The Oil Drum: New York City

Helping New Yorkers understand, prepare and adapt to the implications of Peak Oil

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Book Review: Death of The Automobile

When we talk about oil, we are really talking about the highest quality, most easily produced and distributed fuel source for the internal combustion engine. And when we talk about the internal combustion engine, we are really talking about the automobile. That's what makes the work that is reported on at the Green Car Congress so important. Failing a total revolution in car design and a simultaneous revolution in an alternative fuel that can replace fossil fuels, society will face a major crisis in transportation.

On car ride up to camping in New Hampshire (yes, even peakguy gets into a car every so often!), I stopped by a small book cooperative along I-91 and my friend showed me a book he found in the maze of categories that related to my favorite topic. The book was titled: The Death of the Automobile and was written in 1972by John Jerome (1932-2002), a former ad guy for the car industry and editor of Car and Driver magazine.

It is a book that is well ahead of its time, fitting in closely with Ralph Nader's classic book "Unsafe at Any Speed" on safety, but also making many forward looking arguments about urban planning, suburban sprawl, environmental impact, fiscal impact of constantly paving and repaving roads. In particular, Jerome chastises the US automobile industry for squandering all the engineering advances of the time from 1955 and 1970 on simply building bigger, faster, less safe, less efficient automobiles that will eventually have such a massive impacts on society and the environment that they will ultimately become an unsustainable feature of modern life such that either society will have to make massive changes to regulate the impact of the automobile or the automobile will destroy modern society. He likens the automobile industry to the buffalo hunters of the 19th century - destroying an older, more sustainable lifestyle to force those people into a new dependent relationship leaving them few alternatives politically and economically except to pay tribute to the same people that destroyed their way of life.

One piece of consumer insight that he realizes long before the advent of SUVs is the American fascination with size and speed (preferably both together!). He describes the vicous cycle of making automobiles bigger and faster, making a bigger engine requires a bigger frame, a bigger and more powerful engine attached to a larger frame require heavier brakes and more complex steering assistance, etc, etc. I would add that bigger cars and the suburban lifestyle which requires little to no physical exertion, which creates bigger people. Bigger people are much less likely to want a small compact car and instead prefer the comfort of a large SUV. You can almost imagine the case of a family that fled the city in a Volkwagen bug in the late '60s or '70s, lived the suburban lifestyle for 30 years and find themselves with little choice but to fit their larger, older and less fit selves into a mini-van or SUV which they are completely dependent on for every aspect of their economic and social lives.

On the way back from the camping trip, feeling really energized from all the distance and weight we covered, we laughed when we saw a bumper sticker on the back of a mini-van that I guess described the owner's love hate relationship with her vehicle: Minivans Are Tangible Proof of Evil.

Much of what J. Jerome prophesized about not only has come true, but has mutated and metastesized into even larger less efficient automobiles, greater suburban sprawl and an unsustainable lifestyle that has no future. With peak oil on the near horizon, the death of the automobile is approaching faster than we are prepared to have mass scale alternatives in place.

I highly recommend reading more about how automobiles have changed our society. Specifically related to NYC, there is one historical figure that changed the face of our modern living environment to adapt to the automobile: Robert Moses. In the next few weeks one of my good friends will write a review of "Power Broker" a biography of Robert Moses written by Robert Caro.

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