Auto-neurotic asphyxiation

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If you are one of the millions of people who apparently haven't figured out yet that sport-utility vehicles are pure evil, I recommend tracking down a copy of the April 2001 issue of Harper's, in which you'll find contributing editor Paul Roberts' report "Bad Sports, Or: how we learned to stop worrying and love the SUV."

I happened to read the piece the day after I'd been hired to proofread an environmental group's report on the near-catastrophic transportation and pollution problems in New Delhi--problems that promise to worsen as India's economy strengthens, as more families earn enough to own their own motor scooter or minicar, and as these overwhelming legions of two-stroke-engine, dirt-belching vehicles carom around the chaotic and poorly paved streets at ludicrous speeds, endangering the lives of pedestrians and cows alike. It also happened to be just two days after I'd attended a fractious community meeting about my neighborhood's aggravating traffic and parking problems, and three days after crawling for an hour in a stupid five-mile rubbernecking slowdown on I-95 on a Sunday afternoon. So I was well primed to receive more bad news about the dark side of our increasingly car-dependent global culture.

Roberts' choice of target isn't stunningly original--SUVs make plenty of thoughtful cultural critics foam at the mouth--but his article does offer some rueful reinforcement to those of us who ride around in our practical little Honda Civics, feeling ethically appropriate yet painfully vulnerable. If your resolve is weakening--if you're beginning to wonder whether you shouldn't just shell out the $40,000 already for the new 19-foot, 4-ton Ford Excursion in hopes of equalizing your status on the highway and possibly saving your and your family's necks in a T-bone collision--the Harper's piece will bring you back to your senses.

"By the conventions that once defined automotive quality," Roberts writes, "you'd be hard-pressed to imagine a category of vehicle less likely to succeed than the SUV. The typical SUV costs as much as a luxury car--anywhere from $19,000 for a little Kia Sportage to $82,000 for the tanklike Hummer--yet rides like a truck. It's hard to maneuver, harder to park, and possesses all the elegance and charm of a beer cooler. . . . It can go off road, should the need arise, but since 89 percent of SUV owners never experience this need the vaunted off-road capability serves mainly to inflate the sticker price and drive up fuel consumption."

Marketing bullshit to the contrary, Roberts reports, SUVs have always been notoriously unstable and unsafe, and actually offer less cargo space as the average minivan. President Bush and his oil-industry buddies hellbent on convincing us that we desperately need to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to free ourselves from the stranglehold of OPEC, but "by forcing a mere 15 percent improvement in the fuel economy of SUVs and light trucks--that is, less than 3 mpg--Bush could save more oil each year than the projected annual production from the refuge."

So, when a majority of Americans claim to be concerned about the environment, exactly how has the SUV succeeded? How is it that we've got "[t]ens of millions of Americans going into debt to buy what amounts to a dysfunctional, socially problematic, goofy-looking car . . . fewer than thirty years after an energy crisis and an environmental awakening we're supposed to have killed our yen for gas guzzlers"?

It's hardly a trick question. Sure, we can blame the advertisers who brainwash us, or the lobbyists who fight to keep SUVs categorized as "light trucks" and therefore exempt from passenger-car environmental regulations. We can talk about demographics, about the imagistic shortcomings of the minivan for near-middle-aged people who still like to imagine themselves unencumbered by familial duties and free to heed the call of the open road--that whole endlessly renewable American myth about rugged individualism. (The marketing brochure for the Excursion even has the nerve to quote Thoreau: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.")

But the short answer to the question is much more basic: It's all about sex--or, more to the point, about sexual insecurity, that ubiquitous weakness upon which Detroit has always preyed. Roberts quotes an auto-industry marketing executive who says, "We have a basic resistance in our society to admitting that we are parents and no longer able to go out and find another mate. . . . If you have a sport utility, you can have the smoked windows, put the children in the back, and pretend you're still single."

On an individual scale, such little fantasies may be perfectly natural, and may help alleviate some of the inherent frustrations of being a responsible adult with commitments. In the macro view, however, they are hardly harmless. A full-size SUV such as the Excursion will produce 134 tons of carbon dioxide, nearly triple that of a Honda Civic over the course of an average 124,000-mile lifetime.

But hey, let the impoverished people of congested, smog-filled New Delhi worry about all that. We're busy attending to our poor, duty-constrained libidos and our fears of being found frumpy and unattractively practical. Like fetishists who hang themselves to achieve greater climax, we're happy to choke so long as we get our kicks in first.

Sandy Asirvatham writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]
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