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Looking Back on the Gas Age

   A thousand years from now, if anyone is still alive, they'll call this the Gas Age. The Petroleum Period. The Oil Epoch. We'll be known by what we burned.

   These humans of the future, gliding to work on solar-powered plasma beams, won't care about our wars, and they'll have trouble keeping the Napoleons and Lincolns straight, the same way that today we struggle to remember the difference between Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. Mainly, they'll recall that we were promiscuous with hydrocarbons as we gallivanted all over the place in machines called cars. They'll shake their genetically modified, watermelon-sized heads in disapproval.

   What they'll never grasp is what a blast the Gas Age has been.

   The car may be evil, worse even than the belching, flatulent, carefully bred beast we call the cow, but the car is also the most delightful invention since fire. A car is fire converted to speed. The bad news: A planet is gradually ruined. The good news: The 2006 eight-cylinder Chevy Corvette can go zero-to-60 in 3.8 seconds!

   [Click here to read the entire column. To go to the Rough Draft archive, click here.]

   [Regular readers are aware that self-plagiarism is the foundation of this blog. Amateur writers repackage material several times, but professionals can reach 20 reiterations or more. By my count I have written some version of this car column precisely 87 times, and am thrilled at the prospect of reaching the fabled century mark. Appended below, for example, is an excerpt and link from a piece that ran on this website a few years back. Though ostensibly about George Washington, it is really about cars and how they've reshaped the American landscape:

    Following the Footsteps of G.W.

    Originally published Feb. 6, 2002

   CHARLES TOWN, W. VA. -- I've been following the tracks of George Washington. The boast that "George Washington Slept Here" is appropriately widespread; the man slept around. He was probably the most widely traveled American of his time, always charging off somewhere, always exploring the wilderness or trying to start a war somewhere. I, too, often have the urge to pack the kids in the Honda and drive out I-66, and indeed the only real difference between George Washington and me is that he was the Father of Our Country and I am an inconsequential person who by comparison cannot even call myself a man.

    It took G.W. two days on horseback to get from Mount Vernon to Charles Town; today you can make the trip in just over an hour if you avoid rush hour and take the right freeway. The problem with the Washington area is that it is quickly turning into Los Angeles, land of the 24-hour traffic jam. You can't drive on a whim from the city to the country -- you have to make an escape, carefully calculating the moment when you can make a break for it. Otherwise the traffic suddenly congeals around you and your life is basically over.

   On the drive to West Virginia you see the epic struggle between open space and subdivisions. A farm within 40 miles of the District is a museum piece now, or a kind of performance art. Some of these farms open their doors to tourists from the city, who find farmlife exotic and will pay big money for the pleasure of petting a goat or climbing on a hay bale. Cornfields near cities aren't harvested anymore, they're turned into mazes for city children. Corn is not as valuable as the concept of corn, the principle of corn. It's not corn anymore, it's "corn." This is the final stage of civilization before everything collapses into barbarism: When corn and cereal crops are celebrated for their irony.

    Click here to read the entire column.

By Joel Achenbach  |  October 2, 2005; 8:19 AM ET
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"they´ll shake their genetically modified, watermelon sized heads in disapproval" and think: How barbarians and primitives they were (they will probably have not one single hair at all.For them beards and moustaches shall mean the same that the "cave men" means to us nowadays).
It´s funny because i have always confused those two caracthers Joel refers (Atila the Hun and Genghis Khan). I thaught they were the same person (until i found that Genghis Kahn was much more powerful and ruthless than Atila- Atila is a common nickname for ridiculous persons. I know a person,friend of a friend, who likes to be called that way, because he thinks he´s mean and everybody is scared of him).
By the way i´ll have to ask a favour from someone- WP email of Joel.Kbertocci once gave it to me but i´ve lost the paper where i wrote it.I want to send a gift from my farm to Joel.Thank you all.

