When Ford Motor Company President William Clay Ford publicly admitted that his
company's sport utility vehicles were "directly contributing to rising greenhouse gas
levels and global climate change concerns," it was predictable that the carbon lobby
would lash back. After all, many in the oil and auto industries are still in denial about
global warming, and could hardly have welcomed Ford's pioneering shareholder report on the
social and environmental impacts of his company's activities. The report went so far as to
quote a Sierra Club press release calling the nine-passenger Excursion "a rolling
monument to environmental destruction" and "a suburban supertanker." (Ford
even jokingly refers to the Excursion as the "Ford Valdez," a sobriquet first
attached to it by the Sierra Club.)
The tenor of the counterattack was revealing. Leading the charge (as ever) was The Wall
Street Journal, with an op-ed by Brock Yates, editor of Car and Driver magazine. Yates
didn't challenge Ford's science, or the economic feasibility of building a
40-miles-per-gallon hybrid SUV (as Ford promised to do by 2003). Instead, he took on
Ford's manhood. His theme was, quite simply, that real men protect their women and don't
worry about the societal effects of their vehicles.
"My wife, Pamela, whom I cherish,
spends many hours a week at the wheel of our Grand Cherokee. . . . Neither she nor I fret
over the possibility of her rolling some hapless victim in a Geo Metro into a wad of
metal. If such fears haunt one, perhaps public transportation is the only solution."
Yates concluded by questioning "whether the latest Mr. Ford isn't yet another
guilt-ridden rich kid, not a proud tycoon like those who preceded him."
No matter that Ford is also vice chairman of the Detroit Lions football team, or that
the one genuine tycoon to bear the Ford name -- Henry Ford himself -- was a peacenik vegetarian.
(And talk about guilt-ridden-the earlier Ford also doubled the wages of his workers to $5
a day so that they could buy the cars they built.) But by dubbing his shareholder report
"Connecting With Society," the latest Ford has apparently cast his tycoonship
and virility into doubt.
In the eyes of industry, cars are not about community and responsibility but escape and
pleasure. That's why auto ads routinely feature vehicles poised on the edge of a precipice
or speeding into a desert sunset; imagining cars as part of the frontier experience
distracts us from how we actually use them -- to sit in traffic jams day after day. Many SUV
owners don't even know how to engage their 4-wheel drive, but that doesn't matter: the
point is that they could hop the curb and drive away across the field, if only they didn't
have to take their kid to soccer practice.
Outside the auto industry, some are trying to tell a different story of return rather
than escape. Commuter bus and rail lines market themselves as ways to get home quickly and
easily; Vice President Gore talks about the personal damage sprawl does by stealing hours
from family life. But as attractive as images of sustainable society may be, they run
afoul of deeply ingrained cultural beliefs, like the identification of the automobile as
freedom on wheels.
Similarly, our cultural attitudes about food have hampered the acceptance of organic
products. Americans tend to think of food as uniform, without blemish, and antiseptic-more
like a manufactured item than a once-living entity. The result of this fastidious emphasis
on perfection and predictability is heavy pesticide use, loss of wildlife habitat,
agricultural monocultures, and now, genetically engineered foods.
In Europe, by contrast, food is supposed to be local, alive, unique. How the food
smells is crucial to how it is sold, whereas here it's appearance that counts.
"Organic" is not a deviation from the norm in Europe, it is the norm.
Considering the willingness of upscale Americans to spend billions of dollars flying to
Europe so they can savor French and Italian food, organic agriculture here might be better
off shedding its "aging hippie" image and marketing itself instead as the
four-star cuisine of Provence or Tuscany.
Marketing matters. While we may not like the fact that the Sierra Club needs to sell
itself or its ideas, our formidable opponents in American business spend $188 billion a
year marketing hundreds of thousands of products. The cumulative message of all this
puffery: "Consume now. Stuff is happiness. The future doesn't matter."
As environmentalists, we beg to differ. Our task, broadly defined, is to market a
sustainable future. Doing so successfully requires that we look not only at the merits of
our arguments, but at the stories, myths, values, and symbols that drive human beings in
their everyday decisions. People may want to make important choices rationally (nearly
every speech on Capitol Hill these days appeals to "sound science"), but their
daily habits are frequently determined by a welter of metaphoric, psychological, and
We need to appeal to those deep-seated feelings as well. It's not enough to promote the
desirability of clean air and water, bald eagles and salmon, livable cities with friendly
neighborhoods, and a reasonably stable global climate with glaciers in Montana and
tropical rains in Florida. We have to convince people that they can't have those and
simultaneously munch spotless, uniform apples while escaping in virile automobiles to
imagined frontiers. Against the commercial dream of boundless plenty and reckless
consumption we need to use storytelling, art, and, yes, even marketing to sell our
competing vision of balance and diversity and a planet we can pass along whole to our