Lives Per Gallon

IF YOU’VE EVER held your nose while waiting behind an idling bus or rolled up the windows when caught in traffic, that was wise. According to the facts assembled in Lives Per Gallon by Terry Tamminen, special advisor to California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the health problems caused by secondhand petroleum smoke are comparable to those caused by tobacco smoke. That our profligate use of fossil fuels is bad for our health, bad for our children’s health, and bad for the planet is not breaking news, but Tamminen’s personal and impassioned overview of the evidence against Big Oil makes a persuasive argument for the urgency of ending our petroleum habit.

“Consider how much of your life is dependent, if not outright addicted, to petroleum,” Tamminen asks — from “the daily commute and delivery of the kids to soccer practice” to the “broccoli in the produce aisle that got here because of petroleum-based fertilizers” to “yet more diesel in the trailer and big-rig that delivered it to the supermarket.” Each chapter enumerates the steep price we pay for this reliance — not just in dollars and cents, but also in compromised health, environmental degradation, social injustice, and political and economic instability.

Tamminen does not tread lightly, and this story of oil spills, lung disease, greenhouse gasses, climate change, and political machinations is not a happy one. In the United States, diesel exhaust causes tens of thousands of cancer cases a year. Children riding in diesel-fueled school buses in California are exposed to forty-six times the cancer risk the federal government considers significant.

Throughout the book, Tamminen calls for an energy policy that promotes conservation and a shift away from fossil fuels, but his solutions — at least here — are far less detailed than his description of the problems. Still, as this persuasive and surprisingly readable compilation of grim information makes painfully clear, we are long past overdue for a radical overhaul in our energy consumption. The message of Lives Per Gallon is one we ignore at our own peril.