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No Such Thing!

by Jane Holtz Kay

Web exclusive to the Spring 2001 issue of Orion magazine



Consumption must be the sincerest form of patriotism. What else could account for our leaders’ push to buy our way out of the Afghanian badlands by consuming U.S. goods? How else, more significantly, to explain the environmentalists’ push to purchase the “next best thing:” so-called clean cars? Is it the sight of our president, mall-bound and thrusting benefits into oil industry laps, that makes even the Green community want to fuel up?

The very notion of the “clean car” has been turning Greens to pale grays for quite a while, of course. Consider, for instance, a recent mailing from Environmental Defense that landed at my door, “Finding the Way that Works.” These advocates delighted in finding a new environmentally-friendly automobile. Ahhh, yes, a car that is good for the environment. “As much fun as a basket of kittens,” purred one hebephrenic eco-enthusiast in the pamphlet, the proud owner of a gas-electric hybrid Toyota Prius.

One of several fossil fuel-lite vehicles emerging as the latest panacea for all that ails us, the Prius’ eco-hip engine is intended to compensate for everything from car-dependency and carcinogens, to habitat loss and road deaths. And more. “Some may equate conservation with dreary sacrifice but new technologies can yield energy savings with no decrease in enjoyment,” continued the article.

But it wasn’t just the environmentalist’s kittenish ecstasy over 55-miles per gallon. “It’s fast,” she gushed, about her rebirth on wheels (said basket of kittens presumably strapped into the back seat of the vehicle lest they join the 121 Americans a day killed in car accidents, not to mention their road-kill brethren).

To be sure, the notion of driving guilt-free through scenic Appalachia highways or Yosemite park is attractive. The pleasure principle of consume without guilt, is a message that goes down easily in what Worldwatch calls our “all you can eat society.” Nor is it easy to say Enough, (as the Center for the New American Dream calls their magazine), in a world where “enough” is never quite sufficient.

Pleasure passes over the edge into frivolity these days when concern for renewable energy - from conservation to wind turbines - heightens as our labor to cut oil from hostile Middle East nations or lessen nuclear power from vulnerable plants proceeds. Environmentalists offered prizes of clean cars at the last Earth Day celebration, and promises of a pollutant-free fantasy world, but they have yet to make any realistic assessment of the total impact of the automobile.

For openers, even with the perfect emission-free engine, thirty percent of the car’s lifetime resource and energy consumption occurs in production - before it ever even sees a strip mall dealer lot - to complete the maze of bodywork, bumpers, handles, seats, windshield wipers and the rest.

At the least, this deep-breathing for electric-hybrids is on the paler shade of green. At the worst, it parallels the ecstasy we see when Bush “reduces” drilling in the Gulf of Mexico or “only” takes itsy-bitsy swipes at clearcutting and road-building in first-growth forests.

Granted, it’s not easy getting around without an automobile in a car-dependent society, especially with a car-committed government spending its 53 billion transportation dollars on auto-age enhancement. Beyond the government’s post 9/11 bailout to the airlines ($15 billion), some $35 billion will go to highways and $12 billion more to airlplanes while Amtrak struggles for its existence as a free-market enterprise.

So here we are with Greens bowing to this bias, adding to the 16,000,000 new cars we buy a year, joining the fleet of 200,000,000 vehicles already on the road contributing 33% of our CO2 emissions until we s-l-o-w-l-y, expensively, eternally it sometimes seems, wait to change the fleet.

Why do so many environmentalists seem content to change the tailpipe rather than challenge the system? It is fine for Detroit to applaud its profit maker, but it is California dreaming to think of a truly clean car as a possibility. On a planet under siege, could any miracle machine stop sprawl with its farm loss and wetland takeover, its road kill and ecological desecration?

How could “clean” cars free the Americans now immobilized by auto-dependency spending eight billion hours a year stuck in traffic; help the 55 million school age children on bike or foot threatened by racing roadsters; aid the dependent elderly unable to drive, or the 9 percent of our households - the poor, women and minorities—who can’t afford a car?? What would a dream machine do for the quality of life of the overworked American needing a ton of steel and wheel to buy a quart of milk?

It’s no surprise, of course, when makers of electric or hybrid vehicles like the Honda Insight drape themselves in faux green, advertising their merchandise as “just what you and the planet have been waiting for.” Or “The new car for a new world,” as Prius puts it. And my personal favorite ad, one with appropriate irony, “Careful you may run out of planet.”

En route to something better, it is undeniably commendable to replace or reform the internal combustion engine. The Sierra Club and other groups have spent years fighting to put a mere study of CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency) standards toward getting better mileage on SUVs and other gas guzzlers. By fighting this super-scale SUV, “the Joe Camel of the auto industry,” they hoped to squeeze automakers into changing the product that earns $10,000-20,000 in profits per car. But is the SUV the only villain? And don’t we divert energies from real restructuring by proclaiming our…uh…“personal virtue” when we get better mileage?

Just last June (2001), a coven of conscientious environmentalists held an anti-SUV rally at an auto sales company car lot in the Boston area where I live. The site, in this transit-friendly town, was barely accessible without a car. Come, but find wheels first, was the implied injunction. (“What Would Jesus Drive?” asked one of their members in a later article. A donkey, I presume).

An organizer of the event, whom I chided, e-mailed me that I should “have faith and remember the French Revolution. First SUV’s, then mini-vans, then station wagons, full medium, compact, sub-compact, motorcycles, motor scooters, lawnmowers and then finally we can get back to tumbrels,” he wrote. From an organizer’s perspective, he continued, “we start with where the people are who are willing to protest. There is energy now against the suburban tanks.”

Maybe so, but is compliance so far from complacency? Why not direct this energy to securing alternate transportation? To advocating good land use planning? To centering around walkable cities? To driving less or not at all? To recalling that every mile you drive is like throwing a pound of CO2 into the overheated atmosphere. To augmenting opportunities for biking and walking. Granted this work goes on but far less visibly and theatrically than the arguing over whether there is such a thing as a “respectably-sized” vehicle, which deflects from the real work to end the Auto Age.

Altering the chemistry of the vehicle that causes one-third of our CO2 emissions is fine. But how about acknowledging that another third of this energy consumption is spent in highway-bred building of 953,000 homes a year - largely at the end of a road - filling 60,000 acres of wetland, and taking one million acres of farmland out of production every year. Why adopt the car guys’ detour? Why not challenge the chief polluter of our lives and landscapes? Clean consciences may put coins in some psychic (or Detroit-based) bank, but they don’t clean the environment.

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Jane Holtz Kay is architecture/planning critic of The Nation and author of Asphalt Nation and Lost Boston

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