EUROPE'S LATEST stereotype of the ugly American is the lazy fat guy mowing down the trees in his personal Sherman tank. It is the paranoid 90-pound woman whose forehead barely crests over the steering wheel of her three-ton cocoon. We are the nation of insufferable whiners about our subsidized price of petrol.
''You Americans and your giant cars,'' a British hiker said to us at a Swiss alpine hut. ''Why do you need those things?''
''Your cars are monstrous,'' said a German telecommunications businessman on a train out of Frankfurt. ''It's unbelievable that anyone would need a car the size you drive.''
''Doesn't anyone care about the environment back in the States?'' asked one of our hosts in rural northern Germany.
President Bush was held in a particular scorn by nearly every European we met in a recent vacation to Switzerland and Germany. His pulling out of the Kyoto accords on global warming was viewed as an arrogant declaration of who owns the White House. As the British hiker put it, ''You are the United States of Oil.''
The sneer we show to the world on the environment is sure to worsen before it gets better. Last month a report in the US Department of Transportation report found that sport utility vehicles, minivans, and pickup trucks now account for 51 percent of new vehicle sales. The report also found that those vehicles, classified as light-duty trucks, now account for more miles driven on American roads than passenger cars.
The effects of these gas guzzlers are becoming as choking as a sheet of smog. Preliminary federal figures released last month found that in the last three years, carbon dixoide emissions from transportation have for the first time surpassed the CO2 emissions from industrial sources. Carbon dioxide emissions are a leading contributor to global warming.
In greater Washington, D.C., the percentage of SUVs has grown from 15 percent of personal vehicles to 25 percent in the last five years. The spewing of emissions from these cars that get less than 20 miles a gallon will likely force the region over its acceptable limits for air pollution. If the region goes over the limit, it cannot initiate new road and bridge projects.
Just as the size of the American house has grown even as the size of the American family has shrunk, the size of our cars has mushroomed without an excusable rationale. Detroit keeps telling us we need sport utility vehicles to roar over mountains and plow through lakes. The dream of leaving one's tire tracks on rugged landscapes has allowed auto makers to charge on average 58 percent more for SUVs than passenger cars.
But in the report from the Department of Transportation, authors Kara Maria Kockelman and Yong Zhao of the University of Texas found that sport utility vehicles are used no more than passenger cars for recreational purposes.
Years ago, the auto lobby succeeded in avoiding miles-per-gallon standards on SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks by having them classified as cargo vehicles. But the authors found ''no strong indication that minivans and SUVs are used as `work' vehicles.'' They even found that ''pickups are more popular among households than they were 20 years ago when American life was less urban, so it is not clear that pickups are performing unusual services either.''
It is clear what unusual damage the giant American car is doing. The Europeans we met were quick to say they were not perfect, with a highly publicized debate this spring in northern Germany over nuclear waste. What they could not understand was the extent of America's ignorance, denial, or selfishness about a problem we could easily work on by raising fuel standards.
We are only 6 percent of the world's population, but we produce about a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases. This week, it was reported that a panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences says that fuel efficiency can be increased. But, fitting of a panel backed by Bush, the report set no specific goals. The panel included no environmentalists, only engineers and consultants tied to the oil and auto industries.
That does not inspire much hope of a serious raising of standards. It will surely inspire more shaking of heads from our European friends. In their minds American men are going to grow fatter and women even more tiny as our cars grow from tanks into aircraft carriers. Americans seem incapable of looking themselves in the mirror and declaring how ugly they are.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company