Want to keep Tahoe blue?

Then get rid of that SUV and get a vehicle that’s friendlier to the environment

Photo by D. Brian Burghart

It’s a common assumption that most people start to lose their political ideals as soon as those ideals get expensive. It’s easy to be radical when you’re in college living on your parents’ money, the conventional wisdom goes, and nothing turns a person into a Republican faster than home ownership (with its attendant worries over real estate values and property taxes).

The problem with that conventional wisdom is that it’s wrong. Our country is full of post-collegiate, home-owning liberals, and many of them enthusiastically vote for bond issues and tax increases that are bound to affect them financially, because they hope that doing so will improve their schools or city government or broaden social services.

In fact, this is one of those areas where conservatives have a real tendency to talk out of both sides of their mouths—at one moment criticizing the Left for wanting to spend other people’s money, and then turning around and moaning about the “wealthy Hollywood elite” who they believe wield undue influence over domestic and fiscal policy (despite the fact that the “wealthy elite” pay a far greater share of the cost of government programs than the vast majority of Americans).

No, money is not at all reliable as an antidote to political idealism. What really does the trick is vanity. For some reason, it appears that people who happily support initiatives that are likely to increase their own tax burden have a much harder time making sacrifices that involve their self-image.

Don’t believe me? Then go for a drive around Reno some Saturday afternoon, and count the number of tricked-out, gaz-guzzling SUVs you see sporting a “Keep Tahoe Blue” bumper sticker. I’m admittedly making an assumption here, and that assumption is that these drivers are not Rush Limbaugh fans—that someone with an environmental bumper sticker is probably a person of at least moderately leftward political leanings who, if asked whether he is an environmentalist, would answer, “Of course I am.”

So why would this person drive one of the most wasteful, ecologically damaging and dangerous automobiles currently available in the United States? It’s a fair question. An SUV with a “Keep Tahoe Blue” bumper sticker sends a clear message, and that message is: “Sure, I support environmental responsibility in theory. But let’s be serious, do I really look like someone who would drive a minivan?”

The answer is not that SUV owners are sacrificing the environment in the interest of safety, though they may fool themselves into thinking they are. Recent studies by the National Research Council make this pretty clear: while the driver of an SUV is somewhat safer in an accident than the driver of a mid- or full-size car or minivan, the passengers in those smaller vehicles, which are designed according to far stricter safety standards, are actually safer than the passengers in an SUV. (Unless, of course, they are hit by an SUV.) And the greater tendency of SUVs to roll over in an accident is amply documented; rollovers, it is worth pointing out, account for roughly one-third of all traffic fatalities.

Nor do people generally buy SUVs so they can indulge in more backwoods, off-road recreation. Television advertisements, by depicting SUVs in rugged wilderness situations, appeal to those who wish to see themselves as adventurous and (ironically enough) connected to the beauty of nature, but the vast majority of SUVs spend the vast majority of their time on residential streets and urban highways. Never has a product been so skillfully represented as simultaneously safe and ruggedly “dangerous.”

Then there’s the question of gas mileage. Because SUVs are held to extremely low federal mileage standards, they are extremely wasteful—the Chevy Tahoe, for example, gets about 12 miles per gallon. Democratic politicians have been of little help in this regard. New mileage regulations for SUVs that passed, with much Democratic fanfare, during the Clinton administration are not scheduled to take effect until 2009.

Smog emissions are another reason an environmentalist should be ashamed to drive an SUV. While most American and Japanese cars and minivans are held to stringent emissions standards, the same is not true of SUVs, which are considered “light trucks” and therefore exempt from those standards. In some urban areas, air quality has actually declined over the last decade despite the fact that cars and minivans run much cleaner now than 10 years ago. The problem is that during that same decade, SUV sales exploded.

Are there any good reasons to own and drive an SUV, reasons that might mitigate the utter hypocrisy of speaking out for the environment while contributing disproportionately to its destruction? Sure. If you live in a cabin on the prairie, surrounded by rabbit holes and high brush and without paved roads, then a midsize Taurus or a Honda Odyssey will probably not work for you. Or perhaps if you must regularly drive in deep snow, though four-wheel drive systems add little to front-wheel drive in terms of traction. (And the tendency of those in four-wheel-drive vehicles to drive recklessly in dangerous conditions, thus endangering both themselves and others, will not be news to anyone who has traveled over the Sierra in wintertime.)

But unless you live or work in the middle of a wilderness that makes exceptional body weight, high ground clearance and four-wheel drive necessary, driving an SUV is pretty hard to reconcile with environmental concern. Anyone who simultaneously considers himself an environmentalist and drives one of these rolling ecological disasters ought to be exquisitely embarrassed.

So where is the embarrassment? In many cases it’s probably there, buried beneath several soothing layers of rationalization and self-deception. In fact, maybe the real message of a "Keep Tahoe Blue" bumper sticker on an SUV is "Yes, I’m destroying the environment and endangering others in order to indulge my own vanity, but it’s not that I don’t care. It’s just that I don’t care enough to drive something uncool."