than consumer choice and the free market that cleaned the air in Los Angeles. (p. 254-55) There are important lessons in McCarthy’s book for the effort to regulate carbon emissions today, since it can be argued we don’t have the luxury to wait decades for the industry to shift away from business as usual.
Where McCarthy is at his most trenchant, is his unpacking of a major portion of the oversized environmental footprint of the automobile, from raw material extraction through manufacturing, use, and disposal. While consumer demand may have driven the industry, McCarthy argues, that demand created unprecedented environmental problems. By the 1920s, auto manufacturers were (and still are) among the world’s largest consumers of raw materials such as iron, steel, rubber, plate glass, leather, lead, zinc, and aluminum. Modern strip-mining techniques were pioneered and expanded in order to meet the insatiable demand of the auto industry, deeply scarring the land. Manufacturing cars produced unprecedented levels of industrial pollution:
Fly ash, iron oxide, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, and or course, millions of tons of carbon dioxide belched from the smokestacks of the coke ovens, blast furnaces, foundries, steel mills, and plants of American steel and auto industries. Iron, sulfuric acid, cyanide, phenols, and heavy metals poured into the sewers and rivers that served as liquid waste conduits away from the plants. (p. 46)
A full environmental accounting of the automobile industry would indeed be a vast undertaking, involving an assessment of the environmental impacts not only of the major manufacturers, but the thousands of smaller suppliers the industry relies upon. A total environmental accounting is beyond the scope of McCarthy’s study, but even focusing on one manufacturing plant, Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, MI, offers evidence of the profoundly troubling environmental legacy of the industry. McCarthy helps us see that a major portion of the automobile’s environmental footprint came from its raw material extraction and refining. That relative environmental impact remains true today whether the car burns gasoline or uses electricity to power its engine. Consider the amount of strip mining that will be necessary to provide lithium ion batteries for literally hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of electric vehicles and the toxic legacy of their inevitable disposal. McCarthy’s historical analysis provides an opportunity for us to see why it simply may not be possible to manufacture cars on the massive scale necessary for even a fraction of the world’s population to drive and not cause serious damage to the earth and its climate, even if they don’t burn gasoline (and this doesn’t take into account the carbon footprint of sprawl attendant to the automobile lifestyle). McCarthy traces the efforts over the decades after World War II to reduce the industrial pollutants flowing from smokestacks, but large quantities of pollutants and tremendous energy consumption (often fossil-fuel derived) will continue to be an inevitable by-product of large scale automobile manufacturing. Viewed as an entire system of resource extraction, energy intensive mass production, distribution, use, and disposal, we might reasonably conclude that there is no such thing as a “green” car.
McCarthy helps us see the larger environmental impact of the car beyond tailpipe emissions, helps us understand that we shouldn’t expect these environmental consequences to be addressed by consumer choice alone, and suggests that our society may need to rethink its “auto mania.” If there is a blind spot in McCarthy’s analysis, it is that by placing so much emphasis on consumer choice as a driving force for automobility, he leaves little room for analyzing the way in which the radical redesign of the built environment around the automobile in the 20th century provided the context for those consumer decisions and eventually precluded virtually any “choice” not to drive.
It is to that aspect we shall turn in my next review.