SUVs Are Not the Devil

The following is from Auden Schendler’s book, Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution – a current Earthkeeper favorite.  This particular piece illustrates how environmental  “tunnel vision” – even well-intended – can in fact be damaging to the greater cause.

It has long been in vogue to hate both sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and their drivers. The environmental community encourages commando citizens to paste I’m Changing the Climate, Ask Me How bumper stickers onto the biggest offenders. A group called Earth on Empty, based in Somerville, Massachusetts, was “ticketing” SUVs for “failure to pay attention to your own behavior,” among other crimes, and the Sierra Club, after dubbing the Ford Excursion the Valdez, had a hand in the company’s decision to mothball the beast. (That and the fact that it got 3.7 miles per gallon in city driving during one test.) A few years ago, Stonyfield Farm Yogurt joined with NPR’s Car Talk guys on a campaign with bumper stickers that read: Live Larger, Drive Smaller: Not Everyone Needs an SUV. Throughout the nation, the SUV has superseded DDT and big dams on the environmental blacklist. And the religious community has even come up with the WWJD campaign: “What Would Jesus Drive?”

There are good reasons for the anti-SUV bias. Since every gallon of gasoline burned puts twenty pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, gas-guzzling SUVs are major contributors to global warming. Each five-mile-per-gallon increment in improved fuel economy keeps ten tons of CO2 from being released over the lifetime of a vehicle.

Global warming aside, sport utility vehicles spew 30 percent more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and 75 percent more nitrogen oxides than passenger cars. Those pollutants are precursors to smog and cause asthma and other illnesses. If SUVs got gas mileage equivalent to that of passenger cars, we’d save one million barrels of oil each day. The list goes on.

But despite the strong case against SUVs, the war against them is probably a mistake on the part of the environmental community.

To begin with, most people who drive an SUV, even in a city, probably consider themselves to be outdoors people. It’s an identity thing to have four-wheel drive. And outdoors people are often environmentalists. So by vilifying this group, the SUV-haters alienate their own constituents. You may not like driving behind the guy in the Land Cruiser on I-80, but he’s probably voting for open space in his community, supporting wilderness bills, and contributing to the Sierra Club. With a little prodding, he might support even more radical environmental measures. Same with the woman in the Winnebago. But slap a stealth climate change sticker on the bumper, and you’ve radicalized them. Now they hate “environmentalists” and begin to define themselves as something else.

There’s another reason environmentalists shouldn’t take the path of “educate thy neighbors about how bad they are.” It’s a distraction. Both industry and government love educational “do the right thing” programs. Such efforts put the onus on the public, letting automakers continue with business as usual because they know the forces behind SUV purchases are bigger than any campaign. And government can do what it wants—fight wars, block climate action, torture people—while we berate our friends for tossing an empty Bud can in the trash (or, in Aspen, protest the outdoor fire hearth in the middle of town, which is a bad idea, but ultimately a distraction, too).

This is precisely what Noam Chomsky means when he talks about spectator sports. It keeps the public’s attention off what really matters, and their eyes off what the government is doing. During his two terms as president, George Bush absolutely supported a public focus on little things that people could do on a personal, voluntary basis (and he strongly emphasized this approach for businesses as well) because it defused the pressure on him to take any broad policy action.

The anti-SUV campaigns have divided and conquered two groups that both want the same thing: the enviros and the SUVers. People don’t drive SUVs because they’re bad humans. They do it because there are no other comparably priced vehicles with better gas mileage that offer equivalent perceived safety, convenience, performance, and comfort. People don’t want to go home to their kids and say: “I just destroyed a big chunk of the planet today.” People generally want to do the right thing, but they make commonsense decisions in the absence of options. Now that they drive an SUV, many of these well-intentioned people feel they can’t call themselves “environmentalists” because it would be hypocritical. But it’s not their fault—they’ve been forced into this awkward position by industry and government.

And that is where the environmental community needs to turn its energy to create real change. Environmentalists and SUV drivers may seem as incompatible as wolves and sheep, but even those animal adversaries have common ground: they both want clean air and water, healthy children, a stable climate, and beautiful views.

We just can’t afford to alienate an entire group of people on an issue that’s not about personal choice, in the end, but about the sort of cars we want to build as a nation. It’s not about you, or me, or the soccer mom: it’s about all of us working together to demand the kinds of vehicles—and the kind of future—we want for ourselves and our kids.

Yes, we should encourage people to forfeit their SUVs, if we can do it without turning them into Rush Limbaugh listeners. Consumer choices do send a message to business. But since climate policy needs to be enduring, and to be enduring it needs to be bipartisan, we can’t risk alienating an entire population that should be on our side.

From the book Getting Green Done by Auden Schendler.  Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2009.  Find out more at

  • Pajamas Media » So Can We Have Our SUVs Back Now?

    [...] was the Sierra Club that shamed Ford Motor Company into ending the production of its biggest SUV, the Excursion, by [...]

blog comments powered by Disqus