Rage Against the Machine

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posted February 19, 2003

The war on SUV owners has reached a fever pitch of late, with ad campaigns, columnists, and star-studded advertorials raging against the machines.

Now, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and far be it from me to presume that celebrities are too empty-headed to actually understand complicated environmental issues like global warming. Let’s assume that actresses like Barbra Streisand, and columnists like Arianna Huffington have studied the theory of global warming, understand the relative impacts of different human activities on the climate, know the different sources and warming potentials of the different greenhouse gases, know the extent to which different cars and lifestyle choices change the production of those gases, and understand the many complex effects that proposed greenhouse gas control policies (like the Kyoto Protocol) would have on people’s lives.

But just in case they haven’t, let’s review a few of the arguments that our celebrities are raising against SUVs, along with the hypocrisies involved in their campaign.

First, we’re told, SUVs are gas guzzlers, and they pollute more than regular cars in terms of both traditional pollutants, and greenhouse gas emissions. True, SUVs aren’t known for their gas mileage. According to the US EPA the Chevy Blazer gets 15 mpg City / 19 mpg Highway, while the Cadillac Escalade gets a mediocre 12/16.

But if we’re supposed to hate SUV owners for their vehicular fuel guzzling, shouldn’t we also hate the drivers of the cars that glitzy celebrities like to see and be seen in? The little Ferrari Spider, for example, gets only 11 mpg in the city, and 16 on the highway. The Lamborghini Murcielago, another sexy runabout gets only 9 mpg in the city, and 13 on the highway. And then there’s the Cadillac limo that stars like to tour around in (14/22), and what about the Bentleys (10/14)?

By the Numbers

Now, here’s a bit of math that even Barbra Streisand might follow.

Scenario one: SUV villain John Q. Moviegoer wants to take his wife, his 2 kids, and their 2 friends to see Barbra’s latest movie. They pile in their Ford Expedition (15/19) and drive 2.5 miles to the theatre, and 2.5 miles home. How much fuel do they use? Let’s assume it’s all city driving, so the 5 mile round trip consumes one-third of a gallon of gasoline. Now, there are 6 people in the SUV, and they travel 5 miles, so that’s 30 person-miles of travel on a third of a gallon of gas. If they routinely drove the car with 6 people in it, that would make an average of 90 person-miles per gallon of gas.

Scenario two: “Good, Honda Civic (29/38) owning citizen John Q. Moviegoer wants to take his wife, his 2 kids, and their 2 friends to see Barbra’s latest movie. Since they have too many people, they have to take two cars. Let’s assume they’re both Civics. They drive 5 miles each, which is about 1/6 of a gallon of gas, but of course, there are two cars, so that’s…lookie there! One-third of a gallon of gas, same as the Expedition! Of course, with two cars instead of one, they increase traffic congestion; require two parking spots instead of one (increasing the need for larger parking lots and contributing to ‘sprawl’); are twice as likely to be involved in an accident (that risk is dependent on the number of vehicles and miles driven); pay more insurance; and are more likely to be hurt in a serious accident. Roughly the same amount of greenhouse gases are emitted in the two scenarios since that’s a function of the amount of fuel used, but the traditional pollutant emissions are probably higher in the second scenario: those pollutants are mostly generated during the cold start and hot soak of an engine, and the Civic drivers are starting up and shutting down two engines rather than one.

Then there’s scenario three, which we’ll leave as an exercise for the student: Barbra’s friend Arianna wants to drive from her 9,000 square foot home in Brentwood with her newest beau and four children to watch Barbra’s movie in a private theatre at Babs’ old four-house, 32-acre “compound” in Malibu, so if they drive 15 miles each way, with one adult and two kids per Ferrari…

Home is Where You...

Speaking of 9,000 square-foot homes…greenhouse gas emissions are, first and foremost about energy use. Surely, thoughtful environmental advocates who urge us to think about life-cycle analysis and holistic frameworks when it comes to buying refrigerators aren’t unaware that their housing choices result in more energy use?

Let’s say that John Q. Moviegoer owns a 2,000 square foot house in the suburbs (the average for an American house, according to the National Association of Home Builders). According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, carbon dioxide emissions from his average US home, with 2.5 residents is about 11.6 tons per year. Arianna Huffington owns a 9,000 square foot home in Brentwood, which puts out at least 4.5 times the greenhouse gases of John Moviegoer’s house on an annual basis, but probably far more when you include the swimming pools, spas, and so forth. But of course, that’s for a different campaign: “What kind of palace would Jesus live in if he were a celebrity?”

But why bother rebutting the enviro-hypocrisy of celebrities? Who cares what they say or do? Well, politicians care, and that’s the problem. When campaigns like this get into gear and change the climate of opinion, it opens the door to new regulatory approaches that go beyond moral suasion, and right over into coercive restrictions on the choice and autonomy of the general public. It won’t be celebrities who have to struggle to pay for higher priced family cars, or higher priced electricity in a greenhouse gas constrained world, it’ll be John Q. Moviegoer who bears the brunt of ill-founded policies promoted by celebrities who are speaking out of both sides of their mouths.

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