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Gas Backward

I am ashamed.

Earlier this month, thousands of watts of light from 88 searchlights pierced through the New York haze to mark the six-month anniversary of the tragedy of the World Trade Center. This, New York seemed to say, was the moment to remember, and honor, the thousands who struggled, and those who lost, heroically, on Sept. 11.

But already, as the beams thrust skyward, a stain of fear and deceit was spreading across America. Powered by the transmitters of dozens of television stations across rural America—a few hundred watts in Fargo, N.D., or a few thousand in Omaha, Neb., or perhaps a thousand in Butte, Mont.—television station by television station, a superbly orchestrated, sleekly packaged campaign of dishonesty was telling rural Americans that at this moment, six months after the war on terrorism began, their government was coming to take away their pick-up trucks.

Earnest farming faces stared out from the ads—millions of dollars worth of ads, saturation in places like Rapid City, S.D.—and declared, “It’s awfully hard to load the hay in a subcompact.” Only the analysis in The New York Times’ business section alerted us that the anxious farming faces were from “stock photos” and the quotes from family farmer General Motors.

Who, actually, was coming to repossess the family pick-up? Two war heroes, in fact: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who on Friday had come together to say that Americans deserved to drive cars, and SUVs and, yes, pick-ups, engineered with the very best technology Detroit could muster, engineered to reduce our dependence on oil, to weaken the connection that deprives our foreign policy of freedom of action in the Middle East, to ease the consumption of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that threatens both our lungs and the climate of the planet.

Kerry and McCain had offered a compromise, one that gave the auto industry time, ample time, and flexibility—perhaps a tad too much. They said, “Enough is enough. We want to drive cars that don’t threaten our national security, give asthma to our children, or threaten the world with global warming. You have the technology to do it. Fifteen years is long enough to install it in the vehicles you sell in your showrooms.” Kerry and McCain wanted the Ford Explorer improved so that instead of getting 19 miles to the gallon it earned 34. They wanted better transmissions, more efficient tires, a wider choice of hybrid vehicles, more streamlined hoodlines, multi-valve engines.

They had suffered in our wars, and knew that when it came time to fight, America demanded the very best for its troops. They simply thought that if technology could make fighting less likely and less necessary, we owed that to our troops as well.

I am ashamed.

Detroit had a choice. It could follow Henry Ford, and lead the world with a new way of making cars. Or it could follow the path of the 1970s, conclude that beating the Japanese auto companies in improving technology was just too hard. It could luxuriate in the fat $20,000 mark-ups it makes on that 19-mpg Explorer, profit margins bloated by the lack of investment in new technology and better cars.

And it could cover up its laziness by proclaiming that only Detroit was defending the hard-working plumber, the farmer, the window-glass installer, who otherwise would be reduced by Kerry and McCain to loading their tools onto a . . . well, perhaps the Ford Aspire that I drive, since I don’t have to carry anything bulkier than a briefcase to my office.

Six months after the assault on the World Trade Center, as American troops died closing in on yet one more Al-Qaeda stronghold in Paktia Province, as American emissaries traveled the Middle East trying to figure out how to keep the oil flowing while stanching the bloodshed, Detroit decided. It chose the past.

In an unprecedented blitz, the auto industry set out to terrify rural America, claiming that if fuel-efficiency standards were increased, SUVs and pick-ups would vanish from their production lines. Enough voters were panicked to produce the requisite “flood” of telephone calls to senators from rural states. (Polls had previously showed that pick-up owners in states like Nebraska strongly favored higher fuel-economy standards—after all, they pay the gas bills. But a few hundred panicked phone calls are emotionally a lot more frightening than a poll.) Those senators who on Friday were patriotically prepared to stand with Kerry and McCain and defend America’s longterm energy, security, economic and environmental interests, suddenly found a higher calling: defending soccer moms.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) rose and said, “American women love their SUVs and minivans . . . because of their safety.” (In her career, Mikulski has met with insurance-industry actuaries. She knows better.) Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Missouri) proclaimed, “About the only way we could get there is to put everybody into glorified golf carts.” (Bond knew that everyone listening to him knows better.)

I am ashamed.

Panicked, the Senate voted, overwhelmingly, to defeat Kerry and McCain.

A great victory for the American auto industry? Not everyone thought so. One thoughtful lobbyist for the industry emerged, ashen, like a man given a death sentence. He knew that his bosses had just opted for a short, profitable future for Detroit—until the foreign manufacturers take over the SUV and pick-up market with better technology (and fuel economy). They’d opted for a future long enough, like Enron’s, to secure executive pensions, but one with fewer and fewer opportunities for American workers.

So, I am ashamed. I am ashamed that six months after the attack on the World Trade Center the U.S. Senate caved in, not to Osama bin Laden, but to lies from the auto industry. But while I am ashamed, I am not going to despair. I am also angry. And today, talking to my 31-year-old son, or a friend’s 16-year-old daughter, I know that millions of other Americans are angry. Listening to the fury in the voice of that auto executive, or the determination in the lobbyist who told the Sierra Club, “We still have to talk. We have to make this happen,” I believe Americans must, can, and will demand leadership from our leaders. We cannot let our future be shaped by those who care only about their present. One by one, neighbor to neighbor, letter to the editor by letter to the editor, postcard by postcard, and finally, vote by vote, we can shape an energy future that will make our grandchildren proud—not ashamed.

—Carl Pope

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club’s executive director.

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