No Apologies Needed for Driving an SUV

Published February 1, 2003

Americans like the environment. But the November 2002 elections demonstrated they don’t particularly like the advocacy groups that claim to speak for the “environmental movement.” Why? Perhaps it’s the moral self-righteousness, political shrillness, and, well, sheer loopiness that is part and parcel of Green rhetoric today. The campaign to shame people out of their SUVs is a clear case in point.

First, consider the loopiness. “What would Jesus drive?” asks the Rev. Bill Ball, director of something called the Evangelical Environmental Network and winner of the “15 minutes of fame” award in the print media last Spring. “Jesus wants his followers to drive the least-polluting, most efficient vehicle that truly meets their needs, though first he might look at other ways to get around.” The media, which ate this guy up, report Ball plans to spend $65,000 to convince Americans that the road to salvation lies in selling their SUVs.

Some rather obvious questions, of course, come to mind. First, would Jesus rather have Ball spend $65,000 to campaign against energy consumption or spend that money to feed the hungry or help the sick? Second, how in the world does Ball know Jesus’ opinion about automotive engineering (is there a “Book of Ford” in the New Testament I somehow missed)? Third, because we know SUVs are safer to drive than the cars Ball would have us buy (a matter put to bed once and for all in a study issued by the National Academy of Sciences two years ago), would Jesus really want us to put our loved ones at risk to eke out a few more miles per gallon?

For shrillness, however, you can’t beat the indefatigable Arianna Huffington or her sidekick, Bill Maher (late of “Politically Incorrect”). Huffington, for her part, has put together a national ad campaign arguing that, if you’re driving an SUV, you’re complicit in al Qaeda’s terrorism. Maher, not to be outdone, has written a book titled When You Ride Alone You Ride With bin Laden.

Indeed, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some smug Blue-state wise guy who relishes turning the tables on SUV-driving “Red America” for their supposed lack of patriotism.

Never mind that 80 percent of the gasoline we put in our tanks is refined from oil bought from outside the Persian Gulf. Never mind that al Qaeda is funded not by the oil sheiks but by bin Laden’s personal fortune (derived long ago from his family’s construction business), criminal schemes run by entrepreneurial terrorists, wealthy Muslims who seem to have made their fortune outside the oil business, and charity scams that harvest money from unsuspecting Muslims who think their dollars are going to war orphans. In fact, should al Qaeda win this war, it’s the guys running the Persian Gulf oil fields today who’ll be the first to hang–and they know it.

Finally, there’s the constant admonition from the self-righteous that SUVs are choking the life out of the planet. Only mindless materialism, greed, and self-absorption, they say, explain the lack of concern SUV drivers have for the awesome damage they inflict on the world. What goes unacknowledged, however, is that America’s romance with SUVs coincided with tremendous improvements in air quality.

Since 1980, ambient concentrations of carbon monoxide have dropped 61 percent, leaving only two small towns in California in violation of federal winter smog standards. Likewise in 1984, half of America’s cities were in violation of federal summer smog standards, with those cities averaging 12 violations a year. By last year, however, only 14 percent of America’s cities were in violation of those standards, with those cities experiencing but four violations a year. Sulfur dioxide emissions (the cause of acid rain) fell by 31 percent since 1980; lead emissions by 94 percent; and small particulate matter by 50 percent. Clearly, SUVs and the environment can coexist nicely.

And as far as self-indulgence is concerned, where are those critics when they need a lift to the supermarket or hospital in the middle of a snowstorm?

Cadging a ride from their SUV-driving neighbors, that’s where. Where are they when they need to haul some new furniture or whatnot home from the store? Borrowing the neighbor’s SUV, more likely than not. When a troop of kids needs to be carted off to some activity, it’s the neighborhood SUV-driving parent who plays bus driver, freeing other parents from duty and thereby keeping at least a couple of extra cars off the road. And should an accident occur, it’s the SUV that is statistically more likely to save little Johnny from death or dismemberment–the hybrid battery-powered car is more likely to turn said Johnny into a pancake.

If you don’t like SUVs, don’t drive them. But the high moral horse rode by SUVs’ critics is in reality a low, half-witted donkey.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resources studies at the Cato Institute.