Posted by: suprassis | October 2, 2005 9:48 AM | Report abuse

(honor system)

Posted by: Paulo only: Click here to email Joel | October 2, 2005 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Oh, Marshall McLuhan, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

p. 93
"...transport without wheels had played a big role before the wheel, some of which was by sledge, over both snow and bogs. Much of it was by pack animal--woman being the first pack animal. Most wheel-less transport in the past, however, was by river and sea, a fact that is today as richly expressed as ever in the location and form of the greatest cities of the world."

"Today, when the greatest volume of transport consists of the moving of information, the wheel and the road are undergoing recession and obsolescence; but in the first instance, given the pressure for, and from, wheels, there had to be roads to accommodate them."

p. 94
"Great improvements in roads brought the city more and more to the country. The road became a substitute for the country by the time people began to talk about 'taking a spin in the country.' With superhighways the road became a wall between man and the country. Then came the stage of a highway as a city, a city stretching continuously across the continent, dissolving all earlier cities into the sprawling aggregates that desolate their populations today."

p. 95
"A speed-up in communication always enables a central authority to extend its operations to more distant margins." (Think about it: government as well as corporate)

McLuhan's 1964 "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" from the chapter titled, "Roads and Paper Routes"--as we electronically read this "newspaper"...

P.S. The promiscuity is not HIV, but SUV.

Posted by: Linda Loomis | October 2, 2005 11:09 AM | Report abuse

What is scariest to me is the idea of vehicles used not so much as means of conveyance, but as image/ego enhancers.

I contend, I contend, I contend that the most dangerous substance on the planet and known to man is not gunpowder, or trinitrotoluene or fission or fusion reactions, but testosterone.

Also recommended: Bill McKibben's 1989 (1999 revised) "The End of Nature"
"The idea of nature is hardy. Our ability to shut the destroyed areas from our minds, to see beauty around man's degradation, is considerable."

Posted by: Linda Loomis | October 2, 2005 12:11 PM | Report abuse

"The most dangerous substance on the"


My being resonates with your comments.

But I'm embarrassed for both of us. Where would we be, after all, if all we had was the distaff side of humanity? Surely we are grateful for Joel's existence, for example. But beyond that, the creative drive that perpetuates our species mostly, it appears to me, resides in men--leaving the equally (more?) necessary job of nurturing to women. Is biology our destiny? Not in theory. But as I like to say, "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."

When I was young and idealistic, I thought I could do anything. My father was my role model, more than my mother. But looking back from middle age, I see that my life was shaped by my biology much more than I could ever have imagined it would be. My imagination has remained free, but this earthly existence: defined by my roles as spouse and mother.

So let's try to temper the effects of testosterone on the planet, but certainly not try to eradicate the substance altogether.

Posted by: Reader | October 2, 2005 1:42 PM | Report abuse


I spend a week's holiday in the Voges region in France and one of the things I liked the most was driving around in the country side on the small winding hillside roads. Doing that meant that in a small way I was destroying what I enjoyed since my car I added some CO to the atmosphere, thus strengthening the global warming cycle which will change what the region looks like. (I won't even think about what the roads I drove on did to the local environment.)

On the days I hiked in the woods it struck me that they all were man made. Sometimes it was more obvious then others, especially when all the trees are planted in straight lines. I remember hearing that in Europe, all the country side including the forests are man made. Nothing is left of the primal forest that covered most of Europe after the ice age. (Except in a part of Poland.)
Everything is there by design. Some forests are there so that game could be hunted, others to provide construction materials.
That's what 30.000 years of continual habitation by humans does.
We change our environment, in primitive times by using the plough and fire, in more modern times by changing the climate by driving our SUV's.

But are the changes we wreak separate from nature or part of the natural cycle?
Do we need to put us on a higher ethical standard from the primitive bacteria that just by living changed the composition of our atmosphere so much that the oxygen they exhaled killed off most of life at the time? They might have stopped one branch on the tree of life evolving, but the permitted another to bloom. Maybe it's the same with us. We might stop Panda's evolving into the intelligent enlightened beings we will never be, but maybe some day a descendant of the brown rat will study the time the climate and environment changed so much that all off a sudden they took off in an evolutionary spiral that lead to them becoming intelligent enough to ask the question: "Do we rats destroy the world by driving our SUV's?".

