How did the 4×4 – that big-wheeled, boxy jeep beloved of ‘Chelsea mums’ and footballers – become public enemy no.1 in the environmentalism debate?
Listening to anti-4×4 campaigners, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this one breed of car is responsible for destroying the planet. It is widely expected that UK Chancellor Gordon Brown will announce in his Budget tomorrow that Vehicle Excise Duty for the 225,000 least fuel-efficient cars bought in Britain since last April – which includes most 4x4s and also sports cars – will be doubled, rising from £210 to £400 a year. This falls short of what green anti-4×4 campaigners are demanding; they want road tax to be raised to somewhere between £1,000 and £2,000 for ‘the worst offending cars’, especially 4x4s, which are described as ‘vile’, ‘vulgar’, and damaging both to the environment and to social cohesion.
The 4×4 has become the bête noire of the chattering classes. Pop into any dinner-party gathering in the leafiest of Britain’s leafy suburbs and you are guaranteed to hear someone bemoaning these big vehicles as they pass around the pesto. There is more to this anti-4×4 fever than a desire to protect the environment or pedestrians from exhaust fumes. Rather it seems to be underpinned by a snobbery against the ‘wrong’ kind of consumption, especially the kind indulged by apparently unsophisticated noveau riche types who garishly like to flaunt their wealth with their mock-Tudor homes, big hair and big cars.
When you think about it, the obsessive focus on 4x4s in the debate about cars and pollution is pretty crazy. These jeeps make up a tiny minority of the cars in action across Britain. There are an estimated 30million regularly-used vehicles in the UK, and those labelled the ‘least fuel-efficient’ – which include sports cars and other vehicles as well as the hated 4×4 – number only 225,000. Putting motorists off buying 4x4s by making them more expensive to run will do Sweet FA to reduce the level of pollution caused by car use.
The level of CO2 coughed up by a 4×4 is not that much greater than various other modern machines. Campaigners say that 4x4s emit more CO2 than most other cars – that may be true, but they emit less CO2 than some of the things we use in the home day in and day out. According to research published in 2005, one cycle of a kitchen dishwasher releases around 756g of CO2, more than double that produced by a short spin in a Range Rover Turbo Diesel, which releases 299g per kilometre. Using a petrol lawnmower for an hour releases more than 1,000g of CO2. Why are there no campaigns against ‘evil’ dishwashers, or demands that Gordon Brown slap big fat taxes on lawnmowers?
There is also little hard evidence that, when involved in collisions, 4x4s are more dangerous for motorists and pedestrians than other cars. Of course, none of us would like to be on the receiving end of a speeding 4×4 – but nor would we want to be hit by a big red bus, a delivery truck, a black taxi or even a Mini for that matter. According to Chris Patience, head of technical policy at the Automobile Association (AA): ‘There is no shared characteristic of 4x4s that make them any more or less aggressive towards pedestrians compared to a “normal” car.’ Patience even claims that 4x4s might be less harmful to pedestrians when there is a collision. ‘Typically, pedestrians hit by cars wrap around the front of the car and their head hits the bonnet’, he says, and because 4x4s tend to have more space between the bonnet and the engine beneath it, they create something of a ‘crumple-zone for the head’.
It is not really what these cars do that winds up campaigners, but rather what they represent. They’re big brash symbols of conspicuous consumption. And at a time when we’re encouraged to be meek and to constantly consider what impact our behaviour might be having on the environment, buying a 4×4 and showing it off to the other mums at the schoolgates or your mates at the football ground is the contemporary equivalent of a mortal sin.
It isn’t so much the car that the campaigners can’t stand (after all, they like big red carbon-producing buses) but rather the people who tend to drive them – whether it’s uppity working-class-done-good people, or country folk who talk in posh tones and probably watch Top Gear. You can tell this is about more than pollution and pedestrians if you listen to the language used to describe 4×4 drivers. They’re talked about in the most vituperative terms, not only as polluters but as Bad People. The website of the UK campaign group the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s describes itself as a collection of ‘concerned citizens’ and 4x4s as ‘The Bad Guys’. It says its aim is to make driving a 4×4 as ‘socially unacceptable as drink-driving’.
London mayor Ken Livingstone says mums who drop their kids at school in 4x4s are ‘complete idiots’. A left-leaning British think-tank, the New Economics Foundation, describes 4x4s as ‘Satan’s little run-arounds’. In the US, a website called What Would Jesus Drive? (not a 4×4, apparently) says pollution from 4x4s ‘has a major impact on human health and the rest of God’s creation’. So 4×4 drivers are not only dangerous and greedy and anti-social – they’re ungodly, too.
These are clearly moral judgements masquerading as concern for the environment. Look into the trunk of the anti-4×4 campaign and you will find generous doses of snobbery, mean-spiritedness and neo-luddism.
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