- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2000

Drive an SUV? Apologize to the planet. Or else, just explain to environmentally sensitive friends that your wheels are greener than a bicycle's.

The SUV, we're told, stands for the ecologically ruinous lifestyle: too much steel, fuel, smog, greenhouse gas, asphalt highway, and suburban sprawl. In the last weeks of 1999, with presidential fanfare, the Environmental Protection Agency moved to extend "car" emission standards to the "light truck" category that includes most SUVs. But try as they may, green activists can't seem to curb our appetites for excess: almost half of all the new vehicles we buy are SUVs, minivans or pickups. The richer we get, the more wilderness we ruin.

Here's another view. Rich people do consume more and SUVs are indeed the wheels of affluence. But affluence is greener than the alternative, and most of the time, the internal combustion engine is too. The SUV is a rolling contradiction of green "truths" that just aren't so.

The global crisis of the 1970s was the imminent exhaustion of oil. Skyrocketing gas prices and plummeting supplies were going to downsize our wheels, and fast. Anyone who had predicted the SUV-ing of America back then would have been laughed out of town by all serious planet watchers. But technology proved them wrong: We're pumping more oil, from greater depths, than ever before. Last year saw a global glut, with prices at all-time lows.

The tailpipe emissions that used to concern regulators the most carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides have declined too, by some 95 percent. Today's SUV runs far cleaner than any econo-box did back then. Regulation made a difference here, but the marvel is how quickly the clean-up happened, once the political resolve solidified. A regulatory system of tradable pollution permits, like the one the EPA has implemented for electric power plants, would have cleaned things up even faster, at lower cost, and would have cut through arbitrary distinctions between "cars" and "light trucks" from the outset.

So how about SUV vs. bike? To conserve wilderness we must conserve land, which the SUV doesn't seem to do at all. It weighs 30 times as much as a bike and rider, and requires a roadway 10 times as wide. But a bike requires fuel too granola, say, for the biker. And growing grain occupies a lot more land than drilling for oil at least 2,000 times more, per unit of energy delivered from each acre used. Fossil fuels are so frugal because they extend downward, into the dead depths of the Earth; farms spread across the wilderness. And when it comes to converting raw fuel to locomotion, refineries and car engines are a lot more efficient than farmers, food processors and human muscles.

Bottom line: per mile, and per useful pound moved, drilling for oil and building an SUV-grade highway system uses 10 times less land than growing (the additional) food to fuel the bicyclist.

In 1910, more than one-quarter of all U.S. farmland was used to feed horses, the "natural" and "organic" transportation system of that era twice as much land as is occupied today by all our roads and highways, oil pipelines, refineries and wells. Technology has boosted agriculture productivity so much that we now farm some 80 million fewer acres than we did 60 years ago. Freeing up that much land to be reclaimed by wilderness has helped clean the air and water, and protect wildlife, too. Forest regrowth in America currently recaptures just about all the carbon and then some that America releases into the air in burning fossil fuels.

Our affluence, it turns out, is saving the environment, not ruining it. In America and around the globe, it's the rich, not the poor, who most actively conserve wildlife, forest, seashore and ocean. The family in the SUV is the one most likely to be camping in national parks and joining the Sierra Club. Richer people typically have smaller families, too.

Yes, all other things equal, it's still greener to drive a small car than a tank. But only when the choice is made freely. When instead the government tries to prescribe "efficiency," the upshot is always to make people a little poorer, and thus a little less green. People who feel affluent act green. If an SUV is what it takes for your family, run out and buy one.

Peter Huber is the author of "Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists" (just out from Basic Books), and a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Mark Mills is a senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and publisher of the newsletter Breakthrough Technologies.

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