Posted by: Eurotrash | October 2, 2005 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Cows are not evil. Cows sustain us.

We are what we eat, ya know.

Posted by: FF | October 2, 2005 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Be not embarrassed for me! Did I say tht we needed to "eliminate" testosterone? No. And, as you posit, as far as which of the sexes has the greatest "creative drive" and to whom the nuturing role should fall, why, these two topics can be the subject of immense, intense debate.

But today's argument is fundamentally automobiles, and if you know McLuhan's writings, you'll know that Joel has borrowed hugely from him in his fuller, complete essay in today's Washington Post.

(Joel is getting smarter: rather than post comments from a previous Washington Post Sunday piece a day, a week, or a month after it's run, he's posting, as of today, the topic on the blog concurrently on the same day his longer article runs in the Post. See, there is such a thing as evolution and a learning curve!)

This is kinda fun, from Joel:
"When you get tired of tooling around town in American Graffiti mode, you light out for the territory, hit Route 66, get in a drag race like James Dean, head to Vegas like Hunter S. Thompson, spend weeks on the road like Jack Kerouac. Our cult heroes were brilliant drivers. You have to put out of your mind that Route 66 has been largely obliterated by freeways, that Dean died young in a car crash, that Thompson burned out and took his own life, and that Kerouac became a drunk and died of internal bleeding in St. Petersburg at the age of 47. Just keep driving."

George Lucas, who grew up in Modesto and whose father owned and operated a stationary store downtown (not too far from the chamber of commerce where I worked as communications manager) is alive and doing quite well, thank you very much. One has only to consider his Skywalker Ranch in Marin County; his company, Industrial Light and Magic; and his futuristic Star Wars series of movies. Modesto, at least when I worked there, celebrated Lucas/"American Grafitti" in a week-long series of events. The big weekend Modesto Chamber community (food, etc.) event was "Modesto a la Carte." Those were the good ol' days!

Posted by: Linda Loomis | October 2, 2005 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Pappy Lucas' stationery store was stationary.

Posted by: Loomis | October 2, 2005 3:23 PM | Report abuse

hmmm...what is Danica Patrick's testosterone level, I wonder?

Posted by: off topic | October 2, 2005 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Matthew 26:52

re: Danica Patrick:
Live by the road, die by the road.
(as Joel has so aptly pointed out)

One of my college roommates, now a lawyer, used to fume when she saw the Virginia Slims commercials in magazines. "Oh great," she'd say and sigh, "now women have just as many 'rights' to die from cigarettes and lung cancer as men do." Risky behaviors often have risky outcomes.

Posted by: Loomis | October 2, 2005 5:22 PM | Report abuse

...those future worlds predicted back in
the 1950's by the detroit 3 many times
came with large doses of sci fi style
artwork depicting atomic powered vehicles
transiting thru the air on automatically
guided glideways.....where the occupants
were evidently enjoying scenery below of
sci fi looking layouts...on the way to a
distant future city of luminous intensity
on the and gm really
took these fanciful future views to some
high levels of developement...many of the
1950's "dream cars" from ford and gm were
literal lifts from some of those "world of
tomorrow" illustrations...................
...somehow what was envisioned then and
the world of 2005 do indeed seem very much
out of atomic power
skyways to glide to and about on...very
little of that future as seen from back
there in mid 20th century america.........
...but the flights of fancy were positive
and seemed to point to solutions found and
new vistas of man's advance forward.......
...the world is better understood today in
terms of enviromental connectivity,ecology
and the need to tread lighter.............
and surely we all understand now better how
fragile our "manmade" world can be in the
face of planetary disruption of clean air,
drinkable water and viable forests........
...but it was no doubt fun to dream up all
those sharply finned,bubble domed atomic
powered man movers.....and mans better side
will always see those future worlds where
life is going to be better................

