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BOOKS: ‘Two Billion Cars’

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

TWO BILLION CARS: DRIVING TOWARDS SUSTAINABILITY
By Daniel and Deborah Gordon
Foreword by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Oxford University Press, $24.95, 320 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN R. COYNE JR.

In a positive and optimistic foreword obviously written before the current economic crisis, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger touches on the basic themes of this book: There are more than 1 billion vehicles in the world, heading toward 2 billion; we need them for mobility and personal freedom; but our dependence on them and on fossil fuel "contribute to global warming, deplete our natural resources, and undermine our national security."

The governor takes pride in the steps California has taken to combat these problems: "The landmark global warming bill I signed in 2006 and our follow-up low-carbon fuel standard are now models for other states and nations, and I have no doubt Washington is about to get on board in a very big way."

Mr. Schwarzenegger then makes an assertion that may give readers pause: "Ever since I took office in 2003, I have stressed repeatedly that we no longer have to get bogged down in the false choice of what's important to protect: our environment or our economy. California's leadership … is proving to the rest of the nation and the world that we can in fact protect both."

The authors agree. Daniel Sperling, professor of engineering and environmental science at the University of California at Davis and a member of the California Air Resources Board, and Deborah Gordon, a "transportation policy consultant," give short shrift to economic concerns as they explore auto-related problems and propose solutions ranging from "motivating consumer behavior" through various taxes, fees and regulations; to developing more fuel-efficient vehicles and cleaner energy technologies - batteries, fuel cells, biofuels; and "breaking Detroits hold on energy and climate policy."

That, of course, has been handled by the economic crisis, and Detroit no longer has a hold on anything — for the authors a matter of unfortunate timing, for readers a slog through a long and no longer relevant chapter.

This is true of much of the book. At a time when people are simplifying, saving and cutting back, focusing on emissions, greenhouse gases, carbon footprints and global warming (which may or may not exist) might seem just a bit frivolous, a luxury to be indulged in better times. That's why, for instance, it might be hard to think about trading a standard-issue (and cheap) vehicle for something like a Prius.

Nevertheless, at the time of writing, the Prius represented for the authors a huge technological and market breakthrough. "Since unveiling the Prius, Toyota has raced ahead of the industry … Toyota's ascendancy occurred in tandem with its marketing of cutting-edge technology for a world fighting over oil and threatened by climate change."

Today, however, oil prices have dropped sharply, Toyota is cutting back, and the world seems more threatened by economic collapse than by any theoretical climate phenomenon.

"When celebrities embraced the Prius, it really took off," the authors write.

"Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz were early buyers. Five Priuses ferried movie stars around at the 2003 Academy Awards." (The temptation here is to say: Wow!)

But that was six years ago. This year, according to a dispatch from the West Coast, hybrid sales dropped from "60 to zero at breakneck speed … Last summer, the typical Prius spent 1.6 days on the lot. But this winter, it took dealers an average 76.6 days to sell each Prius. The Camry hybrid, which moved in an average 4.6 days last summer, is sitting on the lot for an average 156 days this year."

To be fair, many of the points made in "Two Billion Cars" are sensible, if predictable. Somewhat startlingly, though, the ultimate solution comes winging in unexpectedly from left field. The two places in the world with the worst emissions problems are California and China. Mr. Schwarzenneger's state is a world leader in pioneering eco-friendly transportation technologies and motivating motorists' behavior, and China, the authors think, could be persuaded to be similarly progressive.

No doubt it would be good at it. As the authors point out, admiringly, "The Chinese government is capable of strong and effective intervention, as demonstrated by its one-child policy.

"Imagine a similar policy applied to car ownership," they continue, "or better yet, imagine household carbon budgets where individuals are held accountable for their carbon footprint."

Indeed. Yet delightful as that prospect is, it may never be realized. At the recent annual session of the National People's Congress, where the parliamentary chairman launched into a tirade against Western-style democracy and chastised us for causing the international economic crisis, it was revealed that spending on environmental projects would be cut from 9 percent to 5 percent. Not only does the line against the West seem to be growing harder, but as one analysis has it, "China's commitment to greenness appears to be ebbing."

So, at least for the immediate future, economic concerns seem to trump environmental, and "Two Billion Cars," while well-researched and solidly written, may be yet another example of California dreaming.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement," published by Wiley.