They Paved Paradise


Washington Post columnist, Howard Kurtz wrote about the latest controversy over SUVs…utilizing the corporate media’s standard version of cute. The January 22, 2003 piece, entitled “The New Axle of Evil” (see what I mean?), Kurtz takes on the “Detroit Project” which, he says is “being spearheaded by gadfly columnist Arianna Huffington.” Gadfly? Remember when Arianna was simply the respectable wife of a high-spending Senate candidate?

—— From 1950 to 1970, the U.S. automobile population grew four times faster than the human population. Today, there are around 200 million cars in America. Contrary to all those car commercials in which you see the automobile being marketed as it cruises along all alone on an open road, Americans spend 8 billion hours per year stuck in traffic. ——

After dutifully pointing out (“for the record,” of course) that Huffington “was driving a Lincoln Navigator a little more than a year ago before she saw the light,” Kurtz tells his loyal readers about one of the project’s “tough” ads which “intercuts a parent saying ‘my kids think it’s cool’ with a man saying ‘I helped blow up a nightclub.’”

—— During the twentieth century, 250 million Americans were maimed or injured in automobile accidents…the leading cause of death for children aged 5 to 14 in New York City is pedestrian automobile accidents…every single day in the US, an average of 121 people are killed in car accidents…Automobiles, SUVs, trucks, and other fossil field-burning vehicles kill a million wild animals per week in the US-not counting tens of thousands of family pets. ——

Predictably, such an attack on a long-standing, well maybe not long-standing but sure-to-be-enduring American institution like the SUV hasn’t garnered raves from the corporate crowd. After giving room to Huffington and Greg Easterbrook to have their say, Kurtz gets really cute with the opposition. He grants the last word to David Brooks of the Wall Street Journal:

“I don’t own an SUV, but now that they’ve been identified as the locus of evil, I’m thinking of getting one. And if I do, I figure I might as well let the inner wolf out for a rampage and get the most obnoxious SUV I can find. My SUV, assuming Hummer comes out with a model for those who find the current ones too cramped, will look something like the Louisiana Superdome on wheels. It’ll guzzle so much gas as I walk out to my driveway there will be squads of Saudi princes gaping and applauding. It’ll come, when I buy it, with little Hondas and Mazdas already embedded in the front grillwork. Inside I’ll install video screens so that impressionable youngsters can play Grand Theft Auto on the way to weekly NRA meetings. And there will be room in the back for tobacco lobbyists nibbling on french fries and endangered prawns. Please understand that I don’t want to do this, but the campaign against the SUV is so fevered that I find myself being propelled in an equal and opposite direction.”

—— During the last century, an area equal to all the arable land in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania was paved in the US which requires maintenance costing over $200 million a day…the surreptitious cost of the car culture totals nearly $464 billion a year in the U.S. alone, much of that going to the sustentation of a military presence in the Persian Gulf. ——

Fevered? He called this modest effort “fevered”?

The automobile and the lifestyle it inspires have risen to prominence through the power of relentless suggestion. There’s nothing delicate about car commercials and car toys and the hundreds of songs and movies that venerate the irrefutable gratification of owning an internal combustion engine of your very own…you might even call it “fevered.” It doesn’t even register when a movie character hops into a car and screeches away from the curb. We no longer consciously acknowledge the presence of cars on the street, the highway, and in driveways from coast-to-coast…not to mention the de-funded public transportation and the carchitecture: the myriad structures that exist exclusively to nourish the car culture, i.e. the highway, on-ramp, off-ramp, gas station, strip mall, car wash, auto repair shop, car rental establishment, bridges, tunnels, and, of course, the suburbs.

—— Automobiles emit one-quarter of US greenhouse gases…the U.S. spends $60 billion per year on foreign oil….eight million barrels of oil per day is combusted in US cars (that’s 450 gallons per person per year)…cars create 7 billion pounds of un-recycled scrap and waste annually…approximately one billion discarded tires litter our paved landscape: every tire loses one pound of rubber per year, spewing minute grains of rubber into the stratosphere and then back down to find a new home in our water and/or our lungs. ——

It’s simply expected that singers will sing about cars, writers will write about cars, actors will act in cars, and practically everyone will become a motorist. Even radicals and dissidents regularly drive to their protests and rallies (some environmental activists do so). Owning a car is now considered a virtual birthright, an actuality not open for debate on a philosophical level. As a result, although cars have been around a relatively short time, the culture that facilitates their subconscious acceptance has quickly past the point of any widespread scrutiny. Yes, we own a car (or SUV) and drive it everywhere. Of course we do. Who doesn’t? And why wouldn’t we?

—— During the 40 days of the Gulf War, 146 Americans died keeping the world safe for petroleum while at home, 4900 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents. ——

Why wouldn’t we? In an odd attempt to challenge the Detroit Project, Kurtz ends up illuminating the depth of this question: “Fuel efficiency is a worthy goal,” he writes, “just like anti-littering efforts and recycling. But why stop at SUVs? Don’t people with huge houses consume a lot more energy? What about gas-powered lawn mowers and barbecue grills? Should people be discouraged from owning two and three cars, even if they’re of the non-SUV variety?”

Precisely…




Mickey Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet (www.murderingofmyyears.com ) and an editor at Wide Angle (www.wideangleny.com ). He can be reached at: [email protected] .

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