The war against Prius “smugmobiles”

The Wall Street Journal says that hybrid owners aren't saving fuel. Are they jealous, or just crazy?

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works,

Today’s Wall Street Journal features business opinion columnist Holman Jenkins Jr. on the warpath against the Prius. Again. It’s a reprise of a satirical column published two weeks ago that succeeded in so thoroughly outraging Prius owners that Jenkins must have decided to take another poke just for the fun of watching the ants swarm. (You can find the bulk of today’s column here and the one that kicked off the hooha here.)

Prius owners should relax, before lurching into another fit of apoplectic rage. When the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page goes after you, you can be sure you’re on the right track. In fact, the whole culture war over hybrids is pretty amusing. In the normal scheme of things, apologists for the free market might be expected to shower admiration on Toyota, the most profitable (and soon to be the largest) car company in the world. But because the Prius has become popular as a symbol of hippie-dippy left-wing green-living principles, it must be attacked, its buyers must be labeled as dupes, and the company itself suddenly becomes a con artist. If you track the links around the Web discussing Jenkins’ columns, the political split between those who find him funny and incisive, and those who find him a blithering troll is beyond obvious.

Jenkins lambastes the Prius on a number of counts, some of which, if one were inclined to take him seriously, would be worthy of a serious look. The Prius certainly isn’t perfect and it’s hard to argue against the idea that purchasing one is a pretty pricey way to make an ecological point. But the assertion that is generating the most fury, and the one that places his whole anti-Prius campaign in the clearest ideological context, is his contention that any fuel saved by Prius owners isn’t really saved at all. Instead it’s just an invitation to others to consume more. So there is no ecological point.

“If Prius owners consume less, there’s less demand, prices will be lower and somebody else will step up to consume more than they would at the otherwise higher price. That’s the price mechanism at work. Oil is a fantastically useful commodity. Humans can be relied upon to consume all the oil they’d be willing to consume at a given price.”

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If Prius owners really wanted to save the world, Jenkins suggests, they should all be driving Hummers, and using up oil as fast they could, so as to drive the price up enough to spur alternative energy technologies.

It’s no wonder this statement has upset people. Taken at face value, Jenkins is declaring that there is no economic rationale for conservation. So anyone who feels good about biking to work instead of driving, or setting the thermostat low in one’s house, or in any other way trying to reduce one’s resource-extraction footprint in the world today, is a fool. The less you use, the more someone else will. And Prius owners, who are actually paying a premium for their cars, are the biggest fools of all.

Now, one easy way to rebut this might be to note that some of the U.S.’s most prominent neoconservatives, who normally don’t find much in common with Northern California Prius drivers, are somehow also conservation dupes, because they are currently lobbying the Bush administration to invest in hybrid technology. They advocate the reduction of consumption because they think U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a security concern and a drain on the national budget. Imagine that!

Embracing the idea that reducing consumption is pointless because others will just consume more is both a striking rationale for selfish behavior and embarrassingly shortsighted. Growing world demand and decreasing supply for oil will drive prices up in the long run, regardless of how many Priuses Toyota sells. The challenge facing the world is to avoid having the global economy sent completely off the rails by the inevitable surge. To achieve that we have little choice but to simultaneously embrace new, fuel-efficient technologies and learn to live in ways that depress demand — just to keep things manageable.

By making the idea, the image, of fuel efficiency sexy and cool, Toyota has done the world a huge service. The company has proved that there is a market for getting consumers to feel good about themselves in an ecologically sustainable way. Quibbling over whether the Prius delivers as much as its most ardent defenders want or Toyota’s marketers declare misses the point. Instead, we should be clamoring for more of the competition that the free market is supposedly famous for. We should be asking why GM and Ford aren’t offering us sexier, cooler, cheaper, more fuel-efficient cars. Every manufacturer of consumer goods should be looking for ways to capitalize on green-living marketing. And even if it does mean that new car buyers in China opt to buy a Ford Expedition because Berkeley Prius owners have managed to keep the price of gas low enough for them to afford such idiocy, so be it. It won’t be long before the Chinese car buyers figure it out, too.

I find it hilarious that fans of Jenkins’ “humor” like to call Priuses “smugmobiles.” Prius owners, in my experience, feel good about themselves because they feel like they’re being responsible when they drive a Prius. They feel like they’re making a statement about how to live in the world. Now, I’ve known my share of obnoxious, holier-than-thou Berkeley hippies who are so secure in their knowledge that they are living in an irreproachable state of Gaia-respecting ecological purity that they are absolutely intolerable to be around. But what I suspect really is getting the anti-Prius faction’s goat is not the smugness; it’s that Toyota is making so much money off Prius lust.

The free market has spoken: there are an awful lot of people who think we should be behaving more sensibly as to how we consume our planet’s resources. They can’t be ignored, so they must be ridiculed. I guess that’s one more thing to feel smug about.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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