Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability
Daniel Sperling & Deborah Gordon
Oxford University Press

John Knechtel, editor
Alphabet City Media/The MIT Press

To be properly shocked by the idea of two billion cars in the world in 20 years, you need to know that at present there are one billion. How can the planet sustain such growth at a time when cutting back on fossil fuel pollution--and possibly on energy use in general--is crucial?

Perhaps surprisingly, the authors don't emphasize slowing the growth in the number of cars, but in their vision of "Futurama III" (following the car-intensive visions promoted in the General Motors Futurama displays at the New York World's Fairs of 1939 and 1964) for the transportation world of 2050, people will use different kinds of cars in different ways, as well as a mix of transportation vehicles, not necessarily privately owned but thanks in part to computer power, always available. "A typical traveler might use one form of tranportation or mobility service one day and another the next, depending on the nature of the errand, time available, distance, weather and traffic conditions, and personal considerations." And of course they will all be zero emission vehicles.

This vision follows a succinct, crisply written but still thorough summary of recent transportation and fossil fuel history, which makes this a valuable handbook on these issues. As for policy, the authors have definite and clearly stated views on what will work and what won't in energy and climate crisis efforts, which add informed opinion to ongoing debates. All together, Two Billion Cars is an exceptionally clear and useful book.

Fuel is a mini-anthology of writings plus photos and illustrations. It also emphasizes mixed modes of transportation and "energy pluralism," while being perhaps even more aggressive in stating the need to change quickly from dependence on oil, and the practical difficulties of doing so.

The essays are a combination of pretty specific case studies and more general summaries, which is a good mix. As a physical book, however, this volume confuses me. It's heavily illustrated with photos, drawings, charts, maps, etc. but they don't seem particularly striking or useful to me (but then, I'm not a chart and graph person, let alone a fan of schematics) and the book is an odd size for an illustration-heavy tome--small and fat--and the binding works against being able to easily see the illustrations, or even keep the book open.

This might just be a question of style, and it doesn't grab me but it might be just the thing for others. The essays, though uneven, are mostly pertinent and sometimes provocative.

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