- Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment
Tom McCarthy has given us a history of twentieth-century American automobile culture for a new generation. Auto Mania traces the complex relationship among cars, consumerism, politics, and the environment in a way sure to be useful to an age in which automobility’s conflicting individual benefits and environmental costs lie at the crux of the challenges facing the United States and the world. McCarthy’s overarching thesis is that cars, as iconic consumer goods, gained psychic and social meanings that, together with their utility value, outweighed the known and accumulating environmental costs of their adoption and use. From the first decade of the century, manufacturers, motorists, and observers were not blind to, ignorant of, or [End Page 238] unconcerned with the environmental consequences of making and using cars. Rather, they favored and focused on the individual and economic benefits of automobiles over the alternative of possible limits. Thus McCarthy rightly argues that we must understand consumer motivations, as well as manufacturers’ response to and cultivation of consumer desires—in historical context without presentist condemnations—if we are to understand the dynamics that birthed and still shape the car’s environmental consequences.
On one level Auto Mania recounts a narrative now mostly familiar to anyone who has read some of the plentiful auto industry or highway histories. McCarthy does a fine job of both summarizing this established narrative and adding his own significant primary-source evidence to deepen and correct it at key points. More important, he pushes the boundaries of that narrative to include the automobile’s entire “life cycle” from raw material extraction to production, sales, usage, and disposal, deftly shifting the frame of reference to an environmental history of the car.
To the degree that the environmental history of the automobile has been told, it has been discontinuous and incomplete. Paul Sutter’s study of early-twentieth-century environmentalism, Driven Wild (2002), highlights how the threat of roads and cars influenced leaders of the preservation movement, but it stops before World War II. Studies of the early automobile culture, such as James Flink’s The Automobile Age (1988) or Clay Mc-Shane’s Down the Asphalt Path (1994), show as an aside the progressive embrace of automobiles as a means to clean up the horse manure–laden cities. Most histories that directly deal with the automobile and the environment start with the postwar period. Scott Dewey’s Don’t Breathe the Air (2000) and Jack Doyle’s Taken for a Ride (2000), for example, are both fine histories of those tumultuous years, but due to their focus contribute to a storyline that echoes the false simple story of DDT in the same period: that we did not know about the ill effects of DDT until years after its wide usage. As Edmund Russell has demonstrated, DDT’s makers and government sponsors knew of its problems prior to public release, but market pressures overwhelmed caution and regulation. So too McCarthy details the extensive and diverse environmental effects of automobile production and use even in the early decades of the century—from strip mining and forest depletion to water and air pollution flowing from Ford’s Rouge plant, to the addition of tetraethyl lead to gasoline in the 1920s—and he reveals that many observers knew enough at the time to appreciate the significance of the trajectory being established.
The second half of Auto Mania provides the best historical treatment to date of the battle over the environmental costs of automobility after World War II, including not just tailpipe emissions, but also heretofore overlooked topics: abandoned cars, the linkages between junkyards and the steel industry, and the catalytic converter’s connections to platinum mining in South Africa. McCarthy finds unsung heroes such as General Motors executive Ed [End Page 239] Cole, who cleared the way for catalytic converters, and tragic figures such as William Ruckelshaus, who captained the EPA’s ill-received attempt to impose driving restrictions on Southern California motorists in the 1970s...