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What Would Jesus Drive?
Published on Friday, August 3, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
What Would Jesus Drive?
by Emily Gurnon
THIS WEEK, lawmakers in the House of Representatives blew an opportunity to make our gas-guzzlers run more efficiently.

To me -- a mother of two small children -- this is nothing less than a tragedy. But it's one we can still reverse.

Like an infatuated lover who refuses to see any of his sweetheart's faults, America has fallen hard for the sport utility vehicle -- an environmental disaster on wheels.

These "sport hostility vehicles," as Arcata newspaper editor Kevin Hoover calls them, spew an average of 47 percent more smog-forming exhaust and 43 percent more greenhouse gas than cars, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

They have been able to get away with this because, years ago, they were classified as "light trucks," whose expected commercial uses won them a less- stringent fuel-economy standard than cars. SUVs still benefit from this loophole -- though it's no secret they haul more toddlers than 2-by-4s.

Nevertheless, the House voted 269 to 160 to reject a proposal that would have required SUVs and other "light trucks" to meet an average of 27.5 miles per gallon -- the same as cars -- within six years. Their current required average is only 20.7 mpg.

Such a change would have been the single biggest step we could take to cut our oil consumption and reduce global warming.

So what does motherhood have to do with all this?

Smog from car exhaust makes people sick, contributing to asthma, emphysema and other illnesses. Greenhouse gases get trapped in the atmosphere, causing global warming.

And global warming, scientists say, will bring increased flooding and drought, more hurricanes, agricultural losses and serious threats to human health. Throughout history, significant temperature changes occurred over thousands of years -- and even these slow shifts brought radical results.

Today, we're toasting our planet faster than we ever have. Who knows what changes that could bring?

This is what scares me. When I think of my kids, and the world they will inherit, it scares me to death.

Of course, the auto manufacturers fought the proposed increase in fuel economy, and not because they don't have the technology to make the change. The head of General Motors, Rick Wagoner, told reporters last month that Americans don't want fuel-efficient vehicles as long as gas prices remain low, at least by international standards.

He has good reason to think so. After all, the popularity of SUVs has skyrocketed. As of 1999, they made up nearly 20 percent of all new car sales -- up from 2 percent in 1985.

But who wouldn't want to save $400 a year on gas? That's what the average SUV owner now paying $2 a gallon would pocket if those vehicles were forced to be as fuel efficient as other cars.

I can understand the attraction of the SUV. You get to sit up high and feel more important than everyone else on the road. They're roomy. They're easy to get into. Bottom line: They're comfortable.

And we're Americans, after all.

We worship at the altar of comfort. Denying ourselves the advantages of a Ford Explorer or a Nissan Pathfinder seems like too much of a sacrifice. Why should we drive a small, cramped car when the SUVs are so seductive?

The answer is simple: Because the alternative is unacceptable.

We have never been taught that our personal actions have environmental consequences. It is time to start thinking beyond the doctrine we've been fed about being rugged individualists who can conquer the world. It is time to start acting like a community with a common interest: our own survival.

Fortunately, there is a movement afoot to change all this. Congress was talking about it because members know their constituents do, and the issue may come up again in September when the Senate considers the energy bills. Hybrid vehicles that run on an electric-gas combination are getting more attention.

And groups across the country are organizing. The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies, for example, recently held a demonstration outside Boston, bringing in a number of local clergy; one minister who took part held up a sign that read: "What Would Jesus Drive?"

Since Congress has dropped the ball for now, let's do something ourselves. Are you one of the millions of Americans driving an SUV? Let's start taking some personal responsibility for the world that our kids will have to live in. The decisions each one of us makes, every day, will either save our planet or kill it.

As for me, I'll continue to drive my Honda -- as little as possible. Maybe I'll also start a new group: Mothers Against SUVs ("MASUV"). Dads, singles, you can join, too.

Emily Gurnon is a former San Francisco Examiner reporter. She will teach journalism this fall at Humboldt State University.

Copyright 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


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