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
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
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
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
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
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
In short: What would a dream machine do for quality of
life mangled by the other road-related ills of spinning our
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
"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
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,
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
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
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
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
Last Modified on Sept. 12, 2003.