I noticed a story over on Eco Street blog about a group who have deflated the tyres of thousands of 4x4s as a protest against climate change. Because everybody knows that 4x4 drivers are the bad guys. Why is that?
The argument goes that 4x4s consume more petrol than smaller cars and so release more carbon and contribute more to climate change. Is that true? Well, it depends on what you are comparing with what. Some modern 4x4s are actually more fuel efficient than some older smaller cars. So if the protesters were targeting fuel-inefficient cars they would probably attack N-reg Ford Escorts and leave the 2005/6/7 4x4s alone.
But, the anti-4x4 people argue, 4x4s are not necessary in cities, they're not needed for the school run, they're just conspicuous consumption. OK, fair point. But some people do really need to drive a 4x4. Fellow blogger Stonehead, for example, lives on a croft in the Scottish highlands. A Prius wouldn't make it up the lane, much less pull a trailer with a pig in it. But he occasionally gets stick for driving a 4x4. I also know people who have huge customised wheelchairs, and need a large car to fit the chair in. Some of them find a 4x4 fits the bill. A Golf simply wouldn't.
Conversely I know people who have little cars which would escape the wrath of the activists, but who could easily fulfil all their transport needs by walking, cycling and using public transport. And I also know paid-up eco hippies who drive around town in an ancient VW camper van. It certainly looks the part, but it's guzzling fuel as it goes. Funny sort of eco hippy if you ask me, who cares more about their image than about the environment.
So if the activists could really target people guilty of conspicuous consumption, why don't they attack Bentleys and Porsches, pimped Fiestas and those little 2-seater MGs that probably have a great mpg and inspire envy even in total non-petrol-heads like me?
It's just all too simplistic. If these activists could have their wish come true, maybe they would wish all 4x4s would vanish off the roads forever. But that would leave farmers, disabled people and maybe other groups I haven't thought of, in an impossible position, probably without having much impact at all on climate change. A better wish might be to wish that it would suddenly become very unfashionable to drive an over-specified car. It would be considered terribly crass to take your kids to school in a 4x4 unless you live on the side of a mountain. And everyone would be proud of their 2-seaters and their 2-doors and their hybrids, or even better if they could get rid of the car and cycle everywhere instead, that would be très chic. Stonehead would still have his Land Rover. He needs it after all and doesn't give a damn about what's fashionable anyway. But most of the Chelsea tractors would vanish when they no longer won cachet for their owners, replaced by little sports cars that are more fuel efficient and probably heaps more fun to drive anyway.
So if we could agree that's what we really want - for people to voluntarily choose to drive the lowest-impact vehicle they can - how can we bring it about? Well certainly not by deflating the tyres of thousands of 4x4s. We need to think this through. The future of the human race is at stake and we can't rely on sound bites and quick-and-dirty analysis to figure out what to do. What is actually causing the damage? Is it vehicles whose drivetrain sends power to all four wheels simultaneously? Or is it humans whose carbon footprint is outsize? I hope this post is not misunderstood. I am not trying to defend 4x4s in particular. I am trying to attack simplistic approaches to environmental activism. Because I care very deeply about environmental activism and it p*sses me off when we're made to look stupid by our own side.