Sunday, March 28, 2010

The global car

Whether March goes out like a lion or a lamb, it's still the time of year when I have to get my car inspected. Inspection time tends to make me testy about the growing extent of the regulatory apparatus surrounding automobiles, particularly since Massachusetts started flunking vehicles whose "Check Engine" lights are on (Gretta the Jetta has a recurring non-safety-related issue that makes her light come on, although fortunately it didn't happen this week, so I have my little sticker in the window that allows me to drive legally for another year).

According to another little sticker, this one on the driver's window, Gretta is a Mexican Volkswagen, made in VW's Puebla plant. (Here's a list of all of VW's plants.) I've been thinking lately about the globalness of the car, in part because I've been reading Matthew Paterson's great book Automobile Politics: Ecology and Cultural Political Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Paterson sees the car as perhaps the crucial technology for the expansion of modern global capitalism, involved in accelerating both production and consumption and in generating and circulating enormous amounts of industrial wealth. The car industry is often seen as the exemplar of a globalized industry, especially during the 20th century; "Fordist" and "post-Fordist" labels for types of production directly invoke the history of auto manufacturing, and car companies have long been leaders in innovating new forms of global supply and financing. Paterson points out (p. 99) that while much of the actual assembly of cars is still done in the "triad" countries of North America, Japan, and western Europe, other parts of the world are beginning to catch up, particularly in component manufacturing.

Within these vast global flows of cars and car parts, there's a little heritage-oriented trickle created by vintage car collectors and enthusiasts--something that's been on my mind because I got an email yesterday from the Alice's Drive project, letting me know that a New York Times article this week featured a story about how the Alice's Drive team assembled their 1909 Maxwell from scratch. (I wrote about this project in a post earlier this year.)

Much of the hunt for Maxwell parts for the cross-country reenactment of Alice Ramsey's 1909 trip took place on the U.S. swap meet circuit, but the Internet was of course a key tool for the team as well. The Times article quotes Richard Anderson, who assembled the car: “My wife and I were on our wedding anniversary in Italy, and we stopped at an Internet cafe to get a cup of coffee and check our e-mails. And there’s an e-mail there from a Maxwell guy who lives in Australia. He said you ought to check out number such and such on eBay, I think these are the levers you need.”

Ordering hundred-year-old American-made levers from Italy on an email tip from an Australian, like driving a Mexican-made German car in New England, underscores the globalness of car-making. But the Maxwell story also makes me realize that automobility's past is still circulating out there, too, in tangible ways that newer technologies make increasingly accessible. This is a pleasing thought, given my sense that we need to see and recognize automobility’s histories (those dim days before the advent of the Check Engine light) if we’re going to remake or unmake it. Perhaps cars are really neither created nor destroyed, but are all just out there somewhere circulating in global flows that we may be able to tap into if we're tenacious enough.

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.)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Laura Nader on energy and the commons

I went to hear anthropologist Laura Nader give the annual Distinguished Lecture sponsored by the Greater Boston Anthropology Consortium last week at Clark University in Worcester. Her talk was called “Energy, Environment, and the Commons: The Specialist and the Generalist,” and while she wasn’t speaking about cars or history per se, some of what she said resonated in interesting ways with the reasons why I started this car/heritage research project.

Nader’s talk was a somewhat loosely-strung-together set of points, drawing on her teaching, research, and engagement in energy studies over the past several decades. She argued that in order to “think new” about energy, we need to decouple a number of taken-for-granted equations: that “progress” is achieved through technology, that greater access to energy always equals an improved quality of life, and that the ticket price of energy reflects its actual costs. She also focused sort of obliquely on history, noting that most Americans know little or nothing about the histories of our own energy use and policy, and arguing that in order to wise up about this, we need to look far beyond the industrial and fossil fuel era and think about energy use within the long span of human life on the planet (what some people are now calling “Big History”). Even among people who agree that we need to change our energy habits, she said, we seem stuck in the same unproductive debates about which “alternative” fuel source will let us perpetuate a way of life that is a miniscule blip in the history of human existence, and which is predicated on quickly using up one type of fuel that took millions of years to create. And these unproductive debates give us a society in which, as she put it, “everything changes but nothing moves.”

The role of “the commons” was the least developed idea in her talk, but by implication, she made something of a case for the importance of a discursive or intellectual commons in which we can figure out the fraught questions around energy use in a civil, collective way. She noted that for most of human history—presumably meaning the long phase where humans were all hunters and gatherers—everyone had equal access to sources of energy. It’s only with the relatively recent advent of other modes of subsistence (like agriculture and, of course, industry) that access to energy has correlated to social difference and wealth. I couldn’t tell if she was advocating some kind of utopian return to commonly-held energy sources; her examples of the hopeful signs she sees in the emerging “green” energy sector actually seemed focused on small-scale entrepreneurial projects very much in the capitalist mode. But she did direct a lot of her remarks to the difficulty of having a shared, creative, open civic conversation about energy. She argued for the importance of generalists who can help all of us to “connect the dots” and to overcome the narrowness of either specialization or vestedness in the fossil-fueled status quo.

Her points echoed those made by Bill McKibben—an articulate generalist and a writer I admire greatly—in a recent Tom Dispatch piece. McKibben notes how depressingly easy it is to skew public debate when there isn’t agreement about the basic nature of the evidence we’re looking at (in this case, the always contestable evidence created by scientific inquiry). One side is saying, “Look, we don’t know everything, but on balance, we know enough to be concerned and to take action,” while the other side seizes gleefully on the admission of indeterminacy and uses that to call the whole body of knowledge into question. (McKibben compares this tactic with the way the O.J. Simpson defense team threw enough sand into the works of the prosecution’s case to secure a “not guilty” verdict for their demonstrably-guilty client.)

Like Nader, McKibben sees a need for tolerant, broad-minded thinkers who can weigh different kinds of evidence and not be bamboozled by narrow interests, special pleading, or their own anxieties (which people often displace onto the nearest handy target—say, Al Gore). The goal of producing tolerant, broad-minded, generally-educated thinkers is, of course, the ideal of many people involved in liberal arts education, and it’s also the implied goal of much public history practice, which is where I see a connection between Nader’s and McKibben’s thoughts and my own car/heritage research.

Like science, history is open-ended, always in process, always contestable. And like scientists, historians have a tricky kind of authority, based on careful specialized study but always subject to challenge and possible revision. Scholars are used to challenges from within their disciplines, but when they enter the public arena, they become subject to challenges from those who aren’t playing by the same rules—a situation familiar to public historians who find their work running afoul of community or political opinions. Given how hard-fought the energy and climate debates currently are, perhaps it’s not surprising that historic and heritage sites (with a few exceptions, like this one) have not become deeply involved in those arenas so far. Listening to Laura Nader, though, it seemed clear to me that until we have a more productive space of discourse and debate, we’re unlikely to be able to reinvent our energy use in the ways that we need to do. Looking at the way the climate-change nay-sayers are misreading the recent Washington, DC blizzard, it feels as though we’re a long way away from that kind of commons at the moment, but I want to hope that public historical display might have some role in eventually helping to create it.

(Laura Nader's new edited anthology The Energy Reader, which I'm looking forward to, is due out in a couple of months.)