November 13, 2003

· Sociology

Jim Henley defends SUVs by comparing them to his recently much-improved level of fitness:

Now consider a common complaint against sport-utility vehicles: Most people who buy them don’t need that much power … A comparison with personal fitness is suggestive: SUVs are anaerobic strength vehicles; high fuel-efficiency cars are aerobic. Vehicle power is like muscle power: When you need it, you need it. Maybe you have to cart a new refrigerator home. Maybe your area reliably gets one bad snowstorm a year. (In the D.C. metro area, whenever a snowstorm hits, the call goes out for SUV and four-wheel drive owners to ferry hospital workers to their jobs.) Maybe you go camping twice a year or once a week transport supplies to your Cub Scout pack.

It’s a nice analogy as far as it goes. The problem with it is that it breaks down once you consider any of the other virtues we might want vehicles to have. Extra weight-training notwithstanding, Jim’s new biceps are unlikley to cause him to flip over onto his side as he jogs round corners. Nor were Jim’s target weight and diet specially designed with the assistance of the government to help keep his employer in business. And even though I don’t read comics much, Jim is not significantly more likely to kill me if I accidentally bump into him in DC. (Max Sawicky might be a different story.) It’s reasonable to say, as he does, that “As with physical fitness, there is value in maintaining the capacity for marginal exertion well beyond the daily norm. And as with physical fitness, having the extra power available may inspire you to change in ways you didn’t anticipate—you do more because, well, you can.” But Jim can have that extra power available without inconveniencing or endangering others, and he won’t accidentally misuse his strength to crash into a snowdrift once a year in DC, either—the only off-road adventure many SUVs ever have. So I don’t think the comparison holds up. And indeed, a quick glance at the new Jim shows that he’s chosen to strike his own aerobic/anerobic balance well towards the aerobic end of things.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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