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The American Dream: Why Environmentalists Attack the SUV

By John Bragg
Policy Analyst
The Center for the Advancement of Capitalism

The SUV is under attack. Greens say they use too much gas, threaten air quality and contribute pell-mell to the desecration of the environment. So why would anyone build these horrible engines of death? They build them because SUVs have advantages in safety, cargo space and power that Americans demand.

The large cars from Detroit’s heyday have been abolished by environmental regulations of the 1970s. In 1975, Federal fuel efficiency mandates forced car manufacturers to smaller and lighter designs until 1983, when Chrysler adapted the first minivan. Unlike the once popular station wagon, the minivan fell under the lower “light truck and van” fuel efficiency regulations, a loophole which allowed companies to build larger, heavier, safer vehicles without falling under the “gas-guzzler” tax. The SUV, which became popular in the late 80’s enjoyed a similar exemption. The minivan and the SUV gave America the powerful, spacious vehicles that they had demanded before the regulations—they were our reply to Washington’s attempts to force everyone into smaller cars.

Yet today there is no symbol of consumption hated more than the SUV. There is a history behind this hatred: The people attacking SUVs are the same people who have spent the past thirty years attacking cars and hailing Al Gore’s call ten years ago to abolish the internal-combustion engine. SUVs are attacked because they are today’s foremost examples of what a car is.

The chief virtue of the automobile is the personal independence it gives the owner—a car can go anywhere roads go and some places they don’t, with a speed unimaginable in the pre-automobile era. Its secondary virtue is protection—from the elements and from collision. In both a car and an SUV, passengers are protected by the vehicle’s structure from the wind and rain. But in a collision, the SUV simply provides more protection than a smaller car does. Larger cars better protect the people in them—that’s why your father wanted you to get a huge, boxy old car when you were sixteen instead of a little Mustang—so that you would live through your first accident. Protection is a big advantage.

So why then do the greens oppose safer cars? They oppose big cars for the same reason that they oppose big houses, new highways, new power plants, or basically any wealth-creating or wealth-enjoying endeavor. Wealth means that someone has changed their environment and improved it for human use. Most people want their environment arranged for their benefit—air-conditioned in summer, heated in winter, ventilated, bug-free and clean. In fact, it is man's ability to adapt his environment to his own desires that sets him apart from other animals and has allowed him to prosper.

The environmentalists respond that nature is intrinsically valuable, not for anything it does or can do but simply because it is. Since people disturb nature, people as such are a problem. Moderate environmentalists say that this is a straw man, that they do not hate people, they just want to protect endangered species and have clean air, water and food. Endangered species are valuable because, well, they are endangered—nature put them there. Intrinsic value.

Clean air and water benefit people. But if the moderate environmentalists really wanted people to benefit, then they would support the SUV. The SUV is an example of people using the best technology available to enhance their lives. Environmentalists attack America’s SUVs because Americans like them—Americans like technology and we like the power over our surroundings.

It’s appropriate then that the car is the greatest modern symbol of American freedom. If you don’t agree, ask any teenager counting the days until his license. He won’t need to ask for a ride to his job, to the mall, to school, to a friend’s, to anywhere. Even if he has to ask for Mom’s keys, he’s driving himself—a step towards independence. If he buys his own car, he has his first piece of meaningful property—it has a price, it has economic utility, it has a limited lifespan, there are operating costs, and it must be used with respect for others or there will be consequences.

Cars are such a symbol of Americanism that the Soviets in the 1930s had to cancel propaganda showings of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” because Soviet audiences were furious to find that even destitute Americans had pickups to migrate in. Contrary to the environmentalists, cars are a powerful symbol of what makes America the greatest, and the freest, country in the world.

John Bragg teaches world history in Prince George’s County, Maryland and serves as a policy analyst for The Center for the Advancement of Capitalism (www.capitalismcenter.org).