Posted by: an american in siam.... | October 2, 2005 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Reminds me of a favorite Calvin & Hobbes strip:

C&H, walking in a snowy field:
Hobbes: A new decade is coming up.
Calvin: Yeah, big deal! Hmph.
Calvin: Where are the flying cars?
Where are the moon colonies?
Where are the personal robots and
zero gravity boots, huh? You call
this a new decade?! You call this
the future?? HA!
Calvin: Where are the rocket packs?
Where are the disintegration rays?
Where are the floating cities?
Hobbes: Frankly, I'm not sure people have
the brains to manage the technology
they've GOT.
Calvin: I mean, LOOK at this! We still have
WEATHER?! Give me a break!

Come back, Bill Watterson...we miss you!

Posted by: Oct 2 | October 2, 2005 7:04 PM | Report abuse

american in siam writes:
and mans better side
will always see those future worlds where
life is going to be better................

Not necessarily, american in siam. What I'm about to post harkens back to the concluding part of Eurotrash's post.

From McKibben's book "The End of Nature"

The Gaia hypothesis [formulated by British scientist James Lovelock] seems, at first blush, to indicate that matters may not be too desperate, that life on the planet will continue regardless of waht we do. Lovelock says that this is indeed the case--that the planet will make the necessary adjustments. The earth has dealt with worse problems than the ones we've caused--the rain of planetesimals, for instance, on at least 10 occasions inflicted damage that was "comparable in severity to that of a burn affecting 60 percent of the skin of a human," and even a nuclear war would be taken in stride. Those who say that the destruction of the ozone layer would kill almost all of life are wrong, according to Lovelock. "Earth's fragile shield is a myth," he writes. "The ozone layer certainly exists today, but it is a flight of fancy to believe that its presence is essential for life."

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that this is "life" he is discussing, not "human life." Gaia, the living organism, is as happy with one-celled wriggling whatevers as she is with mighty man. "Although Gaia may be immune to the eccentricities of some wayward species like us...this does not mean that we as a species are protected from the consequences of our collective folly," he writes. "Gaia is no doting mother, no fainting damsel. She is a tough virgin, 3.5 billion years old. If a species screws up, she eliminates it with all the feeling of the microbrain in an ICBM." If the world is made unfit by our actions, Gaia will not just find some way to reduce the temperature so we can keep driving Cadillacs; more likely, a new, steady state will evolve, and "it's a near certainty that the new state will be less favorable for humans than the one we enjoy now."

Posted by: Linda Loomis | October 2, 2005 7:59 PM | Report abuse

I find the idea that we will be laughed at by people in the next millennium comforting. It means there will still be people, and there will still be laughter.

Posted by: RD Padouk | October 3, 2005 6:42 AM | Report abuse

I would humbly suggest that even as dependency on gasoline for personal transportation may wane (in the second half of the 21st century I'd guess), if you think the car's going away, you're wrong. Didn't you play with slotcars or A/FX cars as a kid?

Considering that electric motors can put out all of it's available torque immediately accelerating from a dead stop, I think the future of performance vehicles (of both truck and car varieties) is probably pretty good. Instead of adding turbochargers, cams, and modifying the engine's control systems' fuel curves and spark advance, you'll see hot rodders getting lighter batteries, bigger magnets and adding more copper windings to the electric motors.

At least that's what I'll do.


Posted by: bc | October 3, 2005 9:28 AM | Report abuse

We ALREADY have hot rodders and gearheads boosting the battery power of their Toyota Priuses (check out plug-in hybrids at

I LOVE driving, and I love zipping around in little stick-shift cars. My dream car is a Cooper Mini, which is pretty good on gas. And I've driven the 60+ mpg, hybrid Honda Insight (2-seater), which actually feels and handles like a sports car. Sure, it's hard to have a hot date in these cars....

But the point is, I don't think we'll have to give up the satifaction of downshifting on a tight curve in order to save gas. And we can do things like building walkable & transit-friendly communities so we don't have to drive EVERYWHERE - - and we can still have cars that are fun to drive.

Posted by: thisbe | October 6, 2005 5:46 PM | Report abuse

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