Turning Green to Gray
The False Hope of the Environmentally-friendly Automobile

Jane Holtz Kay

Editor's note: The Winter 2002 issue of the Leaf included an action item that suggested trading in one's less fuel-efficient car for a hybrid-electric model. Some readers complained that this circumvented the core of the problem; this article is an invited opinion piece by one of those readers. An earlier rendition of this article appeared in Orion Online (oriononline.org)

What is it that makes Americans look for the free ride? Specifically, what is it that makes environmentalists fall for the romance of the road without calculating the damages? And, most bafflingly, why is it that the notion that a "clean car" could brake the automobile's road to ruin has been turning greens to gray for quite a while?

Consider, for instance, the mailing from Environmental Defense that landed on my door not so long ago. "Finding the way that works," these conscientious advocates for a clean car launched into raptures on their discovery of a new environmentally-friendly automobile: a car that is good--not expedient, not inevitable--but good for the environment. "As much fun as a basket of kittens," the green group quoted the gushing eco-enthusiast and proud owner of a gas-electric hybrid Toyota Prius.

One of several fossil fuel-lite (or fossil fuel-lighter) vehicles emerging as the latest panacea for all that ails us, this eco-hip engine is touted as able to compensate for everything from car-dependency and carcinogens, to habitat loss and road deaths. And not just somber do-goodism, but more. "Some may equate conservation with dreary sacrifice but new technologies can yield energy savings with no decrease in enjoyment," chirped the Environmental Defense article on "Clean Cars Can Be Fun." Say it ain't so, Joe.

But it wasn't just the environmentalist's kittenish ecstasy over getting 55-miles per gallon. "It's fast," she enthused about her new way of life on wheels. (Did it include those kittens, presumably strapped into the back seat of the vehicle, lest they join the 121 Americans a day killed in car accidents not to mention their roadkilled brethren and highway-slathered habitats).

To be sure, the notion of driving guilt-free through scenic Appalachian highways or Northern redwoods and Yosemite park is attractive. The pleasure principle of consuming without guilt is a message that goes down easily in what Worldwatch calls our "all you can eat society." Nor is it easy to say Enough (as the Center for the New American Dream titles its magazine) in a world where "enough" is never quite sufficient.

But doesn't pleasure from the romance of the highway pass over the edge into frivolity these days when concern for renewable energy - from conservation to wind turbines - heightens and we labor to cut oil from hostile Middle East nations and reduce our dependency on filthy fuels like coal, and menacing ones like nuclear power?

Clearly not. For the environmentalists who offered prizes of clean cars promoting promises of a brave new world of pollutant-free fantasies, have yet to look at broader options or make any realistic or total assessment of the automobile's impact.

For openers, even with the perfect emission-free engine, up to thirty percent of the car's resource and energy consumption comes in the making of the vehicle. The fuel and resources to complete its maze of body work and innards...the handles and windshield wipers...the seats and surfaces...the engine...and the complete kit of parts, not to mention the energy it took to transport these parts from the farthest corners of the world.

At the least, isn't this deep-breathing for electric-hybrids lodged on the paler shade of green-like becoming ecstatic when Bush "reduced" drilling in the Gulf of Mexico or "only" took itsy-bitsy swipes at clearcutting or road-building in first-growth forests?

Granted, it's not easy getting around without an automobile in a car-dependent society and a car-committed government spending its 53 billion transportation dollars on auto-age advancement: some 35 billion to highways and 12 to airplanes. This doesn't count the post 9/11 15 billion dollar airline bailout plus new amounts to floundering airlines while Amtrak must struggle for its very existence as a free market enterprise-- a status demanded of no other form of movement.

So here we are with do-good greeners bowing to this buy-buy bias by purchasing "clean" cars, here they are adding to the 16,000,000 new cars purchased every year, joining the current fleet of 200,000,000-plus motor vehicles contributing 33% of our CO2 emissions while we s-l-o-w-l-y...expensively...eternally, it sometimes seems, wait to change the fleet? Why can't we do more than change the trouble in the tailpipe. Why can't we challenge the whole system?

