I write from a motel beside the I-95 Interstate in North Carolina. The throb of traffic is constant but not unpleasant, a low-level roar at the edge of the mind. From my room I can see the neon signs of three gas stations towering over the landscape like church spires drawing in the faithful.
A pickup truck pulls up outside in the parking lot: a Ford Explorer Sport Trac Adrenalin, a growling, bright-red monster with tinted windows and tyres a foot wide. Its red-white-and-blue bumper stickers proclaim: “Support our troops” and “Fayetteville: Home of the Brave”.
The driver, to my surprise, is not some hairy veteran with barbed-wire tattoos, but a diminutive middle-aged woman. After climbing down from the cab, she pats the car, as if it were a horse. American patriotic symbolism comes in many shapes, but one of the most potent is the star-spangled pickup truck - a pure expression of freedom, independence, money and power.
As cultural symbols go, the American car is quite young. The Model T Ford was built at the Piquette Plant in Michigan a century ago, with the first rolling off the assembly line on September 27, 1908. Only 11 cars were produced the next month. But eventually Henry Ford would build 15 million “tin lizzies” (“any colour, so long as it's black”).
Modern America was born on the road, behind a wheel. The car forged some of the most enduring elements of American culture: the roadside diner, the billboard, the motel, even the hamburger. For most of the last century, the automobile represented what it meant to be American: going forward at high speed to find new worlds. The road novel, the road movie, these are quintessential American ideas, born of abundant petrol, cheap cars and a never-ending interstate system, the largest public works project in history.
In 1928 Herbert Hoover imagined an America with “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage”. Ford Motion Pictures, once the largest film producer in the world, churned out more than 3,000 movies extolling the thrill of driving. James Dean drove a Mercury, Steve McQueen a Mustang. Charger, Blazer, Javelin: the names reflected a society that hurtled onward, never looking back, as the car transformed America from a farm-based society into an industrial giant. The love affair continues. The US now has far more cars than garages. There are 204 million registered cars, trucks and SUVs, but only 191 million drivers.
The cars that drove the American Dream have helped to create a global ecological nightmare. Europe's appetite for oil has been restrained by high petrol taxes, small cars and more efficient public transport. In America, by contrast, demand for oil has grown by 22 per cent since 1990.
The extraordinary worldwide rise of the middle class and the demand for an American lifestyle, of which car ownership is a key component, has fuelled a staggering boom. By 2050, perhaps a decade earlier, China will have 130 million cars; Moscow's roads were built for 30,000 vehicles; the city now has three million; India is planning the mass-production of a four-seater car that will cost $2,500.
The horrors of excessive energy consumption (of which cars are only one part), associated climate change, dwindling biodiversity and population growth are detailed in Hot, Flat and Crowded, a new book by the American writer Thomas L. Friedman. As the title suggests, Friedman fears the worst, but unlike so many books about the changing environment he also hopes for the best. His book is not about hand-wringing, slowing economic growth, moral censure or a radical change in lifestyles, but about harnessing American expertise, ingenuity and cash to the next great industrial revolution - finding solutions to the energy crisis that make economic sense.
Friedman points out that the green economy is a huge investment opportunity, and a chance to reassert American national strength. “The ability to design, build and export green technologies for producing clean electrons, clean water, clean air and healthy and abundant food is going to be the currency of power in the Energy Climate Era - not the only one, but right up there with computers, microchips, information technologies and planes and tanks.”
The imperative here is avowedly patriotic: “Green is the new red, white and blue.” America, with its entrepreneurial capitalist systems, research universities and history of innovation is uniquely placed to win this race, and where America leads, he says, the rest of the world will follow.
Friedman's argument may sound Utopian, but its persuasiveness lies in the absence of hair-shirt rhetoric (“this is not about the whales any more; it is about us”). His vision is to capture the best of American ambition in a sort of Puritan renewal: “We are all sailing on the Mayflower anew.” America can be both rich and virtuous, by pouring imagination, energy and money into mass-produced technology that will improve daily life, while sustaining American primacy - the very ideas that motivated Henry Ford.
The woman in the red Adrenalin pickup happily guns her motor and heads for the I-95, the rumble of her engine merging into the blanket of fossil-fuelled noise on the interstate.
Weaning America from the motorcar is a cultural gear-change that will never happen. Environmental issues have hardly touched the US election. At the Republican convention, Rudy Giuliani led delegates in a chant of “Drill, Baby, Drill”.
Yet Friedman suggests that a new route is opening up by purusing American self-interest, harnessing the raw power of American patriotism and tackling “a great opportunity disguised as an insoluble problem”. The solution lies not in finger-pointing and self-flagellation, but in persuading America to solve a problem caused, in large part, by America and the great American automobile.
As Henry Ford remarked: “Don't find fault, find a remedy. Anybody can complain.”