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  • On Sport Utility Vehicles and Jet Skis
  • John Buell (bio)
Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic Books, 1993) and The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (HarperCollins, 1999)

In the last few years, two environmental issues have gripped U. S. politics, urban air pollution and the greenhouse effect. Decisions on these issues have consequences all over the country, they have led to the mobilization of substantial lobbying by both environmental organizations and industry trade associations, and they have drawn prolonged media scrutiny.

Mainstream environmental organizations have a fairly predictable take on these two issues. Since combustion of gasoline is one significant contributor to greenhouse problems and since nitrogen oxides are a key component of urban smog, auto usage must be curbed. Under the polluter pays principle, gas taxes should be raised, and gas guzzling vehicles discouraged. Fuel economy standards are one way to do so, and incentives such as feebates can encourage purchase of appropriate vehicles.

A favorite target of these campaigns is the modern sport utility vehicle. For many environmentalists, the sport utility is a typical example of how the average citizen’s quest for personal affluence conflicts with the needs of the environment. Since the environment is regarded as ultimately controlling, individual desires must give way to long term sustainability. The problem, of course, is to generate the political consensus for this transformation. If most of us are hedonists most of the time, the prospects for significant environmental reform always seem clouded. Not surprisingly, many environmentalists have a martyred air about them, as though they know they are fighting a losing albeit noble war.

I would like to suggest that this view of the problem misconstrues the historical, cultural, and political origins of modern consumerism. Tax policy by itself is not going to defeat the sports utility vehicle, but not primarily because of our reputed hedonism. Sport utility vehicles have much more to do with the assertion of individual identity in our modern corporate economy. That corporate economy provides citizens with difficult and conflicted choices, and until we understand that economy and its choices, we are unlikely to come up with a politically sustainable answer to the pollution such vehicles produce. A satisfactory answer to sport utility vehicles requires that we desacrilize both the modern corporation and the steady state community often seen as its alternative.

Roger and Me

Though I am generally regarded as a left wing journalist, I want to begin by critiquing what I regard as a simple minded left wing view on consumerism. I call this the Roger and Me school of political economy. I was at one time a partial convert to this school.

I am referring of course to Michael Moore’s film Roger and Me, which attributed many of the problems of midwest industrial workers to the perfidy of GM executives. In the course of reviews of the film, some commentators also cited analogous conclusions from an early seventies hearing of the Senate Anti-Trust subcommittee regarding GM’s purported role in the decline of mass transit in this nation. The contention, for which there is considerable documentation, is that a joint subsidiary of GM, Stardard Oil, and Firestone Tire bought up many urban mass transit systems in the 1930’s, mostly electrified rail, converted the systems to diesel busses, the popularity of which declined, in the process leading to the decimation of mass transit and the triumph of the automobile.

I have no doubt that this scenario unfolded pretty much as the Senate committee and Moore would have us believe, that it was a conscious business strategy, and that it did expand the market for autos, and thus eventually for sport utility vehicles. But as broad-gauged history, it has some major inadequacies. Even in the thirties, the automobile was an object of luxury consumption to which a large majority of the American population already aspired. We must remember that the auto’s place in the pantheon of American consumerism was established in the twenties. General Motors was a leader, but surely not alone, in establishing three practices that became staples of our consumer culture: the annual model change, a segmented product (different...

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