If we care about creation, if we understand the blooming earth as an exhibit of what pleases God, then we've got to do what we can to slow these massive changes. "Where were you when I set the boundaries of the oceans, and told the proud waves here you shall come and no further?" God asks Job. We can either spit in the old geezer's face and tell him we're in charge of sea level from here on out, or we can throttle back, learn to live a little differently.
Not so differently. Giving up SUVs is not exactly a return to the Stone Age. After all, we didn't have them a decade ago, when people with large families transported themselves in considerably more fuel-efficient minivans or station wagons. The only reason we have them now is that the car companies make immense profits from them. Ford's lucky to clear a grand selling you an Escort, but there's $10,000 clear profit in an Explorer.
Save for a very few special circumstances, we don't need them--nine in 10 SUVs never even leave the pavement. Where I live, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, we have snow and ice six months of the year, bad roads and steep mountains. But we don't have many SUVs because no one has the money to buy one. Somehow we still get around.
Sometimes people cite safety as their cause for buying a behemoth. They reason that they need them because everyone else has them or because in an accident the other car will suffer more (a position that would probably not pass the test with many Christian ethicists). But even that's a flawed argument. It's true, says The New York Times, that in a collision an SUV is twice as likely as a car to kill the other driver. But because the things roll over so easily, overall "their occupants have roughly the same chance as car occupants of dying in a crash."
The big car companies are starting to sense that their franchise for mayhem is running out. Last fall, after fuel prices soared and exploding tires killed dozens, the big car companies said that half a decade from now they would try to increase their fuel efficiency by 25 percent. Which is actually a nice start, but also sort of like the country club board of directors saying, "Wait five years and we'll find a few token blacks." Twenty-five percent better than 13 miles per hour is still a sick joke. Already Toyota and Honda have hybrid vehicles on the lot that can get 50, 60, 70 miles to the gallon. And we don't have five or 10 or 15 years to wait.
No, the time has come to make the case in the strongest terms. Not to harass those who already own SUVs--in a way, they're the biggest victims, since they get to live in the same warmer world as the rest of us, but have each sent 40 grand to Detroit to boot. But it's time to urge everyone we know to stop buying them. Time to pass petitions around church pews collecting pledges not to buy the things in the future. Time to organize your friends and neighbors to picket outside the auto dealerships, reminding buyers to ask about gas mileage, steering them away from the monster trucks.
Time, in short, to say that this is a moral issue every bit as compelling as the civil rights movement of a generation ago, and every bit as demanding of our commitment and our sacrifice. It's not a technical question: It's about desire, status, power, willingness to change, openness to the rest of creation. It can't be left to the experts--the experts have had it for a decade now, and we're pouring ever more carbon into the atmosphere. It's time for all of us to take it on, as uncomfortable as that may be.
Calling it a moral issue does not mean we need to moralize. Every American is implicated in the environmental crisis--there are plenty of other indulgences we could point at in our own lives, from living in oversize houses to boarding jets on a whim. But there's no symbol much clearer in our time than SUVs. Stop driving global warming. If we can't do even that, we're unlikely ever to do much.
Bill McKibben is the author of 'The End of Nature,' and, most recently, 'Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously.'
Copyright 2001 Christian Century Foundation. Subscriptions: $49/year from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097