Me and my SUV

  • Carla Wise


I love my purple 4Runner.  She's a 1998 stick-shift with 177,000 miles on the odometer, and her name is Jesse.  She's been all over the West, camping on dirt roads and shuttling for river trips.

Once, in the high desert of central Oregon, I hit a patch of ice going fast on a cold, bluebird day, slid, spun around and came to rest with a jolt just two inches from a large ponderosa pine. She's never broken down, and as she gets older and more scraped up, I only grow more attached. Yet I devote a lot of my time writing about climate change.  So my attachment to Jesse -- who is, let's face it, an SUV -- can seem on good days like an inexplicable quirk and on bad days like hypocrisy.

Why this admission? Because I've come to understand, in a personal way, the dilemmas involved in wrestling with what is necessary, desirable and even possible in addressing the climate crisis.

Perhaps it is already too late to prevent catastrophic climate change.  But if it's not, solutions will need to include both technological fixes -- electric vehicles, windmills, solar cells, etc. -- and remaking our lives so that fossil fuel isn't required for almost everything we consume. We'll need both these approaches, and neither really leaves much room for my 4Runner.  Yet why has so little progress been made?  And why haven't I given up my beloved vehicle?

Here's my answer: I have made changes; I drive less, garden more, buy more local organic food, buy renewable energy from our power company. But these changes will never be enough to turn this thing around in time. Anyone working seriously on this must know this, too. The needed shifts will never take place simply by choice, and in any case, these shifts are way too small.

There is broad scientific agreement that to avoid the likelihood of catastrophic climate change, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 80 percent by 2050. Or maybe even more. Eighty percent will not happen based on individual acts of conscience.

I am not the first to notice this.  I am just one illustration of why it is true.  Even though I know that individual choices are destabilizing the climate and threatening our wellbeing and our very survival, I continue to drive.

The scale of change we need will be hard. Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, argues for cap-and-trade legislation along with a mechanism to phase out coal, because the big changes required will happen only when it is too expensive not to make them.  Unfortunately, federal efforts to pass a cap-and-trade law have foundered, and Congress is now attempting to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, at the moment, legislative solutions seem impossible in a Congress filled with stubborn climate-change deniers.

What can we do?  I'm doing two things: working to protect the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and hoping gas prices keep going up, an unpopular position if there ever was one. I know some people will suffer. I am not making light of the pain of this. For the poorest among us, skyrocketing gas prices in 2008 caused serious hardship, including hunger and homelessness.

Today, we are again unprepared to pay a lot more for gas, food and everything else that is affected by higher energy prices. But the last time gas prices approached $4 a gallon, General Motors closed four truck plants and halted Hummer SUV production. Home purchases in far removed subdivisions fell much faster than those closer to urban centers.  People began driving less, and ridership on public transportation went up all over the country.

Skyrocketing oil prices, as painful as they are, may help us start doing what's necessary. As for me, while I have not sold Jesse, this latest gas price spike has helped me change my habits again.  I've given up driving one day a week, and started busing and carpooling much more often.

I've called my political representatives to ask them not to allow amendments stripping the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority.  And I'm hoping that the next election will bring a saner approach to climate change action.

In the meantime, rising oil prices, along with mounting climate destabilization, might just cause enough pain to spur us into action before our window of opportunity closes and the climate spirals out of control.

Carla Wise is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She lives in Corvallis, Oregon.

Erika Leaf
Erika Leaf says:
May 18, 2011 06:20 PM
In today's Wall St. Journal there is a book review of The End of Energy by Michael Graetz. It mentions the author's preference for a carbon tax (over Cap and Trade permits) and giving the EPA the authority to raise the tax if reduced emission targets are not met. That sounds a lot more effective to me. But either way, your call for supporting the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases meaningfully is right on target. Thanks for a nice article Carla.
Carla Wise
Carla Wise says:
May 18, 2011 09:58 PM
Yes, Erika, a carbon tax is a more straightforward and probably more effective way to go. I think Krugman argued for cap and trade mostly because he thought it had a chance of getting through the Congress. Didn't happen, but I think he was trying to be practical.
Brad Robinson
Brad Robinson says:
May 19, 2011 10:39 PM
My 97 4runner is as close to my heart as Jesse is to yours. So when the Dinorunnner's engine gave up, I replaced the engine, rather than the car. I walk a mile and half to and from work 4 days each week. We need to consider the true costs of replacing vehicles - even if we move to a hybrid or electric. The water, waste, shipping, etc of manufacturing a new vehicle is probably greater than the cost of replacing the engine and continuing to love my Dinorunner. Thanks for the story. Walk more, reduce, reuse, recycle, renew.
Carla Wise
Carla Wise says:
May 20, 2011 09:46 AM
That's one way I've worked this out for myself too, Brad, is to remember that using already-built stuff is often better than buying something new. What I was really trying to get at here is how little we really are facing the depth of the changes we need to make and what it will take to make them. Thanks for your comment.
Brad Robinson
Brad Robinson says:
May 20, 2011 10:07 AM
It's so true. Our political leaders lack the resolve to do what is needed. All of them are in perpetual campaign mode and afraid to make tough political choices for fear of being ousted by a temperamental, often politically capricious public. I certainly don't know what the answer is, but true campaign reform - removing corporate dollars from the election process - would be a good start in my mind. Until then, I keep doing what I can. We've reduced our energy footprint significantly and I keep looking for more ways to do it. Keep up the good work!
Mike Medberry
Mike Medberry says:
May 20, 2011 09:45 PM
Nice piece Carla! And Brad your thoughts are good too.
But you know, as I think about what various people have said and done over many years, it seems that only a crippling disaster will force us to work together to recognize the problems with our society and ourselves. I don't think that there is any campaign reform that will touch the real problem that is in our souls and spilled out on the landscape. It's a little like the old cliche of moving chairs on the Titanic--it ain't a-gonna change much. When gas is $10/gallon maybe we'll see some real action... People just don't see what's happening and think that the past will return.
Carla Wise
Carla Wise says:
May 23, 2011 12:19 PM
Mike, you may be right. Our denial skills, as a culture, are stunning. Good to hear from you!
Steve G
Steve G says:
May 25, 2011 12:13 AM
Unfortunately higher gas prices increase the popularity of 'Drill Here, Drill Now' plans that may destroy many of our last wild places. Public support of off-shore oil drilling, oil shale exploration, and destructive methods such as fracking will increase. Anything to make life easier on the wallet. It is difficult for a family in Georgia to care about preserving a pristine mesa in Utah when they're struggling to put food on the table. Unless a better alternative is presented to the millions of us relying on fossil fuels... the change will not come until we have thoroughly exhausted the last of our domestic reserves. Though the rise in fuel costs is inevitable I fear it for these reasons. What we need instead is a sort of philosophical sea change or "awakening" that helps us- as a species- move beyond fossil fuels. Or... more bicycles.
Brad Robinson
Brad Robinson says:
May 26, 2011 10:03 AM
Thanks for lifting my spirits Mike, Steve, and Carla. It's nice to know that there are others making choices that benefit the greater good. Regrettably, we tend to be a reactive culture and it will likely take a catastrophic event for us to do anything. More bikes, more walking - I'm all for it! Anyway - thanks all!