It was fine for Detroit to applaud its profit maker SUV but it is California dreaming to think of a truly clean car as a possibility. What could an alternative vehicle do for a planet under siege from the pollution and poisons of the way we live? How could any miracle machine stop sprawl with its farm loss (l.2 million acres a year) and wetland takeover (60,000), its road kill and ecological desecration? How could "clean" cars free the Americans now immobilized by auto-dependency spending eight billion hours a year stuck in traffic. How could any vehicle help the 55 million school age children on bike or foot threatened by racing roadsters, assist the dependent elderly unable to drive or serve the 9 percent of our households -- the poor, women and minorities -- who can't afford a car? How could it lessen the load of the overworked America who needs a ton of steel and wheel to buy a quart of milk?

In short: What would a dream machine do for quality of life mangled by the other road-related ills of spinning our wheels?

It's no surprise, of course, when makers of electric or hybrid vehicles like the Honda Insight bedeck themselves with faux green statements, advertising that their merchandise is "just what you and the planet have been waiting for."

"The new car for a new world," Prius puts it.

"Careful you may run out of planet," says an unwittingly ironic automobile advertisement (my personal best).

We can do better than the car guys.

En route to this something better, it is undeniably commendable to replace or reform the internal combustion engine. The Sierra Club and other groups spent years fighting to put forth a mere study of CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency) standards to get better mileage on SUVs and other gas guzzlers, and defending the "radically cleaner" car in Congress. By fighting the super-scale SUV, "the Joe Camel of the auto industry," they hoped to squeeze automakers into changing the product that earns $10,000-20,000 in profits per car.

But was the SUV the only villain? And don't we divert real restructuring - better ways to move...and not move so much - by proclaiming our - uh - "personal virtue" when we get better mileage? Today, the organization moves to broader public-tranportation proposals. And we should, too.

Publicly, how about pushing for better planning? Stopping new highways? Keeping out the Wal-Marts? Promoting street rail and railroads. And, personally, how about finding ways to cut our trips, get our kids on foot and bike, get ourselves on foot and bike, too.

A while ago, a convoy of conscientious environmentalists held an anti-SUV rally at an auto sales company car lot in the Boston area where I live. The site in this transit-friendly town was virtually inaccessible without a car. Come, but find wheels first, was the implied injunction. ("What Would Jesus Drive?" asked one of their members in a later article. A donkey, I presume; or better yet, perhaps the good lord, too, would take His or Her bike or foot or public transit with the rest of us.)

An organizer of the event whom I chided e-mailed me that I should "have faith and remember the French Revolution. First SUV's, then mini-vans, then station wagons, full medium, compact, sub-compact, motorcycles, motor scooters, lawnmowers and then finally we can get back to tumbrels," he wrote. From an organizer's perspective, he continued, "we start with where the people are who are willing to protest. There is energy now against the suburban tanks."

Maybe so, but isn't compliance just complacency? Why not direct this energy to securing alternate transportation? To advocating good land use planning? To centering around walkable cities? To driving less or not at all? To recalling that every mile you drive is like throwing a one pound bag of CO2 into the overheated atmosphere. To augmenting biking and walking? Granted such work goes on but far less visibly and smugly than the arguing for a "respectably-sized" vehicle that deflects from the real work to end the Auto Age.

When a New Hampshire spokeswoman made a presentation at the first International Climate Control Conference in Cambridge, she recognized the car's contribution of one third of our greenhouse gases. What did she point out as the solution? Her state's financial bonuses for buying personal and official "clean cars," buying new cars, more cars - i.e. consuming -was her plan to cool the planet. The Buy America approach should have made the most chauvinistic citizen blush.

Again, altering the chemistry of the vehicle that causes one-third of our CO2 emissions is fine. But how about acknowledging that another third of this energy consumption is spent in the highway-bred building of 953,000 homes a year largely at the end of the road, in the destruction of our last chance landscape? Why adopt the car guys' detour? Why not -well, drive, or walk--straight ahead to challenge the chief polluter of our lives and landscapes? Clean consciences may put coins in some psychic (or Detroit-based) bank but they don't clean the environment. We need to give the red light to highway-first policies and the green light to land-and people-friendly ones.

Jane Holtz Kay is architecture and planning critic for The Nation and author of Asphalt Nation, Preserving New England and Lost Boston. She has written for Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Planning, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Preservation and Sierra. She is currently writing a new book, Last Chance Landscape: Taking the Earth in for Repairs.

This article first printed in the ILEA Leaf, Spring 2002 issue.

Last Modified on Sept. 12, 2003.