For rather obvious reasons, there has been a lot of talk lately about America's dependency on imported oil. Certainly, the concern is nothing new. It was more than 25 years ago when this country experienced its first oil crisis, which caused fuel prices to skyrocket faster than you can say "long lines at the pump."
The last two decades saw the rise of government regulation to address this issue, with federally mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards designed to "encourage" the production of more fuel-efficient automobiles. A noble goal, to be sure, but the explosion in light truck sales since 1990 has all but neutralized any fuel-efficiency gains made in the various car segments. Recent studies indicate that, while horsepower and performance are undeniably up, overall fuel efficiency, when averaged across the entire spectrum of new vehicle sales (including almost 50 percent light truck sales) is lower than it was in the early 1980s.
So, it seems we've made a lot of noise about wanting to cut our dependency on imported oil, but not a lot of progress. While much of the public has voted its conscience in terms of supporting politicians and programs that will break the Mid-East stranglehold on our oil-dependant economy, that same car (and truck!) buying public has also voted with its wallet in terms of what types of vehicles it really wants.
Of course, none of this is breaking news. It's obvious to anyone driving the roads of America that we like our vehicles big, powerful and, consequently, rather thirsty. But what I find increasingly frustrating is the unrestrained hypocrisy that surrounds this subject. For instance, it's a foregone conclusion that high-profile individuals, such as the majority of entertainers and politicians, will be the first to stand up and claim that Mother Earth is a top priority and we must all do what it takes to save her. These same people will also insist that we must not allow Arab nations to hold our economy hostage. But dig a little deeper and you'll find their words and actions don't match.
As a resident of Los Angeles, I have the "privilege" of spotting famous people from time to time. In fact, in the last two years, I've seen Jennifer Lopez, Meg Ryan, Dustin Hoffman and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others. I've also seen what they were driving. Jennifer Lopez: black Lincoln Navigator. Meg Ryan: black Ford Explorer. Dustin Hoffman: dark green Land Rover Range Rover. Arnold Schwarzenegger: gray Mercedes-Benz G500.
Now, with the possible exception of Arnold, all of the individuals I've just mentioned have made varying claims of "environmental consciousness" at some point in their career. I remember a television program celebrating Earth Day back in the 1990s that had Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams doing a bit about how we have to fix the hole in the ozone layer. It was a somewhat compelling piece...until I saw him outside a Starbucks in Malibu last year firing up a V8 Range Rover (good for around 13 mpg). Certainly, if you asked Meg or Jennifer their position on environmental issues and a camera were pointed at them, they'd be quick to trumpet the party line about saving the planet.
And don't think this issue stops with entertainers. I've got an in-law who recently purchased a full-size fully loaded Chevrolet Suburban. She lives in Marin County, Calif., but regularly makes the 20-plus-mile trek into San Francisco with her three kids. She's never towed anything, and she never drives in snowy conditions. Some people (her husband and myself included) thought a Honda Odyssey would serve her needs perfectly, but the idea of driving a (gasp!) minivan had her up in arms. She wasn't going to be one of those (gasp again!) minivan moms! No way! She wanted a Suburban, and that's what she got. Not really a problem if she doesn't care about oil dependencies and the environment, but she claims she does.
I should point out that I don't begrudge any of these individuals their choice in automotive transportation. I'm of the somewhat unpopular belief that a big part of what makes America great is the ability of its citizens to buy just about any type of car or truck one could ever hope for. What I can't stomach is the position of the many so-called "environmentalists" who are about as green as Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Of course, there are people out there who would argue that it is the auto industry's and the government's role to produce clean, fuel-efficient vehicles that suit our needs. And until they do, all of us (including poor Dustin and Meg and Jennifer and my in-law) are just victims of a world that won't give us the clean, environmentally conscious vehicles we really-really do want.
Wrong! In the last two years, I've also seen Ed Begley, Jr. (who has basically inherited the role of electric car poster child) and Alexandra Paul driving around L.A. Both of them were in EV1s, making their claims as earth-conscious individuals both consistent and powerful. Now Honda and Toyota are producing hybrid vehicles that get amazing fuel mileage while having minimal emissions, further expanding the green choices for earth-loving individuals. Would the Honda Insight or Toyota Prius serve Mr. Hoffman's, Ms. Lopez's or Ms. Ryan's needs? Don't know, but I can tell you that on the days I saw them, the roads were clear and dry, they were getting into their SUVs alone and they had no cargo to speak of (unless you count a Grande Frappuccino as cargo).
In the context of this discussion, I find myself in a quandry. First, I've never claimed to be an environmentalist. I do hate the idea of wasting resources, and I do like the idea of using technology to reduce the emissions produced by internal combustion engines. I live less than 7 miles from my place of work, and my official daily driver is a small four-cylinder car that gets close to 30 mpg. But my lifestyle is as much a tribute to fundamental logic as it is to saving the planet. I don't like spending 10-plus hours a week commuting in a car, and I don't like spending my money on gasoline. I think multi-ton trucks and SUVs are cool, but not for people living in warm climates with little or nothing to haul or tow. Do these common-sense principals make me an environmentalist, even if just by proxy? Hmmm.
Maybe what we need is a new screening process. I propose the following simple rule: You are not allowed to claim any allegiance to the environment or environmental causes if your primary personal vehicle gets less than 25 mpg in mixed city/highway driving. I know over a dozen "tree huggers" who would officially be kicked out of the movement if such a measure were imposed (and I don't have that many friends...in case that wasn't already obvious). With trucks and SUVs making up close to half of all new vehicle sales, and over half the voting public picking Gore over Bush in the last presidential election, you probably can think of a few Greenies that wouldn't make the cut, too.
And with gas continuing to hover around $1 a gallon, I don't see Americans abandoning their SUVs and trucks anytime soon. Not that I have a major problem with all of these SUV pilots...just the hypocritical ones who voted for Al Gore and claim to be environmentalists.