With gas prices below $2.00 this is a calm moment for revisiting a contentious but critical matter. It bears directly on our civil war about climate change and what to do about it.
In September 2005, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, fuel was scarce in Charlotte, with pump prices over $5.00. A hue and cry arose over the correctness and fairness of driving larger vehicles, and a cultural divide was made obvious.
The oil shocks of 1973 and 1978 drove society to consider smaller vehicles. “Shocks” meant “periods where you couldn’t buy gas.” Families had to look hard at their 5000-pound Chevys and their 6000-pound Chryslers. Heaven forgive me, but I loved those Nimitz-Class Chryslers. If you couldn’t actually land a plane on their hoods, you could at least use them as a heli-pad.
So OPEC ruled America’s life and we went all in on Asian imports. Car makers evolved and the tire industry invested hundreds of millions in finding fuel efficiency through better tires. Minivans (pause to snicker) captured sales, but that was a gateway drug. Marketing and fatuous consumer aspirations brought four-wheel drive. Money spent on tire R&D was lost, as consumers went for comfort.
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Add in the new cultural imperative to be awesome (as opposed to lame) and to be seated high above the plebeian class, and you had millions of gas-guzzlers back in circulation.
Big is fun. Flirted with it myself. Shopping years ago, I was drawn to the classic Grand Wagoneer. A girlfriend who hated my current ride loved it. Determined to sell, with that Jeep coming to its end of production, the dealer said to use it for the weekend. We took it to Wrightsville Beach over Labor Day.
Crossing the bridge over the Cape Fear River, you can see the large sea-faring ships at dock. That afternoon we saw soldiers loading munitions for use in Kuwait and Operation Desert Storm. I realized: The munitions would be fired and maybe some of the soldiers would come to grief simply to secure my personal gasoline needs. Which were about to grow, thanks to my classic Grand Wagoneer. Did I mention it was large and comfortable?
I dumped the gargantuan Jeep once back in Charlotte, and returned to the Volvo dealer. Funny – my cars were always derided for being oddly shaped and block-y. And yet, 20 years on, that defines SUVs. That, plus unconscionable fuel consumption and emissions. Logically they are neither pretty nor responsible nor of much utility for the planet. Granted, they do make one look awful sporty and important.
A large part of our need to address climate change will center not just on renewable energy sources and coal-dependency reduction, but also on our daily driving errands. Perhaps one could ask oneself just how much hauling capacity one needs day to day. Failure to consider this might send a message about one’s actual concern for the future.
Feel free to ask your friends what they think. Rollback has to start somewhere. Your driveway is a good place.
Steve Craig lives in Charlotte.