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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Why We Love Trucks
distributed 10/9/15 - ©2015

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Wendy Beth Oliver of Redmond, Oregon. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

There are many things which are widely known but rarely said directly. It can be stunning and enlightening when the reality is named clearly and directly.

There was a bit of that recently when US Rep. Kevin McCarthy -- who is not going to be the next Speaker of the House -- let slip that the hearings about Benghazi had more to do with political motivations than with uncovering details about that tragedy. It was pretty obvious for a long time, but surprising to have somebody admit it.

I had a similar reaction to a story in the Denver Post this week. A reporter spelled out -- with dramatic quotations, hard statistics, and vivid photos -- a piece of common knowledge that seldom makes it to print.

The "Life & Culture" story about pickup trucks doesn't have the political intrigue of partisan manipulation in Washington, DC, but "Why We Love Trucks" may be just as important as we try to develop responsible energy policies.

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Is the popularity of trucks really important? I'll start with a few numbers.

The article reveals that sales of light trucks (pickups, vans and SUVs) in Colorado increased 16 percent in the first eight months of 2015 compared with the same period last year. In 2014, there were 115,305 new light trucks sold in the state, compared to 73,111 new cars -- about 60% more trucks than cars. If we're trying to address the fuel efficiency of vehicles on the road, the trends out here in Colorado are in the wrong direction.

Green Car Reports says, "Americans buy more full-size pickup trucks than any other vehicle type, so boosting their gas mileage has a much greater impact than improvements in smaller and more efficient cars." One of the most efficient trucks, a Chevrolet Silverado, is rated at 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway. But a "fuel saver" V8 engine in a RAM truck gets 15 MPG in the city. Ouch.

So trucks and SUVs are big sellers, and not great on fuel economy. I'm not surprised. But the real shocker in the article was the open admission about why so many of those big vehicles are being sold.

Reporter William Porter (who usually does restaurant reviews) found people who were willing to talk about their real motivations. Porter writes, "The buying demographic, long the domain of contractors, ranchers, farmers and horse people, has grown to include, well, city slickers."

Scott Robertson, a Denver bartender, revels in the rugged image a pickup truck projects. "That's the whole point," he said, nodding toward the street where his truck was parked. "That's why I bought that big black thing out there."

The new vehicle manager at a local Dodge dealership said, "It's quite interesting. There are some people who want these $70,000 diesel trucks that can tow 3 tons for no reason at all, other than to drive the family around town."

Another truck owner reflected, "Trucks have become mobile testaments to status, power and comfort. Owners treat their trucks like treasures, and not for the tasks we always associated with pickups."

The rugged, powerful image of big trucks isn't something that suburbanites dreamed up on their own. Porter says, "It's a reputation honed by advertising, with photographs of the trucks hauling massive payloads through muck and mire, and voiceovers in deep 'Beef, it's what's for dinner' voices."

The president of the Colorado Auto Dealers Association named the status and community factor. "If the neighbors are buying them, you probably will, too. It's almost peer pressure."

Like I said, this is stuff that we've all known. It is just surprising to see an admission of it sprawled across the front of the Post's entertainment section, with a blaring headline, filling more than a page of the paper.

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The other big surprise for me is how many of my friends and colleagues don't seem to know the real truth about big vehicles. Well-informed people, with all of the best intentions about doing good for the planet, speak to me often as if buying a car was a completely rational decision.

I hear the facts and figures about miles per gallon in various kinds of cars -- and about the complete lack of gallons in a plug-in electric vehicle. Their implication is that, if we just show folks the spreadsheet of energy efficiency ratings, they will all go do the right thing.

But the website PersuasiveCopywriting.net reminds us, "Basically, as humans, we are all emotional creatures. A lot of what we do are driven by emotions. And you will include buying decision in that." The marketing piece then gets more crass. "Therefore, if you can appeal successful to your prospect's emotions ... and press his hot buttons repeatedly ... you are going to get his business." Businesses are highly motivated to push those emotional buttons when it leads to sales of high-profit trucks.

We're not going to turn our society toward sustainability and lower environmental impacts with reason alone. The emotional side has to be taken into account.

I reflected on this nine years ago, when I was shocked by an especially crass Hummer ad. "The blatant message of the ad is this: if you feel powerless and dismissed, drive a powerful car that can't be ignored."

Faith communities can play an important part in developing good transportation choices, not by educating about whiz-bang technology, but by healing the wounded spirits that lure people to make irresponsible decisions. If our folk have a longing to "feel like a westerner", can we help them express that identity without a 2-ton pickup? If they feel invisible, can we strengthen their confidence so they don't need to drive a jacked-up truck that towers over everybody else?

Can we find the courage to teach our congregations that the Judeo-Christian tradition rejects the domination and abuse of creation -- so that the ads showing pickups blasting through mudflats become obscene instead of enticing? (Do a study group that looks at chapter 2 of Pope Francis' environmental encyclical!)

Yes, we've all known about the emotional and status factors of big, powerful vehicles, but those of us working for the healing of the planet have not taken that seriously enough.

Let me know your thoughts. How can we deal with the psychological and emotional factors that pull our society in the wrong direction? How can we bring hopeful images and pastoral healing that will lead us toward care of creation?

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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