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At the massive January 18 antiwar demonstration in San Francisco, demonstrators from a group called Environmentalists Against the War carried placards blaming Sports Utility Vehicles for the U.S. war drive against Iraq. “If War is Inevitable, Start Drafting SUV Drivers Now!” said one sign. Another showed a picture of a Ford Explorer and an oil drum, with the slogan “Axle of Evil.”
SUVs have come under attack from environmentalists and other left-wing activists over the past few years–and not only because these vehicles have become a status symbol for yuppies flaunting their wealth.
Most SUVs are inefficient gas guzzlers that produce disproportionately high amounts of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. According to the Sierra Club, SUVs “spew out 43 percent more global-warming pollution and 47 percent more air pollution than an average car.”
And in his recent book High and Mighty, journalist Keith Bradsher reports that SUVs “roll over too easily, killing and injuring occupants at an alarming rate, and are dangerous to other road users, inflicting catastrophic damage to cars that they hit and posing a lethal threat to pedestrians.”
Last month, Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that some SUVs are so dangerous he wouldn’t ride in them “if they were the last vehicles on earth.”
But some critics have gone further. In January, the Detroit Project–a group spearheaded by columnist Arianna Huffington–produced two TV ads blasting SUV drivers for damaging national security, on the grounds that money spent on gas for the vehicles goes to Middle Eastern oil-producing states that fund terrorists.
The ads were partly intended to mock those silly government public service announcements that claim drug users fund terrorism. But intentionally or not, the Detroit Project ads promote a racist stereotype that Middle Easterners are terrorists.
Underlying both the Detroit Project and the sentiments of demonstrators who carried anti-SUV signs at the January 18 demonstration is the belief that the Bush administration’s war on Iraq is motivated in part by a need to grab Iraq’s oil resources so SUV drivers can keep their vehicles on the road.
But pointing the finger at SUVs is wrong for two reasons. In the first place, this faults consumers, rather than auto manufacturers and oil companies, for the fact that SUVs are inefficient. We desperately need more efficient methods of transportation. But the big auto and oil companies contribute millions of dollars to both Democrats and Republicans to prevent the passage of tougher fuel efficiency requirements and air pollution standards.
In addition, the U.S. “automobile-industrial complex” has worked hard to undermine public transit and research into renewable energy. And because auto companies earn 80 percent of their profits from SUVs and other light trucks, they advertise them relentlessly to convince people to buy them. If we’re going to draft anybody first, perhaps it should be the auto and oil executives.
But there’s a second misconception behind the idea that this is a war for SUV drivers. It is undoubtedly true that a large part of the Bush administration’s motivation for going to war with Iraq is increasing U.S. control over Middle Eastern oil resources. But this isn’t primarily to satisfy the needs of U.S. consumers.
Oil is the most important commodity in the world, vital for both industry and the military. Even when consumer demand was much lower, Washington still wanted to control the world’s oil supplies. In the 1940s, the State Department described the Middle East’s oil as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” This is the reason why the U.S. has intervened repeatedly in the Middle East over the past half century.
Capitalist economies aren’t driven by consumer demand, but by the need of capitalists to make profits. If we want to change the nature of the system–including its tendency to destroy the environment and its drive towards war–we need to change the way production is organized, not point moralistic fingers at SUV drivers or other consumers.
PHIL GASPER writes for the Socialist Worker.