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Auto Mania

Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment

Tom McCarthy
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Auto Mania
    Book Description:

    The twentieth-century American experience with the automobile has much to tell us about the relationship between consumer capitalism and the environment, Tom McCarthy contends. InAuto Maniahe presents the first environmental history of the automobile that shows how consumer desire (and manufacturer decisions) created impacts across the product lifecycle-from raw material extraction to manufacturing to consumer use to disposal.

    From the provocative public antics of young millionaires who owned the first cars early in the twentieth century to the SUV craze of the 1990s,Auto Maniaexplores developments that touched the environment. Along the way McCarthy examines how Henry Ford's fetish for waste reduction tempered the environmental impacts of Model T mass production; how Elvis Presley's widely shared postwar desire for Cadillacs made matters worse; how the 1970s energy crisis hurt small cars; and why baby boomers ignored worries about global warming.

    McCarthy shows that problems were recognized early. The difficulty was addressing them, a matter less of doing scientific research and educating the public than implementing solutions through America's market economy and democratic government. Consumer and producer interests have rarely aligned in helpful ways, and automakers and consumers have made powerful opponents of regulation. The result has been a mixed record of environmental reform with troubling prospects for the future.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15002-5
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Great Experiment
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    The American love affair with the automobile sheds important light on what may prove to be the most important question of the twenty-first century: Can six to nine billion human beings find contentment through the unending acquisition of material possessions without irreparably harming the planet they depend on for life itself? Historian J. R. McNeill called this test of the planet’s human carrying capacity “a gigantic uncontrolled experiment.” Given the huge stakes involved and the uncertainty of the outcome, it seemed to me that more historians ought to be exploring the intersection between consumer behavior and environmental impact.

    We can...

  5. 1 The Arrogance of Wealth
    (pp. 1-15)

    The public knew William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., Foxhall P. Keene, Albert C. Bostwick, David Wolfe Bishop, Edward R. Thomas, and Harry S. Harkness from the society and sports pages, their social lives in New York and Newport, and their exploits as sportsmen. These young heirs to the great Gilded Age fortunes owned and raced yachts, bred and ran thoroughbred, steeplechase, and harness racing horses, and played competitive polo, golf, and tennis against one another. When Vanderbilt and his friends seized the automobile and took to the roads to have fun, they became Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption” on...

  6. 2 Foresight and Emotion
    (pp. 16-29)

    Before conservation reached the national stage and even before the automobile age really got started, industry observers, following the lead of farsighted scientists and engineers, issued warnings about relying on a nonrenewable fuel.Horseless Agecommented on these worries in an article entitled “Oil Famine Bugaboo” in January 1897. Two years laterMotor Ageeditorialized: “Even conservative engineers, think it the part of wisdom to look around for a substitute for gasoline.” These concerns intensified as the new century began. “One of the great problems of the near future in connection with the popularization of the automobile will be that...

  7. 3 A Monstrously Big Thing
    (pp. 30-54)

    The emotions that the speeding sportsmen aroused in Americans sparked the automobile revolution of the 1910s and 1920s and made the United States the first automobile society in the world. Judging from their behavior, Americans found few questions more important during the first quarter of the twentieth century than whether they owned an automobile. Were you among the haves or the have-nots? Americans rushed to answer this question affirmatively. To do so required what popular author and historian Philip Van Doren Stern called “an instrument of historic destiny,” the respectable and affordable Ford Model T. Between 1908 and 1927, Americans...

  8. 4 An Industrial Epic
    (pp. 55-76)

    “Iron and coal form the backbone of the automotive industry, iron because it is the principal component of a motor car and coal because it is necessary both in the manufacture of iron and the production of power,” the Ford Motor Company explained inFord Industries, an extensively illustrated book that it published and distributed widely in the mid-1920s to explain how it made cars. “The cost of iron and coal delivered at a plant largely governs the selling price of the product. No matter how efficiently or economically a manufacturing organization may be operated, the fluctuating market prices of...

  9. 5 The Death and Afterlife of Automobiles
    (pp. 77-98)

    As a tenant farmer in rural Alabama during the 1920s, Ned Cobb knew firsthand that some people worried about who had automobiles and who did not. As one of the first African-American automobile owners in his community, he heard about it from both his white and his black neighbors. “There’s a heap of my race,” he recalled, “didn’t believe their color should have a car, believed what the white man wanted ’em to believe.” But Cobb went ahead and bought one anyway. His white landlord occasionally chided him about it. Although Cobb enjoyed impressing his neighbors to a certain degree,...

