The so-called vandals make a reasonable point. Despite dire warnings for decades, we are still behaving and emitting like our convenience trumps a livable planet.
A SELF-PROFESSED GROUP OF CLIMATE ACTIVISTS calling itself “the Tyre Extinguishers” (the movement started in the UK) recently let the air out of the tires of 34 SUVs in Victoria and Oak Bay.
As demonstrations go, it was a small but effective example of asymmetrical protest.
The tiny investment of effort by little-known protesters yielded a full-on media-amplified eruption of exposure.
Well-heeled Tweed Curtain apologists expressed affront, outrage, umbrage, dudgeon and pompous, Colonel Blimp-like huffing about the imminent collapse of civil society. Yes, that’s a long list of overblown adjectives but purple-faced hyperbole deserves absurd overstatement in ironic response.
The local media dutifully and predictably joined the pile-on, pontificating on the environmental fifth column—precisely the response for which the shrewd provocateurs doubtless hoped. Op-eds lectured on the folly of over-reacting to exaggerated global warming claims.
These predictable nostrums come from retired fossil fuel industry executives, former bureaucrats upset by the disorderly conduct of disrespectful protesters, business leaders warning of the perils that the homeless, the marginalized and the damaged pose to the economy and so on.
The Extinguishers were denounced as vandals. Note that word’s origin in the imperialist Roman slave state which got rich plundering its neighbours. Those resisting Caesar’s colonial plundering—the Vandals, for example—became the verbal antithesis of “civilization”.
Next the Extinguishers were labelled “creatures of the night,” a delicious stereotype cribbed directly from Hollywood B-list horror movies about vampires, werewolves and other soul-stealing apparitions from the Dark Side.
Um, some perspective please. This was not Friday the 13th in Uplands. The incident involved letting the air out of a few tires. And the protesters even politely left a flyer explaining the political rationale behind their deliberate and symbolic inconveniencing of a few unlucky and randomly chosen SUV drivers.
As far as “vandalism” goes, letting the air out of 34 car tires hardly ranks with the angry and disaffected folk going around actually slashing tires, of which there have been hundreds of examples over the last five years, sometimes a hundred in one night.
Slash 70 tires in Oaklands and it’s “Meh, urban life.” Let the air out of a few tires in Oak Bay and it’s “Light your hair on fire, civilization is threatened!”
But wait, somebody lets the air out of your tire, you get it re-inflated and that’s that. Somebody sticks a knife in the sidewall and you are buying new tires at $150 a pop.
So there’s “vandalism,” and there’s “vandalism.” It’s probably a good idea for serious media to try to distinguish between the two forms of mischief.
However misguided or misplaced one might consider the Tyre Extinguishers tactic, this modest stealth protest did not represent the Night of the Living Dead experience invoked by terms like “creatures of the night.”
What it did represent was effective (if expedient) street theatre. Targeting the stereotyped demographic of Oak Bay certainly got more media traction than targeting Gulf Islanders would have. (An aside: vehicle registration statistics indicate that Gulf Islanders actually own and drive more SUVs than folks who live in Oak Bay.)
The deflation got people actually talking about something that our mainstream media generally doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about—the negative impact of consumers’ personal choices upon their own lives.
Want to address those responsible for global warming? Look in the mirror. Single use plastics? Mirror. Food mono-cultures? Mirror. Factory farming? Mirror. Traffic congestion and urban sprawl? Mirror.
Individual consumers buy and burn fossil fuels by the billions of litres every year. That’s what enables, empowers and enriches the big oil companies which sell them. The revenue that provides big oil with immense profits—that’s our money, transferred to them in exchange for fossil fuels so that we can burn them in our over-sized, overweight cars.
In this case, the activists (clearly on the right side of history) drew attention to the continuing decision by consumers to drive heavier, aerodynamically inefficient SUVs (gas guzzlers, the protesters labelled them), a decision which is having a disproportionate impact upon the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming.
The media’s aversion to finger-wagging about this choice is understandable considering how important automotive advertising revenue is to its beleaguered bottom line.
SUVs and pickups are 70 percent of the auto market
Before I go further, however, I should confess that I, too, am part of the consumer problem. I drive an SUV. But wait, I protest (or rationalize depending upon point of view). Mine is but a small four cylinder job, I need it for work because I travel frequently on rough roads and require the high clearance. Not to mention being able (important at age 75), to sleep in the back, dry and snug, and thus avoid the inconvenience of setting up and breaking down camp in the pouring rain. And what’s more, I only drive the darn thing when necessary, fewer than 5,000 kilometres last year when the Canadian average is 15,000. So even though my vehicle pollutes more than a compact sedan, it actually pollutes less because I drive it much less. Or so my rationalizations go.
