Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mass Motorization and the Environment

So here I am in Portland, Oregon, a famously "green" city (on the way in from the airport I was startled to see people getting on the light rail train with bicycles which they then hung up from hooks on the walls!) at the National Council on Public History/American Society for Environmental  History conference.  It's always fun to come to conferences and get to encounter what I heard a grad student refer to last year as "walking books" - the actual authors behind what we're reading.  In this case, the first panel I attended featured Tom McCarthy, author of the wonderful book Auto Mania:  Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2008), one of the first things I read when I started my current study of cars and heritage.

Along with other speakers on the topic of "Mass Motorization and the Environment," McCarthy posed questions about the intersections of policy, politics, and automobility, and reached some conclusions that were ultimately rather dispiriting.  He spoke about the Clean Air Act of 1970 as the high water mark of environmental legislation in the U.S., representing "the frontiers of the politically feasible" when it was passed.  When states and agencies began trying to enact and enforce its provisions, though, particularly in the Environmental Protection Agency's ill-judged and possibly self-sabotaging promotion of mandatory gasoline rationing in California, public and political support quickly turned negative.  The EPA's credibility was badly damaged, and the episode formed part of a backlash against a whole constellation of things (including the 1973 OPEC oil embargo) that suggested to Americans that there might be limits to their expectations of mobility and freedom.  Noting that the EPA's projections and data were actually quite solid, given the scientific knowledge about car-based pollution at the time, McCarthy had to admit that "rational argument alone rarely carries the day"--an acknowledgment that echoes the ideas of Bill McKibben and Laura Nader that I wrote about in my last post.

On a slightly more positive note, McCarthy pointed out that although the EPA's data may not have swayed the public, policy-makers inside the Beltway actually did listen to what the scientists were saying, with the result that pressure to entirely gut the Clean Air Act was successfully resisted.  Federico Paolini, another of the "Mass Motorization" panelists, offered comparative comfort by showing that Italian regulation of traffic-related problems, including pollution, is only just beginning to be enacted--something that commentator Brooks Flippen said made him feel better about the U.S. government's actions in this area!  (Meanwhile, I take heart from watching Portland's light rail trains gliding past the hotel, and tomorrow I'm going to go on a bike tour--in the rain, it seems, but this is the Pacific northwest--to explore some of the city's extensive bicycle infrastructure.  Should be fun, if damp.)

(Cross-posted from my blog, History on Wheels.)

- Cathy Stanton

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