Monster Truck Madness

Blaming SUVs is the new national pastime


In just the past few weeks, sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) have been unmasked–at long last!–as the single greatest automotive threat to the American Way of Life since Daisy Buchanan took the wheel in The Great Gatsby, C.W. "Convoy" McCall improbably glamorized the trucking industry, and supernaturally evil tractor-trailers terrorized Emilio Estevez in that filmic equivalent of the Edsel, Maximum Overdrive.

Much of the animus against the SUV takes the form of standard-issue environmental concerns–they are gas guzzlers!–and what might be called automotive McCarthyism–they are unpatriotic! Increasingly, though, SUVs are coming in for abuse on the symbolic level, for what they puportedly reveal about the sorry, fallen state of the American soul. SUVs, thunders a latter-day Rev. Dimmesdale, are "the very emblem on contemporary selfishness." The first two criticisms don't pack as much horsepower as they seem to at first; the last is interesting mostly because it participates in the centuries-old tradition of demonizing consumption choices not merely as mistaken but morally deranged and leading to the destabilization of decent society.

While it's true that new SUVs get rotten gas mileage compared to new cars, it's equally true that they match up pretty well against the older cars that do most of the real polluting. As Hans Eisenbeis wrote in Reason last summer, "New SUVs…are a far sight more [environmentally] responsible than the 15 million used cars that become obsolete each year. Even the greenest autos built in the 1980s, for example, are 90 percent dirtier and less efficient than new SUVs." As relevant, emissions from all cars and light trucks (a category that includes SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks) account for just 1.5 percent of all global greenhouse gases annually.

Hence, as Jacob Sullum has suggested, even completely getting rid of all cars and light trucks is not going to massively alter the global environment (which keeps getting better and better anyway; even Southern California, the legendary Kingdom of Smog, is setting records for air quality). And if someone really wants to target gross polluters, he would do well to focus less on broad classes of automobiles and more on individual vehicles, since 5 percent to 10 percent of vehicles account for about half of all tailpipe emissions in the U.S. If you want to clean the air, dither less over what Jesus would drive and fund a jalopy buyback program instead.

Are SUVs–often derided as a cartoon version of the grand old American land yacht–unpatriotic? Do they, as a series of controversial, semi-serious TV commercials, funnel oil-stained dollars directly into the hands of Middle Eastern terrorists? If this tortured logic is to be taken seriously, then there's plenty of blame to go around. More precisely, everyone who buys gas, oil, Vaseline, and other petroleum products is one-quarter as guilty as Mohammed Atta for 9/11. After all, according to the Department of Energy, in 2001, Persian Gulf states accounted for about 25 percent of net oil imports, as calculated in barrels per year.

Those pushing the "Do you now or have you ever driven a car that gets less than 27 miles per gallon?" line stress the need to end America's dependence on nefarious "foreign oil." Yet no one in that crowd–certainly not Arianna Huffington, the Elizabeth Bentley of such automotive McCarthyism–seems the slightest bit interested in ramping up domestic oil production. Which suggests that, in this case anyway, patriotism is simply the last refuge to which an environmentalist clings.

If neither the environmentalist nor the nativist condemnation quite drives the anti-SUV argument across the finish line, there's still the symbolic attack. In a review of Keith Bradsher's new book, High and Mighty–which is poised to become the Bible of the anti-SUV crowd–Gregg Easterbrook makes it clear that these popular vehicles are nothing less than pure evil. Indeed, they are "sociopathic cars" and "anti-social automobiles" that create "the very emblem of contemporary selfishness." Along with a generally fascinating recounting of the how federal industrial policy (as played out most clearly in the tax code) has effected automotive design, Easterbrook rehearses versions of the other two arguments, writing that SUVs "emit far more smog-forming pollutants and greenhouse gases than regular cars" and that they "keep American society perilously dependent on Persian Gulf Oil."

He also writes that contrary to common perception, that SUVs are unsafe, both for their passengers and other motorists. Respectable researchers differ on that point, but Easterbrook also throws in a class-based caveat that recalls recurrent aristocratic fears of the lower orders rising up against their betters. "As the first generation of monster SUVs gets traded in," he frets, "these behemoths will begin entering the used-car market, where they will be purchased by immigrants, the lower middle class, and the poor, who generally speed, run lights, drive drunk, and crash more often than the prosperous classes….This segment of the population is about to be armed with three-ton SUVs and enormous pickups." In the true spirit of noblesse oblige, however, Easterbrook doesn't argue that the huddled masses should have their driving privileges revoked. Instead, he implies that the vehicles beyond their weak impulse control should be barred from the mean streets of America. "Since when," he asks, "is there a 'right' to imperil others?… Driving an SUV or a light pickup is a public act that creates avoidable public risk."

Yet despite his nods to the environmental, nativist, and safety debates, Easterbrook ultimately seems more interested in what he calls the "existential fiasco of the SUV." The SUV isn't a response to "road rage" but rather a "cause" of that dubious but newsworthy social problem. Automakers market "hostility" via menacing SUV grills and are "guilty of advancing the fiction that SUVs are intended for offroad adventures." Curiously, customers don't seem to be in on the con; rather, they're simply passive dupes of such a "romantic deception," not willing participants. "There are lots of self-centered and self-absorbed people with little interest in their neighbors," declares Easterbrook. "Somebody finally made a class of vehicles to bring out the worst in them."

Is there any way out of the SUV crisis? Or will America slowly be taken over by driving machines that are slowly reprogramming us all–even the poor and the foreign-born!–into increasingly hostile drivers and bad citizens of some coming Road Warrior republic?

This is an age of terror and preventive war; perhaps it's time we start preemptively arresting the domestic terrorists hiding behind the darkened windshields of SUVs. If Easterbrook is right that SUVs declare of their drivers, "I have serious psychological problems," maybe Attorney General John Ashcroft can find room for such subversives at Camp Gitmo or some other laboratory of democracy.