Friday, May 04, 2007

Of Carbon, Vehicles, and Choices---A Rant

Commuting more than forty miles round-trip every day, and doing outreach within my city of employ, I come into close contact with thousands of drivers and vehicles each day. Now that I have a hybrid, I am even more conscious of my "carbon footprint", feeling good about my forty miles per gallon but wishing I could do even more to lessen my impact. A job close to home would be the answer, but it just isn't in the cards for me these days. Some day, I promise myself, I'll have a job I can bicycle to.

Living in a car-centered society, one cannot help but notice trends. Despite the upward trend of gasoline prices, there seems to be no downward trend in the purchasing of SUVs. Enormous vehicles---most of which must get atrocious gas mileage---ply the roads in most any city or town. Few, if any, are actually used for either "sport" or utility". Most seem like oversized and expensive status symbols which, by design, have a deplorable carbon footprint. I have heard that even in Britain, where small cars and environmental awareness are becoming almost de rigeur, SUVs are almost as popular as they are here in the US. A sad commentary on the state of the world, in my humble opinion.

Just the other day, I was in traffic behind a gargantuan SUV which had a nameplate identifying it as an "Armada". Last I checked, an armada was a group of warships. If automobile companies see the necessity to name a vehicle after something so militaristic and threatening, what could possibly be next? The Toyota Destroyer? As it stands, Hummers---those vehicles truly designed for combat---still tear their way across the American landscape, threatening to crush into scrap metal any Volkswagen or Peugeot that gets in their way. Apropos of SUVs and accidents, my wife and I have been witness---and first on the scene---for two accidents involving SUVs. In both instances, the SUVs were moving at high speeds, struck (and demolished) much smaller cars, and then proceeded to roll over multiple times. Luckily, no one died in either accident, but each SUV was filled with children.

Speaking of Armadas and Hummers, what is it, pray tell, against which we are so fearfully arming ourselves? What is this distance which we feel we must put between us and our breathren? Of what are we afraid? Conversely, are we only looking to create fear in others? Is our national soul so weak, our spirits so diminished by life in the 21st century, that these hunks of metal and plastic must serve as our talismen and protectors?

I remember when I was a teenager and my mother would remark how it seemed so sad and strange how young men needed to race around the neighborhood with loud cars and motorcycles, trying to prove something to an audience which most likely existed only in their imaginatons. My pat response to her was that those cars and motorcycles were penis extensions, allowing young men who were feeling basically impotent within the society to make a statement about something. While "penis extension" may be too simplistic---or crass---"ego extension" may be a more fitting moniker for those contemporarily ubiquitous SUVs. Even as the times seem to be a-changin', they really never do.

As for the public health aspect of the car and SUV consumer culture (since I always seem to have to slip health in somewhere), we are all aware that safety has been legislated in some states, and seatbelts do indeed save lives every day. Most recently, the governor of New Jersey suffered major injuries when the SUV in which he was a passenger crashed along the Garden State Parkway. Was he wearing a seatbelt? Of course not. And who was the driver of said SUV careening at a languid 90 mph? A New Jersey state trooper, of course. Go figure. If that governor doesn't become an outspoken proponent of seatbelts and automobile safety, he doesn't deserve the office he was elected to.

Earlier, I mentioned a "carbon footprint". Of course, we all burn fossil fuels each day through our daily activities. When our bananas are shipped from Costa Rica to Miami and then trucked to New York for distribution to our local supermarket, the "carbon trail" of those bananas is considerable. If we drive an SUV to that supermarket, the carbon trail is even greater. When most of us flick a light-switch or turn on the washing machine, coal is most likely the fossil fuel from which that electricity is more or less created.

As for the effects of carbon emissions and climate change on respiratory health, we all know that asthma rates are climbing. Smog, fine particulates, industry, vehicle emissions, the scorching of the rainforests, methane from animals for meat production---the causes are myriad. In the inner cities, communities of color are especially hard hit, with rates of respiratory illness skyrocketing. Where do we turn?

As for solutions, there are many places to turn for information and education. So many aspects of daily life are permutated with choices which directly or indirectly impact individual, cultural, regional, and even global health and safety. From one's choice of vehicle to one's shopping practices, every day offers opportunities for thoughtful decision-making. How many trips to the store can be consolidated into one, or eliminated altogether? How will that SUV's gas mileage effect the health of some child in a distant urban center? How many lights do I really need to leave on in my house today?

As a consumer and as a spectator of consumer culture (with a predilection for public and community health), I make my own choices, hoping that they are thoughtful and responsible. I urge others to do the same, to be guided by conscience, and to remember that, in the larger picture, we are all irrevocably interconnected. As far as arming ourselves in vehicles equipped for battle, how about we let our guard down as a society and connect more on the human level? We can't just live in fear, and we also can't live like there's no tomorrow, because at this rate, there just may not be one.
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