Pete Langr: I can't drive 55 (or even 60)

How many environmentalists does it take to screw in a lightbulb" goes the joke in a recent Sierra magazine. The environmentalist answers: "With disciplined use, a CFL (compact fluorescent light) shouldn't need to be replaced in your lifetime -- w...

How many environmentalists does it take to screw in a lightbulb" goes the joke in a recent Sierra magazine.

The environmentalist answers: "With disciplined use, a CFL (compact fluorescent light) shouldn't need to be replaced in your lifetime -- which, to minimize ecological impact, had best be ascetic and brief."

The picture of environmentalists who would have us all practice self-denial is one that has been carefully cultivated by those who oppose green initiatives. Perhaps you've seen the bumper sticker asking what we'll use for toilet paper after all the forests are put off-limits to logging.

Nowhere has that thinking been more obvious than with the issue of automobiles. Just weeks ago columnist George Will lambasted Congress for mandating a new fuel-efficiency standard of 35 miles per gallon for American automobile fleets. Said Will: "Congress continued designing automobiles to make them less safe (smaller) and more expensive ... lest the automotive industry design cars people want."

All things being equal, Will would be right. But things are rarely equal, and on this issue Will seems to live in a fantasy world, trapped in his anti-regulation ideology. He conveniently forgets that we have done this fuel-efficiency experiment before. That experiment started in 1975, when federal mandate forced automobile fuel economy to begin rising from a 1974 rate of 13 mpg to the present 27 mpg standard for cars and 21 mpg for pickups and SUVs.


By Will's reckoning, we should have seen an increase in vehicle deaths and a prevalence of small, uncomfortable, disliked vehicles. Instead, Minnesota's traffic fatality rate has been cut in half since the early 1970s, while vehicles became larger, more powerful and more comfortable.

The real-world lesson that Will ignores is that if we give engineers a problem -- in this case, to design safe, powerful, comfortable vehicles that also give us better mileage -- they will deliver.

The much maligned Sierra Club seems to understand this. That group has helped Ford promote its Mercury Mariner hybrid SUV, and its executive director sat on the committee that voted this year's Chevy Tahoe hybrid SUV the "Green Car of the Year."

The message: If we're going to go green, we'll do it by technology, not by trying to force people to give up their freedoms and comforts.

Americans in general seem to agree. More than two-thirds say they support the 35 mpg mileage standard. Why shouldn't they? They will suffer little or no inconvenience as it is implemented, just as they don't suffer from the current standard. These people know that our energy problems are largely due to lack of effort, not lack of ability.

All this is important to us because of a slew of environmental legislation signed into law by Gov. Tim Pawlenty last year. Among other things, that legislation requires Minnesota to reduce its global warming emissions by 80 percent by 2050.The question is how. To answer that, the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group was formed to make recommendations to the governor and legislature in February.

Draft recommendations are varied, and include such ideas as installing a new nuclear power station, requiring removal of greenhouse gases from power plant waste streams, improved building efficiency codes, more efficient urban design and reducing freeway speed limits to 60 mph.

Excuse me while I take a momentary break to play Sesame Street. Sing along now! "One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong ...."


If you guessed the 60 mph speed limit, you'd be right. It is likely that we can find the technology to reduce global warming emissions, and many of the changes we can make pay us back in other savings. But the political support to make these efforts will evaporate if any plan forces people to suffer inconvenience or discomfort on a daily basis. Any policy, such as a reduced speed limit, that is a constant irritation, has no chance of the kind of long-term support that is needed.

Instead, we need to implement those standards that, like fuel economy standards, allow us to get what we want, if only we're smart and creative enough.

Drive 60?

I don't think so.

Why drive slower when we can hire some engineers and get the same result?

Pete Langr lives and works in Duluth. He may be reached at . Langr writes once a month for the Budgeteer.

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