Hypocrisy on the road

  I?ll always remember the evening a candidate for local political office, an environmentally minded and intelligent citizen whom I liked and admired, passed me on the highway between Cortez, Colo., and Mancos. I was traveling somewhere between 60 and 65 mph, my usual cruising speed. He blew by me -- passing over a double yellow line -- as if I were a slug crawling along the asphalt.

When I mentioned the incident to him later, he said, "I was tired and I wanted to get home."

Not long ago, I listened to a woman active in a conservation group bragging about how many times she?d been stopped for speeding and laughing about how often she?d been able to talk her way out of a ticket. Every time I encounter someone like this, someone ostensibly "green" who takes great pride in driving like a crazed fugitive in an action movie, I have to smother the impulse to club him or her over the head with a rolled-up newspaper from my recycling bin.

"You?re hurting the movement," I want to say. "You?re hurting the earth. What are you thinking?"

A vehicle?s most efficient speed varies a little according to what type of vehicle it is, of course, but everyone agrees that the further the needle on your dashboard leans past 60, the faster your fuel consumption rises, largely because of wind resistance.Driving 75 instead of 55 mph can cause you to burn as much as 45 percent more gasoline, depending on what you?re driving, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that fuel efficiency drops 7 percent, on average, for each 5 mph by which you exceed 65.No matter the exact figure, it?s clear that greater speed burns more gasoline and produces more climate-warming emissions. It also contributes to more car crashes and increases the severity of those crashes ? not to mention that it causes us to mow down more birds, butterflies, prairie dogs and any other form of wildlife that might step into our path.

There are many forms of environmental hypocrisy, of course, and we?re all guilty of a few. Maybe we take long, hot baths sometimes when we could get by with brief showers. Or we occasionally buy a bottle of water instead of remembering to carry some in a reusable container. Nobody?s perfect, or even consistent.

But our driving habits are one of the simplest, easiest, most obvious things we could change in order to help the planet ? yet most of us simply won?t do it.

An ultra-conservative woman I know once told me about a meeting of an environmental group that took place at a local community center. "After it was over," she chortled, "they all ran out to their SUVs and drove four blocks down the street to the brewpub." I don?t doubt her tale, because I see similar examples all the time. A friend of mine who rescues abandoned animals and supports environmental causes once was ticketed for doing 90 mph near South Park, Colo. She then made a 200-mile round trip back there to fight the ticket in court on the theory that her appearance would lessen her fine, a theory that, sadly, proved untrue.

Many people who bristle at the idea of new oil and gas wells or coal-fired power plants are far more likely to hop in their cars and drive to a meeting about the subject than they are to do something far simpler to reduce emissions: Slow down. No, they?d rather boast about how fast they can drive, say, from Grand Junction, Colo., to Moab, Utah.

After the Arab oil embargo of 1973, the federal government ordered states to cut their speed limits to 55mph. Partly as a result, the United States? consumption of gasoline stopped increasing -- as it had done every year before -- and stayed level for years. But in 1987, speed limits went up again, and so did gasoline consumption. Now, the idea of reinstating the 55-mph limit is considered outrageous.

I?m not sure what prompts this obsession with speed. Is it a residual anti-authoritarianism left from the ?60s? Does speeding make us feel like we?re bucking the system somehow? Maybe. But this willingness to toss aside our ethics when they become inconvenient just gives critics reason to doubt our sincerity on any environmental issue. Personally, I?d rather buck the system by buying fewer gallons of gasoline than by dodging deer at 80 mph while listening to NPR.

Gail Binkly is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes in Cortez, Colorado.
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