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
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
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
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