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Hybrid Hatred

According to the Automobile Page of my local paper, many U.S. car owners resent people who drive hybrids. The article quoted one woman who associated owning a Prius with “self-righteousness and frivolity,” and that she has the same feeling of disgust for a Prius that she does for a Hummer.

Putting aside for the moment that the pollution caused in the manufacture of hybrid batteries negates a large part of any environmental gain, what does such widespread resentment teach us about building a mass movement to stop global warming/climate change? If the slogan from last month’s amazing demonstration in Manhattan – “It takes everyone to change everything” – is correct, then such attitudes can’t be dismissed.

Public manifestations of individual behavior modifications spark the “culture wars” of our nation. Owning a hybrid is a metaphorical attack on the Madison Avenue “need” embedded in the psyche of the automobile market. The hybrid owner spent more money to buy a slower, smaller car, in order to reduce its carbon footprint. It isn’t just SUV drivers who take this as a personal affront; any driver of a big car may feel judged by the hybrid-owner’s decision. Moreover, the hybrid choice undermines the sense of freedom and power drivers get from what is advertised as the public expression of their self-worth.

My point is not that we must find a way to get these people to accept and ultimately drive hybrids. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the hybridization of American driving habits will not significantly slow, let alone halt, climate change.

A close look at the way car companies advertise their high-mileage models, when added to the big carbon footprint of their batteries, explains why this is the case. Toyota urges you to go more places. The current Volkswagen hybrid commercial boasts that you can go farther, almost 600 miles, on just one tank of gas. The message is hammered home that better mileage enables you to drive more, for less.

Unfortunately, the advertising works; do the numbers. If you get 50mpg instead of 25mpg, but drive twice as far, you use just as much gas. I’m not claiming the average hybrid owner does drive twice as far, but the allure of the “greater freedom” to go farther and the reduced cost of doing so, are real selling points. Enough people will take advantage of this to significantly reduce any environmental benefit these vehicles provide. Since our system is based on selling more, and so many have been convinced that our happiness depends on acquiring more, efficiency gains will have relatively little effect.

As I’ve written in previous essays, I believe that individuals opting for increased efficiency in consumer products won’t solve our environmental crisis. Only replacing our current economic system with a no-growth, nonprofit-oriented model can accomplish that. But the article in my local paper reminded me that systemic and attitudinal change must go hand-in-hand to demonstrate capitalism’s destructiveness and consumerism’s emptiness. This is a tall order, but either one without the other won’t work. Read More 
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