Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Ethical choice?
There are SUVs and then there are huge SUVs

By Rob Elder

I know a man who calls sport utility vehicles "BinLadenmobiles".

By driving huge truck-like cars and fancy car-like trucks, he says, we play into the hands of terrorists, confirming that Americans consume a disproportionate share of the world's resources, and making ourselves
dependent on sources that may be enemies.

Reluctantly, I'm considering buying a small SUV myself, a confession I'll explain in a moment. But I certainly agree that when we car-shop, we need not check our environmental ethics at the dealership door.

I don't see compelling evidence that Americans feel gas mileage has consequences beyond our own billfolds. Generally we support the Bush administration's effort to reduce reliance on foreign oil; not everyone,
however, likes the president's proposal to do that by opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Yet if we don't tap our oil reserves, and import less oil, then conservation will have to replace some
consumption at home. In large part, that's what the present congressional energy bill debate is about.

Some drivers already understand this, and are trading in gas gulping SUVs for little cars like the Toyota Pries and Honda Insight, hybrids that use both electricity and gasoline, getting from 50 to 70 miles per gallon. By
comparison, the GMC Yukon gets 15 mpg, and Lincoln's Navigator 13.

Put this in the emerging context of environmental ethics, and some surprises appear. An ethicist, for example, would ask who the stake holders are, and which ones would benefit from various decisions.

Start by answering this question. Which of the following are not working hard to open the wildlife refuge to drilling:

A. Republicans in Congress;
B. Big international oil companies;
C. America's labor unions.

Surprisingly, the correct answer is B - big oil.

Officially, oil giants like ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco support drilling. But the real test is who's lobbying for it in Washington. The big oil companies "are not present at all", a Senate aide told The New York Times,
which recently quoted a Teamsters official as saying the real purpose of new drilling is "job creation". The Bush energy policy, he said, "is, frankly, a way to re-employ American workers."

There's nothing unethical about putting unemployed people back to work, although there may be better places to do that than the Arctic, and better legislative vehicles than the Energy Bill. One reason the big oil companies aren't out front is that they know, given the certainty of court challenges, that it could be many years before this approach produced a single drop of oil.

Meanwhile, our individual choices as consumers matter. When we buy a car or truck, we're voting, just as surely as when we go to the polls. Casting an ethical vote involves asking ourselves questions about which choice best serves the common good, and represents us at our best.

It's easier to just assume that the free market and ever-advancing technology are going to solve everything.

Some things, maybe. This year's hot trend in SUV is to build them on car platforms, which tends to make them smaller and more fuel efficient. Ford may have a hybrid gas/electric engine in its moderately sized Escape SUV for 2003. But don't hold your breath for hydrogen fuel cell engines, which may not arrive until 2010.

Meanwhile, SUV are proliferating not just because people like them, but because some people who prefer small cars feel forced to buy bigger ones, just to survive.

Who wants to be in a 2,700-pound Prius colliding with a 5,600-pound Chevrolet Suburban? What driver of small cars hasn't risked her life because she can't see around or over SUVs and trucks? It's a problem when
they're in front of you on the freeways, blocking your view of exit signs. It's just as bad when they are parked near busy intersections; you can't see around them to tell whether anything's coming before you pull out into the cross street.

Personally, I don't want an SUV. But I may buy one just so I can sit high enough to see where I'm going. Fortunately, this year's crop of more than 100 choices includes several that provide good visibility but aren't gas hogs. Toyota's RAV4 and Honda's CR-V have gas mileage in the mid-20s. Other small SUVs include the Subaru Forester, Ford Escape and Chevy Tracker.

This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on March 18, 2002.

Rob Elder is senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University, and retired editor of the San Jose Mercury News.

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