These are, indeed, all the standard rationalizations for the fallacy of Incremental Thinking.
The fallacy is that since one’s personal impact is tiny compared to the whole, it is therefore justifiable. In fact, it’s the combination of many such rationalizations that create the monstrous problem we now face.
Apologists for the status quo will argue that BC only contributes about two percent of Canada’s fossil fuel production so it’s not that harmful. This is like arguing that it’s ok to throw gasoline on your neighbour’s burning house by the cupful because the arsonists are pouring it on by the barrel.
The problem, of course, is not just the “them” of Oak Bay SUV drivers who drew the sanctimonious wrath of the Tyre Extinguishers. The problem is the larger “us” whose addiction to convenience drives the decisions.
We are the problem because we like SUVs. We buy a lot of them. We have been buying more and more of them in larger and larger models, a process to which the profitability of both the auto industry and the media is closely tied.
Auto manufacturers and retailers annually spend more than $10 billion a year on advertising—that’s about 25 percent of the total spent on advertising.
And those advertisers have been highly effective. They have helped shift the market away from less expensive sedans. Ten years ago one in five new cars sold was a passenger sedan. By 2022, the market share for the more fuel efficient sedans had declined to one in 10. SUVs and pickup trucks now comprise about 70 percent of the entire auto market.
In 1975, smaller car-sized SUVs were 0.1 percent of the market. By 2021, their market share had grown 1,700 fold. Today these SUVs command 11.7 percent. But larger SUVs, designated by the auto market statisticians as Truck SUVs, had expanded market share over the same period from 1.7 percent to 41.4 percent. By comparison, pickup trucks market share is now 17.1 percent.
Auto manufacturers responded to this consumer shift enthusiastically. In 2008, General Motors ceased production of eight sedan model lines. Ford Motors had plans to shift 90 percent of its North American production liners to SUVs by 2020.
According to the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency, SUV manufacturing now comprises 50 percent of all new vehicles produced. And SUVs have been getting bigger and heavier in the process of responding to rising consumer demand.
In 1975, the average sedan outweighed the average pickup truck by 20 kilograms. By 2020, the average pickup and truck-size SUV outweighed the average sedan by more than 700 kilograms.
Pickup trucks are even worse when isolated from the averages—they have increased in weight by almost 28 percent. At the same time, the weight of the diminishing numbers of passenger sedans has actually declined by 14 percent.
Buy an SUV instead of a compact sedan and the average weight differential is now 42 percent.
The heavier and less aerodynamic the vehicle, the more energy it takes to move it. And that’s a big part of the emerging problem consumers pose. Because, while there have been gains in improved fuel efficiency for internal combustion engines, they’ve been dramatically offset by the inefficiencies of weight and aerodynamic design.
When business reporters at Associated Press compared the top 10 SUVs with comparable passenger sedans, the SUVs were 14 percent worse in fuel consumption on average. For example, the most fuel-efficient SUV tested in 2019 was 18 percent worse in fuel consumption than the most efficient sedan.
The research compared the Honda CR-V compact SUV with a Honda Civic with the identical power train. The SUV was at least 20 percent less efficient than the sedan; on the highway, where wind resistance at higher sustained speed is more of a factor, the SUV was 24 percent less fuel efficient.
A similar comparative study of the Toyota Highlander and the Camry sedan with the same engine found that the sedan had a 42 percent advantage in fuel efficiency.
This is worth remembering when clamour about the rising pump cost of gasoline and the burden of carbon taxes starts affecting politicians’ judgment. If we drive an SUV or a pickup, we chose the higher cost of fuel to move it.
Transportation is the single biggest emissions source
So, the Extinguishers have a valid point when they make SUV drivers—like me—the target of their complaints about global warming and greenhouse gas emissions which, in BC, have increased by 20 percent since 1996.
Transportation is still the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in BC at 38 percent of the total of 12.8 megatons of carbon dioxide emitted in 2020. That’s larger than the emissions from the next two sources on the list—the oil and gas industry and the manufacturing and heavy industrial sectors—combined.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency in the US, the typical passenger car produces 4.6 metric tons of pollution in a typical year of driving. Burn four litres of gas, your car will pump 8,887 grams of carbon into the atmosphere. Put another way, every kilometre driven sends more than 250 grams of carbon out the tail pipe.
So, multiply that by the 3.7 million passenger vehicles in BC—and consider that based on statistics compiled by the Insurance Company of BC showing that the rate of vehicle ownership in the Capital Regional District is growing twice as fast as the human population—one can see that the Extinguishers have a pretty solid point.
On average, car owners in BC drive a cumulative total of about 48.5 billion kilometres per year. Multiply that by 250 grams of carbon per kilometre and the simple calculator on my iPad gives me a consistent error message—too big to calculate,
In denouncing the protesters, the usual and predictable arguments for driving SUVs were trotted out. More headroom and leg space for passengers; greater safety for passengers in case of a collision; winter driving; off road driving; more cargo space.
All these arguments have been addressed by researchers and found wanting. They are based for the most part in the magical thinking of incrementalism and its rationalizations.
Yes, there can certainly be more seating room for passengers in large SUVs compared to compact and sub-compact passenger sedans. But this is comparing apples with oranges. Compare larger sedans with SUVs and the seating advantage dwindles.
Safety for SUV passengers proves to be a myth. The laws of physics dictate that people driving a heavy vehicle will indeed be safer in a collision—with a lighter vehicle. However, if 70 percent of the market is buying heavier vehicles, that supposed safety advantage evaporates. Drivers who think they are safer in an SUV are simply gambling that they’ll collide with a lighter compact sedan. It’s a self-interested decision to increase their perceived safety by sacrificing the safety of passengers of the lighter car. Yet the odds don’t support the decision. The odds are that in any collision they’ll most likely collide with another SUV or with a pickup truck.
And new research indisputably shows that any safety advantage in a collision is offset by the propensity of higher rates of death and injury in SUV rollovers. A study of the accident records of 72,000 children recently concluded that the higher risk of roll-over offsets any potential benefit from the size and weight of SUVs in accidents.
Contrary to widely-held public perception, SUVs do not contribute to greater safety for child passengers compared to sedans and, indeed, SUVs are twice as likely to roll over in accident because of their higher centre of gravity.
A few car owners in Oak Bay and Victoria were indeed inconvenienced by having their tires deflated. No dispute there. But once again, it’s a proportional issue.
The inconvenience of having to call BCAA to have tires re-inflated seems minor in comparison to the inconvenience that SUVs pose to the 1,900 people in BC who will die prematurely of respiratory failure this year (and next year, and the year after that) because of exposure to the aerosolized fine particulates emitted in car exhaust. SUV’s, remember, produce more of this pollution than smaller sedans.
The typical passenger car averages about 4.6 metric tons of carbon emissions in a year of driving. There are more than 205,000 of them registered in the Capital Regional District, many of them larger, heavier, less fuel-efficient SUVs. On average, we drivers emit almost a million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year.
We were warned—decades ago
If, as the United Nations science agency studying global warming warns, we are running out of time to avoid a climate tipping point beyond which catastrophic effects will be inevitable, the Tyre Extinguishers have a reasonable point, however it might irritatingly contradict our desires for convenience and the magical thinking by which we seek somebody else to blame for our self-inflicted dilemma.
Almost 50 years ago, when I first started writing about this and the threat seemed almost unimaginably distant, scientists were asked by a federal government committee about the magnitude of the threat. They were informed in an official report that only thermo-nuclear world war exceeded the danger posed by global warming.
Over that half century, politicians did little. Politicians did little because we, from whom their political power is delegated, didn’t want to do what would inconvenience or annoy us. Now, with Europe in flames, disastrous floods and fires across North America, droughts afflicting the world’s prime food producing regions, and thousands dying in heat domes, mega storms and attempts to flee stricken regions, we are told that time is running out.
Instead of buckling down to the grim task of self-sacrifice and changing our behaviour, we cast about for somebody else to blame—big business, big oil, politicians. The truth, of course, is that we and our demands for convenience, we’re the ones most to blame.
We could stop our denialism and scapegoating.
We could swap our super-sized SUVs for smaller hybrids and electric vehicles. We could stop whining about gasoline prices and support higher gas taxes to incentivize that switch. We could pressure politicians to provide greater financial incentives to switch from big, heavy SUVs to less polluting vehicles. We could demand investments, even if up-front costs seem high today, in clean and efficient mass public transit that will seem cheap tomorrow—like reestablishing rail on existing public rights-of-way down Vancouver Island that could link every community centre from Campbell River to Victoria.
The Tyre Extinguishers, however irritating their tactics might be at the individual level, have a reasonable point. They are not the real problem. We are.
See more at https://www.tyreextinguishers.com. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.