Published on Monday, January 20, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
'If war is inevitable, start drafting SUV drivers now'
Growing Coalition Challenges Morality of SUVs
by Julian Guthrie
Sue Thiemann, an otherwise mild-mannered Palo Alto resident and Ivy League trained statistician, has slapped hundreds of faux tickets on Bay Area "mega monsters."
Thiemann, who is 48 and married to a clinical psychologist, skips the smaller SUVs, searching instead for Suburbans, which she calls Subhumans, Land Cruisers, derided as Land Bruisers and Excursions, mocked as Extinctions.
"I hate them for environmental reasons. I hate them for safety reasons. Most of all, I hate them for the self-centered, self-absorbed, moral-midget rudeness," Thiemann declared.
But not everyone is jumping on the same wagon. Despite the criticism, consumers are forking over truckloads of cash, and SUV sales are stronger than ever.
General Motors sold more than 1.2 million SUVs last year, setting an all- time record. GM's latest addition to the SUV market, the three-ton all-terrain Hummer 2, added nearly $1 billion to the company's sales.
Ford last year sold more Explorer SUVs than Honda sold Accord sedans, and Explorer sales were bumper-to-bumper with the best-selling Toyota Camry.
"The backlash we're seeing is remarkable and more intense than before, and some of the innuendos are just awful, but sales are still strong and are not turning around," said Michael Marsden, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who teaches an honors course on the automobile in American culture.
"What a lot of protesters are missing is that Americans have a deep psychological connection to the SUV. American automotive life is about mobility and freedom. SUVs give you freedom, in a psychological sense, one that isn't necessarily rational, but is emotional."
There also is a practical connection, SUV drivers say.
Cristin Tuider, who lives in Santa Rosa and works at Sonoma State University, owns a 1995 Toyota 4Runner. She uses it for commuting, hauling and heading off-road. She is an environmentalist and a peace activist.
"Rather than bashing SUV drivers and trying to create new enemies, let's educate people as to alternatives to SUVs," said Tuider, who hopes to one day buy a hybrid car. "People are so quick to judge. There are the SUV drivers who have big families and can't fit everyone into small cars. There are ways to be economical about gas while driving a truck or SUV. People should take a step back and reason. I'm not the enemy."
For better or worse, SUVs have become the most popular vehicle on America's streets. High profit margins on sales have lured even high-end carmakers such as Porsche, BMW and Mercedes into the SUV market.
The ubiquity makes Marsden think of the SUV as the modern-day Conestoga wagon, used by American settlers to move families and freight cross country.
Conservationists and other critics have long asserted that the SUV guzzles gas, hogs the road, endangers other drivers, accelerates global warming and is more likely to be used for latte runs than rugged road trips or family relocation.
Adding to that more familiar anti-SUV refrain are new and unexpected voices and levels of dissent.
Earlier this month, a Ford truck dealership in Pennsylvania was set on fire, the alleged target of the radical Earth Liberation Front. A posting on the group's Web site said the attack targeted SUVs in an effort to "remove the profit motive from the killing of the natural environment."
Last week, a group based in Hollywood and led by political columnist Arianna Huffington began airing in-your-face television ads that equate SUV driving with supporting terrorism.
One ad begins, "I helped hijack an airplane. I helped blow up a nightclub. So what if it gets 11 miles to the gallon. I helped our enemies develop weapons of mass destruction. What if I need to go off-road? I helped teach kids around the world to hate America. I like to sit up high."
On Saturday, owners of more than 100 alternative fuel vehicles joined bicyclists and pedestrians in creating a side show to the anti-war rally. The group, calling themselves Environmentalists Against the War, was composed of organizations such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Working Assets.
Supporters carried signs reading, "If war is inevitable, start drafting SUV drivers now." A Ford Explorer was decorated with an oil drum, oil cans and slogans reading, "Axle of Evil."
Even some carmakers have taken advantage of the sentiment, positioning themselves as folks to SUVs. Ads for the aptly named Mini Cooper promise "The SUV backlash officially starts now."
Other organizations say they are witnessing a steady increase in anti-SUV activism.
"We know that we're going up against the all-powerful Detroit, but we feel we're making a difference," said John Tagiuri, a founder of the group Earth on Empty, based in Cambridge, Mass., which has ticketed more than 1 million SUVs in 500 American cities. The tickets, which can be downloaded from the Internet, enumerate the group's litany of bad things about SUVs.
"We feel that if we galvanize a movement and keep a discussion going, if we make it uncool to drive SUVs, then we are doing our part in the fight," he said. "If we get one person not to drive an SUV, we have made a difference."
A national, interfaith evangelical group has added another twist to the SUV discourse. Rev. Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, which launched the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign, wants Americans to understand that transportation is a moral choice.
"Transportation choices are the largest way we impact God's creation in terms of pollution and environmental degradation," Ball said. "Jesus taught us to love your neighbor like yourself. I think it's a good idea to ask, 'If Jesus were in my shoes, what would he do?' "
Ball and members of the interfaith organization recently met with Detroit automakers to discuss their environmental concerns. The carmakers appeared responsive, Ball said. General Motors and Ford have said they plan to phase in hybrid technology over the next several years and raise the fuel economy of their SUVs by 25 percent.
The answer to what Jesus would drive is not easy, Ball acknowledged. "In many things I do, I ask, 'If Jesus were in my shoes, what would he do?' We believe Jesus is in our hearts."
Ball's heart has led him to drive a Volvo.
Others posit a more earthly response.
Marsden, the professor at Eastern Kentucky University, pondered the question before responding, "I'd venture to say that Jesus would drive a Suburban because he had 12 apostles."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle