Countdown to Earth Day

April 8, 2004

Photo credit: Wikinfo

“No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back.”

     - Turkish proverb

Following World War II the American people began moving out of the cities and off the farms into the SUBURBS. This migration was made possible by a lot of open space and that singular invention - the family car. Since that time, our entire economy has evolved around the ownership of private automobiles. Just think about how many businesses offer drive-thru services. And isn’t it annoying when you can’t find a parking space near the door at the mall?

But American’s love affair with the automobile comes at a high environmental and social cost. According to a national study by the Texas Transportation Institute, traffic congestion cost travelers in urban areas 4.3 billion hours of delay, 6.6 billion gallons of wasted fuel consumed, and $72 billion of time and fuel cost in 1997.

The next time you are cruising down the highway - or have a moment while stuck in traffic - think about the amount of acreage that our road and highway systems use. Prime farmland, forest, bog, desert, it doesn’t matter; highways are impartial destroyers of whatever they cross. And when population in the suburbs grows, what’s the answer? More lanes to accommodate the increased traffic - 6, 8, 10, 12 in each direction. What else could that land be used for?

How about the automobile itself? There are more than 140 million cars, trucks, vans, buses, and specialty vehicles on the road each day in this country, driving some 4 billion miles, and consuming 200 millions of gas doing it. Fifty-one percent of all new vehicle sales are for minivans, sport utility vehicles, and pick-up trucks. Because they are classified as trucks, these vehicles don’t have to meet the same fuel efficiency and emission requirements as do passenger cars. Minivans and SUVs require more raw materials and energy in their manufacture; they consume more fuel per mile ( that’s $$s out of your pocket); they give off more pollutants; and they are less safe to drive.

Fuel efficiency means more than just dollars. Right now this country imports nearly 60% of its oil, largely to feed our gasoline appetites. The world’s largest remaining reserves of oil are in the Middle East, held by countries not entirely friendly to the U.S. The cost for imports of petroleum is the single largest component of our overall trade deficit. This deficit is now so large that it is beginning to destabilize the global economy. Thus it becomes clear that continuing our current driving habits is not only bad for the economy, it’s also bad for our national security.

Then we get to the other end of the automobiles’ life cycle. What happens when they die? Almost 75% of today’s dead autos is recycled. This is largely due to the value of a car’s metal content and the technology available to process it. However, the remaining 25% is problematic and voluminous. For example, according to the U.S. EPA, Americans discard 250 million tires annually. That’s a mountain of tires, and it gets bigger every year. These tires don’t decay, they bleed pollutants like benzene into the water, and they create nesting places for vermin like rats and mosquitoes.

What can we do, short of revamping our entire economy and lifestyle? Quite a lot, actually. When you next shop for a car ask yourself a few simple questions.


         will your car be used mainly for long trips or short commuting hops?

         do you frequently transport many passengers?

         how often do you haul freight?

         are you really going to take your SUV on safari or off-road?

If you need a large vehicle, why not choose a fuel-efficient station wagon? Their safer than an SUV. If you seldom need a large vehicle, buy a smaller one that actually matches your driving habits, and then rent a large one for the few time you need it. Then, when you go to make your choice, pick the car or truck that has the best fuel economy and lowest emissions in its class. To help you make this choice, you can turn to:


         the Federal Government’s fuel efficiency ratings at:


         ACEEE’s Green Book: The Environmental Guide to Cars and Trucks at:

Better yet, you might want to think about purchasing one of the new hybrid gas-electric vehicles. The Toyota Prius gets 66 miles/gallon!

And finally, consider the fact that Americans make 123 million car trips each day that are short enough to be made on foot. Is it any wonder that obesity has reached epidemic proportions in this country?

Don’t want to hoof it to the store? Then you might want to consider the world’s most efficient form of transportation - the bicycle. A bicyclist obtains the energy equivalent of a 1,000 mile/gallon car, and uses only food for fuel. That’s efficiency, and it’s healthful as well.