  10. 6 Cadillacs and Community
    (pp. 99-129)

    “We always led a kind of a common life,” he told interviewers. “We never had any luxuries, but we were never real hungry.” In the years just after World War II, as millions of Americans realized long-deferred material dreams, his family straddled the line between the haves and the have-nots. He “would hear us worrying about our debts, being out of work and sickness,” his mother later recalled, “and he’d say, ‘Don’t you worry none…. When I grow up, I’m going to buy you a fine house and pay everything you owe at the grocery store and get two Cadillacs—...

  11. 7 Disenchanted with Detroit
    (pp. 130-147)

    The romance did not last. American automobile sales fell in 1956 and 1957. Slumping auto sales triggered a nationwide recession in 1957–58 that further reduced sales. In 1958, the industry sold just 4.3 million passenger vehicles, only 54 percent of the number sold three years earlier. By that spring, Americans were having a national conversation about what was amiss in the automobile market. Mystified industry executives called it a “buyers’ strike.” At the time, automakers viewed the sales downturn as an unforeseen bump in the road. In some respects it was. But it was also something more.¹

    After 1955,...

  12. 8 If We Can Put a Man on the Moon …
    (pp. 148-175)

    Americans in the late 1950s still viewed Los Angeles smog and industrial pollution at plants like the Rouge as local problems, so John Keats and other critics perhaps understandably did not make environmental concerns part of the larger public criticism they directed at American automakers. But they also ignored an obvious larger trend that caused more harm to the environment from automobiles than any other in the 1950s or 1960s—indeed, in the entire second half of the twentieth century. In 1956 the number of registered passenger vehicles in the United States surpassed the number of households. Although 28 percent...

  13. 9 The One Who Got It
    (pp. 176-192)

    The automakers knew that tighter emission standards were coming, not only for California but for the rest of the nation. Even by 1967, three years before passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act amendments, this prospect seemed clear. “If you were going to address the overall issue of air pollution,” Tom Jorling recalled, “you had to address mobile sources.” Between January 1965 and passage of the federal Air Quality Act in November 1967, both GM and Ford concluded that the engine controls that had placated the Californians for the 1966 models and that had been adopted as the new 1968...

  14. 10 Out of My Dead Hands
    (pp. 193-206)

    The struggle to get the catalytic converter on American automobiles was only half the story of the Clean Air Act and the automobile. With the 1970 amendments, Congress also made the states responsible for taking steps to change the behavior of drivers to combat air pollution from the automobile. It did so, first, by tasking the EPA with setting National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) that ensured an adequate safety margin for public health—a pathbreaking first for federal health legislation—and, second, by requiring the states to prepare plans for achieving those standards. The law envisioned the rapid implementation...

  15. 11 Small Was Beautiful
    (pp. 207-230)

    On 9 October 1973 Richard Nixon decided to rush emergency military aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Unfortunately for Americans, the war took place at a moment of important change in the world oil market. For two decades before the early 1970s Western oil companies had dictated to the oil-producing nations of North Africa and the Middle East the price that the companies would pay for their crude oil. By 1973, however, the efforts of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the eleven nations (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Algeria, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Iran, Venezuela, Indonesia, and...

  16. 12 The Riddle of the Sport Utility Vehicle
    (pp. 231-252)

    The relationship between Americans and automobiles over the last two decades of the twentieth century proved quite different than predicted in 1980. The future belonged, not to the small car, but to big cars—very big cars—or, more precisely, to light trucks. Largely because of the Baby Boomers’ enthusiasm for pickups, minivans, and sport utility vehicles (SUVs), half of all the vehicles sold in America by the end of the 1990s were light trucks—a milestone that marked the culmination of a styling revolution in the American automobile market.

    But this revolution in consumer tastes had its consequences. When...

  17. Epilogue
    (pp. 253-266)

    So what did the twentieth-century American experience with the automobile suggest about the larger relationship between humanity, consumer goods, and the environment? The American answer—the SUV and light truck boom of the 1980s and 1990s following hard on the heels of the safety, environmental, and fuel economy debates of the 1960s and 1970s—seems to be that consumer decisions consistently served the personal desires of individuals that for most rarely, if ever, gave precedence to matters involving the wider social and environmental consequences of automobile use. When we recall our own shortcomings as consumers, this behavior was not altogether...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 267-332)
  19. Index
    (pp. 333-347)