Henry Luce was the first to speak of the coming of the American Century: Some forty years later Naohiro Amaya, a Japanese intellectual and high-level civil servant, would say that the American Century was the same thing as the Oil Century--an era in which the economy was driven by oil instead of coal and in which, for the first time, the worker became a consumer as well. Daniel Yergin described this liberated worker-consumer as the Hydrocarbon Man. Unlike the worker who toiled in the coal age, the Hydrocarbon Man was the benficiary of his own labor. He owned a car and a house and enjoyed a generally improved style of living....
In addition most industrialists saw oil as a means of fostering more stable social-political conditions. [He's talking about domestically, but when applied to the current geopolitical situation the irony is almost painful.]
In the period from 1949 to 1972, American consumption of oil went from 5.8 million barrels per day to 16.4 million barrles per day. In 1949, coal accounted for two thirds of the world's energy; by 1971, oil accounted for two thirds.
General Motors, in the years after the way, made ever bigger cars.[...] Smaller cars meant smaller profits, while production costs stayed the same.[...] Crucial to [GM CEO Alfred P.] Sloan's dream was the annual model change, designed to make car owners restless with the cars they owned and eager for newer products. But GM's categories were the core of its success. They made car owners restless by playing off broader aspirations. The Chevy was for blue-collar people with solid jobs and for young couples just starting out who had to be careful with money; the Pontiac was for more successful people who were confident about their economic futures and wanted a sportier car--one thinks of the young man just out of law school; the Olds was, in the beginning of the decade, a bit more sedate--for the white-collar bureaucrat or old-fashioned manager; the Buick was for the town's doctor, the young lawyer who was about to be made partner, or the elite managerial class; the Cadillac was for the top executive or owner of the local factory.
Starting in the late twenties, Sloan and his colleagues at GM inaugurated the second stage of the automobile ear, in which the car was not merely transportation but a reflection of status, a concept to which most Americans responded enthusiastically as they strove to move upward into the middle class, and then the upper middle class. Under Sloan, the buyer was supposed to covet and ever showier, ever more expensive car; as such a car was not a permanent possession, it was an economic benchmark on life's journey to the top.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
the roots of petropolitics
from david halberstam, the fifties