Published on Tuesday, July 6, 2004 by the Guardian / United Kingdom
Driving into the Abyss
We must Tackle the Environmental Nightmare of 4x4s by Taxing them off the Road
by George Monbiot
Financial Times, July 3, main section: "French road tax rattles gas guzzlers". The French government is hoping to impose a tax of up to €3,200 on new 4-wheel drive cars (4x4s), which are wrecking its cities and cooking the planet.
Financial Times, July 3, How to Spend It supplement: "Wet this baby's head". A new amphibious vehicle "will be the beefiest 4x4 on road or water". It has a top speed of over 100mph on the road, and 30mph on the water. The developer is holding down the price to "teach people to recognize it as the way forward".
Now we can bugger up our rivers as well as our roads. This is what we mean by progress.
Neither the Financial Times nor the company's website reveals how many miles per gallon, or gallons per mile, the Gibbs Aquada does, and the woman at the sales department told me she didn't understand what I meant by "mpg". (Perhaps I am asking too much of these people: the spokeswoman at the Department for Transport hadn't heard of carbon dioxide.) But, in case you were wondering, the FT explains why you might need this vehicle: "This will take you on the school run and up the Amazon." If your children go to school up the Amazon, in other words, it's indispensable.
Or perhaps the inventor has developed the perfect business model. If the Gibbs Aquada takes off, global warming will accelerate. If global warming accelerates, floods will become more frequent. If floods become more frequent, you will need the Gibbs Aquada to get to school.
Tony Blair now identifies climate change as "the single most important issue we face as a global community". The main cause of climate change is the production of carbon dioxide. The fastest- growing source of carbon dioxide in Britain is transport: its emissions increased by 50% between 1990 and 2002. Flying accounts for most of this, but another reason is that the market for large 4x4s more than doubled in this period. Every year, 150,000 British people now buy one of these monsters, mostly to drive around our cities.
Officially, the biggest 4x4s can manage 12 or 13 miles to the gallon in urban areas. Unofficially, US journalists found that the Ford Excursion was doing 3.7. Switching from an average car to a big 4x4, the Sierra Club calculates, uses as much extra energy in 12 months as leaving your television on for 28 years.
Arguably, the war with Iraq was a war for 4x4s. As the former environment minister Michael Meacher pointed out in the Guardian on Saturday, the US could do without its oil imports from the Gulf if the fuel efficiency of its cars was improved by an average of 2.7 miles per gallon. Special tax breaks make 4x4s effectively free to US businesses, with the result that they now comprise 46% of the private fleet. Abandoning those tax breaks would remove a major incentive for war.
Our fashion accessories, then, are mowing down the people of Iraq, Bangladesh and the Sahel. They are also slaughtering our own. Because big 4x4s are higher and heavier, the occupants of a vehicle hit by one are 27 times times more likely to be killed (according to the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) than the occupants of a vehicle hit by a normal car. For the same reasons, they kill between two and three times as many of the pedestrians and cyclists they hit as smaller cars do.
Obviously, therefore, as Blair now cares so much about global warming, the British government is about to follow the French by discouraging them. I'm joking, of course. "Industrial civilization," Mustapha Mond, the controller of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World observed, "is only possible when there's no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning." This government intends to keep the wheels turning as we drive over the abyss. This is why the woman in the Transport Department's press office used precisely the same words as the man from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders: "It is up to people to drive whatever car they choose." Taxing or banning 4x4s, she told me, would restrict people's "freedom of choice". The same argument, of course, could be made about the laws preventing citizens from carrying rocket-propelled grenades to work.
Given that just one in eight 4x4 drivers has ever driven his car off-road, and only two out of five have even taken their cars out of town, why do people drive these things? Why roll anything up to 7.6 tons of metal (the Hummer H1) onto the road, when a bicycle will do just as well?
Well, it's partly because people are terrified of being mown down by 7.6 tonnes of metal. If giant 4x4s mangle ordinary cars, you'd better buy a giant 4x4, just as civilians in Mogadishu must buy an AK47 to protect themselves from civilians with AK47s. It's partly too because we lead such humdrum lives. When you're driving a Defender or Explorer or Pathfinder or Cherokee, you can place yourself, just like the adverts, on the wild frontier, without having to travel beyond Ealing Broadway. During the Iraq war, the New York Times reported that men in the US were buying Hummers (the biggest 4x4s) for "patriotic reasons": the troops in Iraq were using the same vehicles. (Logically, they should also have been demonstrating their love for their country by machine-gunning passers-by.)
And if the dullness of your life, or the size of your genitals, continues to trouble you, you can always take your truck to a green lane (until recently the tranquil preserve of ramblers and horse riders) to tear up some turf and find out what you're made of. "In theory," Auden wrote, "they were sound on Expectation/Had there been situations to be in;/Unluckily they were their situation."
But perhaps there's more to it than ennui and insecurity. George Marshall, of the climate change network Rising Tide, suggests that the people who buy these cars in the face of both a developing global climate crisis and an impending global oil crisis are engaging in "reactive denial". By showing that it's possible to consume vast quantities of fossil fuel without an immediately discernable adverse effect, 4x4 drivers prove to themselves that there cannot be a problem.
If this is the case, then the only sensible response is to demonstrate that there are immediately discernable adverse effects, by stinging these people with a vast tax bill, or simply by banning their anti-social behavior. It isn't hard to do: the government could set a minimum average mpg for all new cars: say 30 to begin with, rising by a couple every year. This would shut the big 4x4s out of the market immediately (there could be a temporary exemption for farmers).
The alternative is to do as the government is doing now: leave the world to be destroyed, in the name of that marvelous excuse for an absence of leadership: freedom of choice. There's a simple and cost-effective means for Tony Blair to prove that he's serious about climate change: drive these dangerous baubles off the road.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004