Sun, 02 Mar 2003

The axle of evil: Liberals spark backlash against gas-guzzling SUVs

Andy Goldberg, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, San Francisco

For the U.S. administration, the looming world conflict is all about the "axis of evil" - countries like Iran, Iraq and North Korea that were identified last year as the primary threats to American interests and values.

But for U.S. liberals opposed to their country's hawkish foreign policy, the bigger threat comes from the "axles of evil" - the gas guzzling monster sport utility vehicles (SUVs) that crowd America's streets and symbolize the country's needless reliance on Middle East oil.

A group based in Hollywood and led by political columnist Arianna Huffington in airing in-your-face television ads that equate SUV driving with supporting terrorism.

One ad begins, "I helped hijack an airplane. I helped blow up a nightclub. So what if it gets 11 miles to the gallon. I helped our enemies develop weapons of mass destruction. What if I need to go off-road? I helped teach kids around the world to hate America. I like to sit up high."

The ads were a jibe not only at owners of the fuel-guzzling behemoths but also at similar commercials from the Drug Enforcement Agency which accuse marijuana smokers of helping terrorists because of the shady links between drug cartels and terror cabals.

The anti-SUV ads were deemed so inflammatory that the major TV networks all refused to air them. But even squeaky clean churchmen are getting in to the anti-SUV rally.

Rev. Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, launched the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign last month to teach Americans that transportation is a moral choice.

"Transportation choices are the largest way we impact God's creation in terms of pollution and environmental degradation," Ball said.

Ball and his backers obviously believe that Jesus would drive some environmentally friendly vehicle like one of the Toyota hybrids that are fast becoming a badge of faith among the ecologically conscious.

But others - including some Christian leaders - have different theories, positing that Jesus would actually drive a great big hulking SUV because he would need something large to cart all his apostles around in.

Even some environmentalists get angry at the indiscriminate attacks on drivers of big cars.

"People are so quick to judge," Cristin Tuider, who drives a 1995 Toyota 4Runner and says she is an environmentalist and a peace activist. "There are the SUV drivers who have big families and can't fit everyone into small cars. There are ways to be economical about gas while driving a truck or SUV. People should take a step back and reason. I'm not the enemy."

But while Tuider may need the ruggedness and size of her SUV, the fact is that the vast majority of owners purchase them as status symbols and because they provide a sense of security that recent research into the high rate of SUV rollovers shows is false.

According to motor industry statistics, General Motors sold more than 1.2 million SUVs last year, setting an all-time record. GM's latest addition to the SUV market, the three-ton all-terrain Hummer 2, added nearly US$1 billion to the company's sales.

Ford last year sold more Explorer SUVs than Honda sold Accord sedans, and Explorer sales were bumper-to-bumper with the best- selling Toyota Camry. All in all SUV sales accounted for 21 percent of all 17 million private car sales last year, up from 17 percent in 2001.

With figures like that, some believe extreme action is needed. Sue Thiemann, a Silicon Valley statistician, sees red at the mega motor cars and goes around slapping faux parking tickets on the largest varieties: Suburbans, which she calls Subhumans, Land Cruisers, derided as Land Bruisers, and Excursions, mocked as Extinctions.

"I hate them for environmental reasons. I hate them for safety reasons. Most of all, I hate them for the self-centered, self- absorbed, moral-midget rudeness," she says.

Detroit has reacted slowly to what is perceived as a growing backlash against the oversized cars, promising to introduce more hybrid vehicles in the coming years and to increase SUV fuel efficiency by 25 percent.

But experts believe that barring dramatic developments, Americans will retain their traditional love affair with the oversized vehicles that have always defined the American driving experience.

"Americans have a deep psychological connection to the SUV," says Michael Marsden, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who teaches about the automobile in American culture.

"American automotive life is about mobility and freedom. SUVs give you freedom, in a psychological sense, one that isn't necessarily rational, but is emotional."