I remember the first time I saw one of those massive, ungainly behemoths on a Manhattan street. I couldn't imagine what or who it was for. It looked industrial, but who'd haul cargo in a Cadillac? And who'd risk ripping the seats of their pants hoisting themselves in and out of a luxury truck? I dismissed the SUV as an automotive anomaly--another Edsel.
But I was wrong. In 2001, more SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks were sold than cars. And we Jews are contributing to sales. Many synagogue parking lots look like veritable showrooms of these gas-guzzling giants.
Are their owners aware that every gallon of gasoline burned fills our skies with twenty pounds of polluting carbon dioxide--and that SUVs use, on average, 25% more gas than standard-size vehicles? The cumulative result is an additional national consumption of more than a million gallons of gas every hour, every day.
How does burning all this fuel affect public health? According to the American Lung Association, more than 140 million Americans breathe air with unsafe levels of ozone pollution, contributing to the dramatic rise in asthma attacks among our children and causing thousands of premature deaths from heart and lung disease, particularly among the elderly. And vehicle emissions, says the National Academy of Sciences, contribute significantly to global warming
If protecting the environment and our children's health is not reason enough to reduce gas consumption and advocate for increases in average fuel economy, there is another urgent reason: the implications of continued American dependence on Persian Gulf oil.
Some history. After the Arab oil embargo and supply disruptions of the 1970s, Congress mandated an increase in vehicle fuel economy, which in the '80s led to a dramatic reduction in America's demand for oil. Between 1979 and 1985, our economy grew 16% while our use of oil fell 16%--proof that economic expansion is possible without an increase in fuel consumption.
This progress, however, was erased in the '90s, as automobile companies exploited a loophole that allows them to produce passenger vehicles under the category of "light trucks," which are held to a much lower fuel efficiency standard than cars (20.5 versus 27.5 miles per gallon). Thus was born the minivan and the sport utility vehicle (SUV). Bowing to auto company pressure, Congress has repeatedly failed to increase the standards. As a result, the average fuel economy of our vehicles has dropped to its lowest level since 1980. We now use a third more oil than we did in 1985, and 800% more Persian Gulf oil.
A hopeful sign in reversing this destructive trend came last spring, when California Governor Gray Davis signed landmark legislation requiring that new cars and light trucks sold in the state emit significantly lower levels of carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants. The bill (AB 1493) was passed by the state legislature despite a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and other business interests. California's lead will likely increase the eventual availability of more fuel-efficient automobiles, such as Toyota's hybrid gasoline-electric (44 miles per gallon), four-wheel-drive, seven-passenger minivan, which is sold in Japan.
Clearly, those of you who own SUVs are not going to ditch your vehicles. But you can save fuel by keeping engines tuned and tires properly inflated, and not letting your vehicles idle for more than a minute. Better yet, use mass transit, carpool, cycle, or walk whenever possible. And, when shopping for your next vehicle, keep high fuel efficiency uppermost in mind, and ask your local dealers for more hybrid options. Let's make synagogue parking lots the showcase for state-of-the-art low-consumption vehicles.
Mark X. Jacobs is executive director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
Copyright © 2002, Union of American Hebrew Congregations