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Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment [Hardcover]

Tom McCarthy

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Book Description

Oct. 24 2007

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. In Auto Mania he 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 Mania explores 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.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1 edition (Oct. 24 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300110383
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300110388
  • Product Dimensions: 23.8 x 16.5 x 2.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 272 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,107,102 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"McCarthy explores consumers' attachments to automobiles—their sense of status in relation to the larger society—that have had important repercussions for the environment."—Sally H. Clarke, University of Texas at Austin
(Sally H. Clarke)

“This engaging and well-researched book takes on the product life cycle of the automobile in the twentieth century. A very interesting project.”—Martin Melosi, University of Houston
(Martin Melosi)

“McCarthy looks at the environment broadly and constructs an interesting mixture of social, economic, political, and environmental history of the car not found elsewhere.”—J. Brooks Flippen, Southeastern Oklahoma State University
(J. Brooks Flippen)

Auto Mania is a high speed, insightful and fascinating cruise through important and fascinating eras in the auto industry. From the early years of the horseless carriage, through the explosion of affordable transportation spawned by Henry Ford to the modern era of regulation of emissions and fuel economy. Tom McCarthy’s description of the early days of government regulation through the eyes of key players is unique and dramatically contributes to our understanding of a transformational period of importance to all of us.”—David E. Cole, Center for Automotive Research
(David E. Cole)

". . . superb snapshots of paths taken and missed in the history of auto manufacturing . . . with a[n] . . . emphasis on [its] environmental impact. . . . Scholars and students of business and economic history, as well as the history of technology, will find insights . . . "—Brian Black, Enterprise & Society
(Brian Black Enterprise & Society)

“. . . a history of twentieth-century American automobile culture for a new generation. . . . traces the complex relationship among cars, consumerism, politics, and the environment in a way sure to be useful. . . . A must read . . .”—Kevin L. Borg, Technology and Culture
(Kevin L. Borg Technology and Culture 2009-01-15)

About the Author

Tom McCarthy is associate professor, History Department, United States Naval Academy.

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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars let me show you what i learned in physics... April 7 2009
By Ryan Costa - Published on Amazon.com
The first chapter is pretty interesting. For a brief window in history automobiles were expensive toys for the very wealthy.
A public backlash grew against these rich speed racers. vigilantes and children would throw rocks and rotten vegetables at these speed racers. country squires would occasionally take shots at them with rifles. Princeton President Woodrow Wilson wrote of this as acceptable violence.

This was a brief window in the emergence of the automobile. Today any hillbilly, suburbanite, or urban hoodrat can race around residential streets. Even if they cannot afford a hotrod, they can afford gigantic carspeakers that shake windows within a 200 foot radius. about 40 thousand americans die a year from people driving too fast or too drunk. but now we're cool with it, because it is all our freedom.

Chapter 2 gets more interesting.

By 1906 there were serious doubts about the ability to supply gasoline for the burgeoning automobile industry. Automobiles were still the toy of the rich. Dirt roads connected county to county.

the contest for alternatives to gasoline came down to Kerosene and Alcohol.

Kerosene had been the main money maker for oil for the last fifty years or so. It was used to light lamps. electricity began to put the kerosene out of business. Until internal combustion engines, gasoline was mostly thrown away, seen as waste from the kerosene refining process.

The oil wells of pennsylvania and Ohio were beginning to yield much less. oil was beginning to be found in Texas and California, but it yielded about half the gasoline as Ohio oil.

It was decided alcohol would replace gasoline. but there were problems. the initial problem were the high taxes on alcohol. meant as a sin tax to profit from alcohol drinking, and to temper america's alcoholic passions, these taxes were extended to industrial alcohol use. it made a fifty cent gallon of alcohol cost $2.50. It took a lot of activism to repeal these taxes. Standard Oil had much more money and clout. without the progressive zeal of Theodore Roosevelt this may not have been accomplished.

There were problems with adapting alcohol to use. it provided less power than gasoline with conventional engine technology. alcohol vapor had to be compressed at much greater pressure to yield results equal to or greater than gasoline powered engines. existing metallurgy and machining couldn't yet make that happen. and there was no infrastructure in place to distribute it.

So, gasoline won.

the Model T was first widely adopted by rural americans. it got better fuel economy and handled bad roads better than more expensive cars. Time was money on the farm, and it saved farmers a day of traveling to town. It allowed the country doctors to make many more house calls(they weren't paid by insurance companies then).

The Model T took off. Town and City workers began buying it, even if they already had rail and street cars.

Big fears of fuel shortages cropped up. automobile ownership multiplied 27 times in about 8 years. oil extraction only multiplied 8 times.

The automobile caught on with the middle class. yes, apparently there was already a middle class. they lived in cities and towns, and had trains and light rail to get to work if work was too far of a walk. automobile financing became popular, but americans had already begun financing fancy stuff like Pianos and wiring houses for household electricity.

technicians created ways of breaking down heavier compounds in oil into gasoline. now more gasoline could be rendered from oil.

automobile use continued exploding. "where will we get all the gasoline?" people asked. the industry balked at the prospect of alcohol. "that's too much work. someone else will think of how to use it later".

Some folks figured out how to add tetra-ethyl lead to gasoline. several of the scientists who discovered this also contracted lead poisoning. tetra-ethyl lead had even been experimented with by the War Department as a nerve gas during world war I.

An industrial explosion raised concern. A hearing was put before the surgeon general. General Motors and some others heavily lobbied for the ok to put Lead in gasoline. They argued that greater fuel efficiency and all of industrial progress hinged on this. Despite fully understanding the toxicity of tetra-ethyl lead, the surgeon general sided with General Motors.

The automakers spent the advantages gained by leaded gasoline on greater horsepower, more powerful engines. not better mileage engines. alternatives to tetra-ethyl lead were discovered a short time later. but they were not used. real smart. GM got royalties from tetra ethyl lead.

After that the hypothetical free market did not correct itself. the big Three began maximizing profits at the expense of mileage and improvement. Stylistic Obsolescence was more important than continual product improvement. Heroic levels of pollution were under-reported and acknowledged.

The rest of the book gets even better. the ultimate chapter summarizes our prospects: The energy return on energy invested used to be 100 to 1. Today we're lucky for 10:1. Ethanol is frequently less than 2:1.

In epilogue we get the clear summary: the market is not self correcting or optimizing. even if you do not count the oil wars, the banana republic maneuvers, and repetitive warnings. Consumers do not make rational decisions. producers of capital intensive products do not make rational decisions. The Japanese and European carmakers accepted regulations and produced better cars. The American big 3 fought regulation tooth and nail and produced inferior cars.

This is a great book for Economics 101.

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