Shift Gears in Drive Against SUV Owners

Auden Schendler is director of environmental affairs for the Aspen Skiing Co.

It is now in vogue to hate both sport utility vehicles and their drivers.

A group called Earth on Empty, in Somerville, Mass., is "ticketing" SUVs for "failure to pay attention to your own behavior," among other crimes.

Last week the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for burning SUVs at a Pennsylvania auto dealership.

The Sierra Club has dubbed the Ford Excursion "the Valdez" and cheers the fact that the plus-size SUV is expected to be mothballed after 2004.

The yogurt company Stonyfield Farm has joined with National Public Radio's "Car Talk" guys on a campaign with bumper stickers that read, "Live Larger, Drive Smaller: Not Everyone Needs an SUV." And a vigilante in the Georgetown area of Washington has smeared SUV door handles with dog excrement.

The SUV seems to have superseded DDT and big dams on the environmental blacklist. The religious community has even come up with a new twist on "What Would Jesus Do?": What Would Jesus Drive?

There are good reasons for the anti-SUV bias. Since every gallon of gasoline burned is estimated to put 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, gas-guzzling SUVs are major contributors to global warming. Each 5-mile-per-gallon increment in improved fuel economy will keep 10 tons of carbon dioxide from being released over the lifetime of a vehicle.

Global warming aside, sport utility vehicles spew 30% more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and 75% more nitrogen oxides than standard passenger cars. Those pollutants are precursors to smog and cause asthma and other illnesses. If SUVs got gas mileage equivalent to that of standard passenger cars, we'd save 1 million barrels of oil each day. But despite all that, the war against SUVs is probably a mistake on the part of the environmental movement.

To begin with, many of those who drive SUVs, even in a city, see themselves as outdoors people. And outdoors people are environmentalists. So by vilifying this group, the SUV-haters alienate their own constituents.

You may not like driving behind the guy in the Land Cruiser, but he's probably voting for open space in his community, supporting wilderness bills and contributing to the Nature Conservancy. With a little prodding, he might support even more radical environmental measures. But slap an insulting climate-change sticker on his bumper and you've radicalized him. Now he starts to hate "environmentalists" and begins to define himself as something else.

Meanwhile, the major auto companies, particularly Ford and General Motors, make big noises about their environmental commitment but forcefully oppose so-called CAFE -- corporate average fuel economy -- standards that would increase gas mileage. The federal government preaches energy independence but can't muster the will for much beyond drilling.

Yet both industry and government love educational "do the right thing" programs. Such efforts put the onus on the public, letting auto makers continue with business as usual.

People don't drive SUVs because they're bad human beings. They do it because there are no comparably priced options with better gas mileage that offer equivalent safety, convenience, performance and comfort.

People don't want to go home to their kids and say, "I just destroyed a big chunk of the planet today." Neither, however, do they want to be decapitated when a truck bumper comes through their Honda Civic or Toyota Prius at neck height.

We've been forced into this awkward position by industry and government. And that is where the environmental community needs to turn its energy to create real change.

Environmentalists and SUV drivers may appear as incompatible as wolves and sheep, but even those animal adversaries have common ground: They both want clean air and water, healthy children, a stable climate and beautiful views.

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