WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER, I subscribed to Car and Driver magazine for several years. I still have my collection in a box in the attic. Back then it was European and Japanese sports cars (and a disdain for muscle cars) that fueled my dreams. In reality, I learned to drive in my parents’ enormous blue Ford LTD V8 station wagon from the 1970s. I shudder to think about the things I did with that car.

As an environmentally concerned adult, I have had to reconcile my emotional attachment to cool cars with my professional knowledge of the automobile’s devastating planetary impacts. Not having much money as a grad student helped. The many hours I spent with duct tape, Bondo and rust primer, and in garages caring for my beaters (a Civic and an Escort), cured me of most of my passion for the road. These days, we have a distinctly uncool and ungreen Sienna. I wish we didn’t have to own a car at all. I mostly bike or walk to work, but the car is damn convenient, especially with kids and their friends to transport.

I still dream about cool cars a bit, and these days I can feel slightly less conflicted. Hybrids are commonplace, mainstream all-electric vehicles are hitting the showrooms, and eco-minded technical innovation is exploding. The Tesla Roadster is every bit as exciting as a Porsche 911 Carrera. But since I’m not buying, I mostly just enjoy the very entertaining advertising for this new wave of green wheels. If I allowed myself to be taken in by it, however, I would have to turn in my green union card.

Before I get to the eco-car hype, let’s step back a decade or two to a time when our culture was marginally less environmentally concerned. Remember the humble SUV and the ubiquitous imagery of Jeeps, Explorers and Hummers traversing landscapes of every kind, from mountaintops to deserts? In those ads, cars commanded the power of infinite conquest. And enviros delighted in dissing the car makers’ suggestions to overrun the planet.

In the green-car market niche, the vehicles are kinder and gentler. A Toyota Prius commercial claims “harmony between man, nature and machine” as the car awakens a landscape of cheerful anthropomorphic trees, flowers, fields and mountains. Clearly, nature’s joy and gratitude for the car is unbounded. Similarly, in one of Nissan’s Leaf ads, a polar bear journeys to the big city to hug the unsuspecting car owner while the narrator proclaims “innovation for the planet.” In these and many other ads, the car is portrayed as nature’s saviour. It’s no wonder these rides are so popular in certain circles.

But you know what? Cars and culture haven’t really changed that much. The old SUV ads and the new green-car ones have something in common. In both cases, the car is the hero of the narrative. Conqueror or saviour, it doesn’t matter as long as the viewer believes the product will win the day.

And that’s a problem because cars will not save us or polar bears or the rainforest. Even if we could make cars from branches and grasses (as one Prius ad demonstrated) and power them with the sun, we’d still need roads and parking lots. And those bring habitat loss and the colonization of wildish places.

Just as I like to dream about cars, I get a kick from the ads. They are indeed a barometer of culture, and they signal at least a small shift in values. But let’s not deceive ourselves into believing that we can save the world at the car dealership. What you drive matters, but not driving matters much more. 

Mark Meisner teaches environmental studies at SUNY-ESF. He directs the Environmental Communication Network, and blogs about environmental communication and culture at indications.wordpress.com.



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