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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Selling a Sustainable Future

It's time to alter the myths we live and drive by

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 emotional influences.

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 grandchildren.

Carl Pope can be reached by e-mail at

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