Of Elves, Otters and SUVs
I must confess that when I first heard of the Earth
Liberation Front’s action, burning a Hummer dealership and vandalizing
several SUVs, my internal response was a resounding “huzzah!” Like Fight Club’s Project
Mayhem (though with a more coherent message), the prodigal “eco-terrorists”
had struck a blow against the corporate-consumer system that is
crippling our society. Cool. Like those “I’m Changing the Climate: Ask Me
How!” bumper stickers, the idea filled me with childish, subversive
While it’s not something I would nor could have
ever done, it is something I often fantasize about.
Riding in my partner’s car up 680 to visit his mom, we joke
about the glaring omission of photon torpedoes in the design of
his ‘98 Beetle. Maybe just water-balloons filled with paint
would be satisfaction enough. It’s
not that we want to hurt anyone.
We just want to express our outrage at all the gas-guzzling
road hogs and the inconsiderate morons who drive them.
Then I heard that the ELF action had triggered
a pro-SUV rally in response.
Oops. But really, the problem here was that they
acted on the impulses of their rage, and got only anger in return. Reaping, sowing, that sort of thing.
As an anthropologist, I have to look at it from
the perspective of culture. What
in our society has made these behemoths acceptable, even attractive
to some people? How the
hell can we change that? I’ve
thought about these questions for years, and just a couple weeks
ago, I thought of another example that could be very informative
to the SUV problem: fur.
Until very recently, furs were widely sought after. They were originally a very practical way to
keep warm in the winter. When human populations were smaller and
mostly agrarian, furs were probably a sustainable solution in colder
climates, if a bit prone to cruelty.
But with the proliferation of firearms and widespread trade,
fur coats became a status symbol of the urban elite, the epitome
of style and comfort. As supplies (read “wild fur-bearing-mammal
populations”) declined, furs became quite expensive, but demand
The animal rights
movement was able to reverse this trend.
Nowadays, fur is considered somewhat aberrant.
How did they pull it off?
One word: SHAME. For a while in the 80’s, people who owned furs
became afraid to wear them out on the town, expecting to be splashed
with blood, or at the very least jeered, hissed at and spat upon
by protesters. When people couldn’t help but think of these
protests against cruelty every time they saw a fur coat,
lost their glamour for consumers, and furriers lost a lot of
Can the campaign against SUVs learn from the anti-fur
crusaders of previous decades?
The civil disobedience that diminished the furrier’s image
was not without vandalism. Ruining
a coat with blood or red paint is certainly wanton property destruction,
though clearly less dangerous than ELF’s
penchant for arson. But
its impact was not primarily through the destruction, but through
the use of image to spread a potent message of shame on those
who would purchase and promote such ghastly items.
Can SUV drivers be subject to a similar sense of
public revulsion? I think so.
While I am sure that a few SUV drivers have a legitimate
need for their vehicles (say, people driving rescue dogs to disaster
sites, maybe, f’r’instance), the vast majority have them only because
be conned into believing that the SUV is keeping their family
safe, or because they think SUVs are, well, glamorous.
The safety thing is a combination of misconception
and myth. Sure, while
your kids are in an SUV, they may be slightly safer on the
road than they would have been in a compact car (though even that’s
disputable). But there’s
no question that the presence of so many SUVs on America’s roads
increases the threat to your kids the rest of the time, not only
from their increased risk of injury if they’re pedestrians, bicyclists
or in smaller cars in accidents with an SUV, but also because of
the indisputable air-quality, climate, and political repercussions
of having so many oversized vehicles out there wasting fossil fuels. What’s worse, these negative impacts are felt
by the rest of us, those that have responsibly chosen not to
drive SUVs. We’re also victims of the space that selfish
SUV drivers take up, in parking lots and on crowded freeways. How dare they do that
to everyone else? Why do we let them get away with being so clearly
ELF going after dealerships is like the government’s
mistakes in the “drug war” – it just makes the market more lucrative
for competitors when you take out one major dealer. The only sane way to stop it is to reduce demand. For drugs, this will require a major restructuring
of our culture, turning us away from a population of consumers expecting
instant relief from the pain and ennui of our social alienation
through the purchase and ingestion of some commodity. But for SUVs, the solution may be simpler.
choose direct SUV vandalism: those “I’m Changing the Climate: Ask
Me How!” bumper stickers; perhaps splashes of green paint to remind
us of how SUVs contribute to the greenhouse effect; and maybe, sometimes,
tire-slashing or other disabling of SUVs in mall parking lots, with
lots of notice posted, etc. to minimize any harm beyond simple inconvenience. I would never advocate such law breaking, of course (well, at least,
I don’t think I would), but this would spread the message of shame
with some efficacy.
What people of conscience need to do is work on
changing people’s mental associations with SUVs, and changing the
images of those who would own them. Can we follow the driver down
the street chanting "Shame on you!" when we spot one being
parked downtown? Could we insist that all passenger cars and light
trucks come with a display
of average gas milage for the last 100 miles visible on the
outside of the vehicle? Where appeals to reason
for others have failed, perhaps fear of being shamed can win
SHAME ON SUV