Gas guzzlers are only part of the problem.

Yesterday, I was stopped on the street by a Greenpeace canvaser who told me about her organization’s attempts to increase awareness of global climate change and get voters to put pressure on their congressional representatives to take the issue more seriously. But it’s going to be an uphill battle: The auto industry is already taking steps to pre-empt Congress. My biggest fear is not that automakers won’t make greener cars. Ultimately, I’m more worried that they won’t need to make greener cars because American consumers—once they are convinced that fuel efficiency will come at the expense of safety—will not want to buy them.

On the BBC World Service today, I heard an advertisement that is being run in the U.S. by big automakers who oppose higher fuel standards (I tried to find it online but couldn’t so I have to paraphrase). In the ad, a women is talking to her friend about the friend’s car. The friend answers something to the effect of, “I know it’s bigger than the average car but we just feel so much safer in it.” To which the first woman responds, “Well, you might want to hold on to it because this new law Congress is considering will mean Americans have to buy smaller and smaller cars.” Through these ads, automakers hope to convince  consumers that smaller cars might be more fuel efficient but they’re also less safe.

Obviously, automobile manufacturers are fighting against higher fuel efficiency requirements because it’ll mean higher car prices which will mean fewer cars sold. Since the auto manufacturers are not weaklings, they’re applying so much pressure that now Senators are openly discussing “compromises” which might so water down the law that it’ll have no real effect on carbon dioxide emissions. But if consumers can be scared away from fuel efficient cars, automakers might be able to argue that there simply isn’t enough demand for green automobiles.

Now it’s an undeniable fact that carbon dioxide emissions are bad for our planet and everything that lives on it. Emissions have wrought havoc on our climate, leading to extremes of hot and cold all over the world (yes, I saw An Inconvenient Truth and I’m convinced!), and the melting of continental glaciers and polar icecaps. And there’s no doubt that increased carbon dioxide emissions are largely the result of human activity. Sure cow farts and other culprits are also blamed for global climate change but I’m going to include those under human activities (after all, who breeds and feeds cows). But, while we might not have the power to keep the Asians from cultivating rice in paddies or the Brazilians from burning down the Amazon (to grow soybeans and raise cattle for McDonalds, by the way!), we do have the power to pressure U.S. automakers to make greener cars that burn less fossil fuel (or no fossil fuel at all) and emit less (or no) carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, gas guzzlers are only the tip of  the proverbial iceberg, merely a symptom of a deeper disease. These mechanical behemoths are really a manifestation of our self-centered culture, what Michael Moore refers to in his new film Sicko as the “me culture.” In this “me culture,” the individual is king and the only issues of any importance are those that directly impact that individual. So automakers simply have to say, “fuel-efficient cars will be BAD for YOU because they’ll be smaller and less safe” and Americans will continue to buy gas guzzlers.

Why?

Because our mentality is so warped, our sense of communitarianism so suppressed, that we cannot think beyond ourselves and our immediate family. In the event of an accident, the person driving the hummer might get off lightly but what about the people in the other car? This kind of thinking convinces me that progress on the environmental front will be tough. If people don’t care that their gas guzzler can wreak disproportionate damage on a smaller car and its occupants, how can they be expected to care about the effects of climate change on the other side of the planet?

The new ads appeal precisely to this kind of self-centered thinking. The auto industry no longer bothers to argue that global warming is a hippie, tree-hugger conspiracy or that cow farts contribute more to the greenhouse effect than cars. Instead, they’ve resorted to manipulating people’s fears. Automakers tell us that in order to make cars more fuel efficient, they’ll have to make them smaller. And smaller means less safe. Simple. And so, consumers’ fear of dying in a car accident helps automakers sell inefficient cars under the guise of safety, while the planet gets hotter and hotter.

But in one sense, the automakers are right about smaller being less safe. Advances in technology and transporation have already made our planet smaller. But climate change will also make the world increasingly unstable as more and more people are displaced by drought and famine and the first water wars predicted by the Pentagon start to erupt. Darfur is only a preview of what will happen when competition for basic resources becomes violent. Eventually, everyone—especially those of us fortunate enough to live in developed countries—will have to deal with the real consequences of climate change.

When that times comes, gas guzzlers will not keep us safe.

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