Winter 2003, p.2
Provocateur: SUV's Aren't the Problem
For quite a while now it's been fashionable among the environmentally-minded to decry the ownership of SUVs. This says a lot about what's wrong with the conventional thinking of the progressive/green crowd.
Would the everyday environment in America be any better if it were full of compact cars instead of giant gas-guzzling Chevy Denalis and Ford Expeditions? I don't think it would make a bit of difference, really. We'd still be a car-dependent society stuck in a national automobile slum. The problem with America is not big cars, it's the fact that cars of all sizes have such an overwhelming presence in our lives, and that driving is virtually mandatory for the ordinary business of daily life.
Many in the anti-SUV crowd assume that we will solve our car problem with new technology, like hydrogen fuel cells. Or that low-emission, environmentally-friendly hybrid cars will help to usher in a sustainable way-of-life in America.
In fact, cleaner-running, higher mileage cars would do nothing to mitigate the degraded public realm of a nation that has become a strip mall from sea to shining sea. They would not lessen commuting distances or times. They would not reduce the number of car trips per day per household.
If anything, they would only promote the idea that we should continue living this way--that suburban sprawl is normal and desirable, instead of what it is: the most destructive development pattern the world has ever seen, and a living arrangement with poor prospects for the future.
Why do we believe that better-running cars will save us? Because environmentalists are stuck in a culture of quantification, just like their corporate bean-counter adversaries. It's easy to count up the number of carbon dioxide molecules in a cubic foot of air, and reduce the whole car issue to good air or bad air. But air pollution or miles-per-gallon are hardly the only problems with car dependency. I'd argue that the degradation of the everyday environment in general and of public space in particular is at least as important, and is not subject to statistical analysis. It's a question of quality, not numbers.
In the age of austerity and global strife that is coming down the pike at us, we are going to need walkable neighborhoods, towns and villages and public transit systems that are a pleasure to use. Many of us pay premium prices to vacation in European cities precisely because they offer this way of living, with great railroad and streetcar systems. Europeans still have cars, but they're not sentenced to own one per family member or spend two or three hours every day in them. It would be nice to have those options here in the USA. In the meantime, I really don't care whether Americans drive Humvees or Toyota Priuses. Both big and small cars are cluttering up our everyday world and wasting our lives.
James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Geography of Nowhere, Home From Nowhere and The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition. He grew up in New York City and now lives in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York.
Provocateur is intended to provoke thought and does not reflect the official position of T.A.
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