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the Complete Review
the complete review - business / environment / technology

Auto Mania

Tom McCarthy

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To purchase Auto Mania

Title: Auto Mania
Author: Tom McCarthy
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2007
Length: 274 pages
Availability: Auto Mania - US
Auto Mania - UK
Auto Mania - Canada
  • Cars, Consumers, and the Environment

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, fairly thorough but still breezy history/overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 5/11/2007 Elizabeth Kolbert

  From the Reviews:
  • "At the start of Auto Mania, McCarthy writes that his is "not an angry book. We don’t need another angry book about automobiles." In fact, as he acknowledges, many of the stories he recounts have already been told (and, arguably, told better) in earlier, more indignant works, like Jack Doyle’s Taken for a Ride (2000) and Keith Bradsher’s High and Mighty (2002). What distinguishes Auto Mania from these works, besides its tone, is the scope of its indictment. McCarthy doesn’t blame Detroit for the ills of Detroit; he blames all of us. McCarthy argues -- convincingly if, once again, not terribly originally -- that, to Americans, cars have never been just a means of transportation. Our choices about what to drive have always had a social component -- keeping up with the Joneses -- and an antisocial one: outdoing the Joneses." - Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The personal motor vehicle is undeniably of great utility, and both the production and widespread ownership of cars have greatly stoked the American economic engine -- but it's come at a staggering cost. Tom McCarthy's book looks at the inter-relationship between Cars, Consumers, and the Environment from the beginning, in an account that moves at a good pace and yet still manages to provide a good deal of detail about the evolution of the industry and the consequences of some of the decisions that were made, as well as much of the general impact of large-scale car production and ownership.
       In his Introduction McCarthy specifically notes that his is not "an angry book". Here, at least he's careful not to denounce either automakers or consumers:

Automakers that work hard to sell their cars to consumers are not evil. Self-interested and oblivious consumers are not evil. But the two together do pose problems for the environment, and on this score both could do better.
       Presumably it all depends on how you define 'evil', as the book itself then goes on to document behaviour that is consistently shocking, with only rare (and often incidental) turns for the better.
       Among the fascinating points McCarthy makes is that at least in some cases it need not have been so: the catastrophic decision to add tetraethyl lead (TEL) to gasoline is the most disturbing example (as technological innovation could likely have readily achieved comparable results soon thereafter), but it's also fascinating to read about the early debates about which fuel to use to power cars, as dependence on gasoline and supply-issues have apparently been a concern from day one (though clearly it was a misguided concern in the early days, as supply only proved to become a problem -- or an issue, at least -- decades later).
       McCarthy gives some idea of the incredible amount of material that went (and goes) into cars -- and the waste produced in their production, fouling air and water on an immense scale. One of the interesting side-stories is the evolution of what happened to another huge pollution problem: what to do with the old cars, as ownership and turnover increased dramatically, as attempts to salvage parts and raw materials often proved uneconomic -- leading, for example, to the proliferation of abandoned cars in cities in the 1960s. But, it turns out, dealing with old cars is among the few real environmental success stories (relatively speaking) around the automobile industry.
       McCarthy also shows how the powers that be -- industry, government (beholden to business interests and voters), and consumers -- affected (and, more often (it seems) thwarted) change. The story of the adoption of the catalytic converter is particularly illuminating. And the history of automaker obstruction of government regulation -- especially their claims that technological changes were too difficult or expensive, that consumers didn't want them, and that jobs would be lost if regulations were implemented -- certainly suggest that, if not downright evil these companies were blinded by self- (and profit-) interest into immorality.
       The consumer-role in all this is also fascinating, as McCarthy repeatedly shows how fickle consumers are, and that changes in the popularity of car styles and types (including smaller, more efficient vehicles ) were often not in response to, for example, higher gas prices but rather trend-based. Vanity seems invariably to have trumped utility, as most recently was also the case with the rise in popularity of so-called 'sports utility vehicles' (SUVs), with consumers rationalizing their choice of these ridiculous vehicles for reasons that turn out to have little correlation with their actual needs or the use they then put the vehicles to.
       As McCarthy notes, the car is a defining consumer product: many if not most people take great pride in their car(s), and see them as representative of who they are (or who they want to be seen as): the car is like peacock plumage. Incredibly, the US already had more registered personal vehicles than households by 1956, and the car has, of course, determined much of the growth (and type of growth) of the country. McCarthy doesn't write about it extensively, but consumer-unwillingness to change their driving habits has, of course, played a central role in the environmental mess car-dependence has created. Even in southern California, where the conditions make for lingering smog -- almost all caused by car exhausts -- getting people to drive less was never a feasible solution.
       Given the cost in waste and pollution caused by the production and use of every car -- including but hardly limited to every gallon of gasoline that is used in driving -- one would think that people would be ashamed of how they rely on their cars and think twice each time they considered driving anywhere. Instead they get a second or third car if they can, drive wantonly about, and idly idle their engines. People often talk the talk, but then still get back in their cars; indeed, America has become a country where the automobile can almost reasonably be thought of as being indispensable, a few urban centres excepted. The 'solutions' being worked on -- such as finally again moving towards small improvements in gas mileage -- are ridiculous in comparison to the size of the problem, but in the US fundamental change, at least in the medium term, seems unthinkable.
       What's fascinating (and particularly troubling) is that instead of seeing the American example (of widespread car-ownership and -reliance) for what it is -- a catastrophe of the largest proportions -- other nations are following suit. Most notably now huge countries like India and China that had escaped the blight of widespread car-ownership and all its consequences have embraced the American model: build lots of cars and get them into consumers hands. As an economic engine the car industry is, indeed, an impressive thing -- but the secondary costs are far too high. It's too late in the US, but there are still a few places where they could nip the disaster in the bud. Unfortunately, the near-universal desire for one's own car likely means that everyone else will, as soon as they can, follow the American road to this particular perdition.
       McCarthy's book is a sobering account and provides a good overview. The extensive notes point readers to additional texts providing more detailed information about specific aspects of the the subject, making it a good starter- and reference-volume. In perhaps helping to foster some discussion and pushing citizens and government (and, possibly, industry) to make incremental changes much along the lines of what's been done over the past few decades it may be of some help. But the truly radical rethinking of the role and use of the automobile that is necessary won't be brought about no matter how clearly people are told about the true cost of their driving pleasure to the environment and future generations. People just don't care -- or rather, they put their pathetically limited self-interest ahead of society as a whole (which, unfortunately, in the case of car-use is a very high price for society to pay).

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Auto Mania: Reviews: Tom McCarthy: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tom McCarthy teaches at the US Naval Academy.

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© 2007-2009 the complete review

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