I’m not going to apologize for driving. I’m not going to say that I’m sorry because I love road trips or that I pilot a four-wheel-drive van or that so many of my friends drive pickups and SUVs. Nor will I cower before those who would try to shame me for using my vehicle to get to the trailhead instead of walking, who deride me in smug judgment across the steering wheel of their Prius.
At some point in the last 20 years, it became politically incorrect to own a vehicle that has the chops to get you where you want to go, in all conditions, and return safely. Part of the blame can be hung on urban and suburbanites who wield massive, 12-mile-per-gallon tanks to take the kids to preschool, vehicles that are never used as intended, that rarely see dirt or snow. Part of it, too, is very clearly (and appropriately) grounded in the reality that climate change threatens our existence while causing a lot of suffering in the near term, and so every molecule of carbon does indeed count.
But as somebody once said, changing light bulbs isn’t going to stop global warming. We can do better with our vehicles, yes. But unless you live in a city, you’re going to drive. When you recreate, you’re going to drive. To get to the farflung places that all of us visit, treasure, and fight to preserve, you’re going to drive. And you shouldn’t apologize for that.
Now, I’m not some redneck crushing spotted owls in my Hummer and I’m not tone deaf to the cultural trends. I don’t think you can consider the legitimacy of driving a truck, or driving period, without taking into account the larger issues. But, speaking for myself, when considering those larger issues I would posit that I’m more environmentally responsible and lighter on the land than your average bear. My total mileage in any given year is about 8,000, including road trips. I rarely fly. I work from a home office, and one of these reasons I’ve chosen to pursue an online publication rather than continuing to work in print is the impact on resources. When we redid our yard last year, we switched to native plants with extremely low-water requirements. We carpool the kids to and from school. I ride my bike for errands, and my kids do, too. I, or rather Adventure Journal, is a member of 1% for the Planet. And I’m sure all of you who keep posting comments telling me to leave politics out of AJ will admit that we have a pretty strong commitment to covering environmental issues, even if you don’t agree with the stories or they aren’t as fun to read as the pieces glorifying stoke.
None of this is written to claim I’m an environmental saint. I’m not. But I’ve learned that passing judgment is fraught with peril, that jumping to conclusions about a person based on, say, what they’re driving, can leave you tripping over your assumptions. Shoot, you could look at my 23-year-old van and figure that I’m belching heaps of clunker carbon into the sky, when in fact I’ve replaced the engine with a five-year-old Subaru Legacy motor that gets better gas mileage, burns cleaner, and passes California emissions requirements.
I’ve also come to understand that the world and our actions in it are more interlocked, complex, and opaque than we can really comprehend, and while some situations may tilt obviously in one direction or another, I don’t believe that driving a dirt-ready vehicle is one of them, nor that seeing someone behind the wheel of one can begin to tell the whole story of that person. You have to take the entire picture, and only each of us can do that for ourselves. When I look at my life, I feel pretty good at how much I’ve been able to reduce, recycle, reuse, make do, act, petition, and communicate the issues, both through Adventure Journal and through people I meet and know. Of course, when I look at friends like Alison Gannett, who devotes more of her energy to fighting climate change in one month than I do in a year, I feel sheepish and chagrined. But also inspired to do more.
Fifteen years ago, when Yvon Chouinard was spreading his message of planetary doom, I thought he was being pessimistic. With what we know today, I actually think he was an optimist. But I’m not going spend the rest of my days in misery over the clearly deteriorating state of affairs. No, I’m going to push myself to be more effective, to be a model for my kids and teach them to take action, and, just as important, to enjoy myself in the life I’ve been given. One of the curses of so many hardcore environmentalists is their disapproving, shrewish dyspepsia toward anything that consumes more resources than inert contemplation of the universe off in some darkened teepee. They grimace the fun out of life, make Puritans seem like freshmen on their first spring break, and come across like they’d only be happy if the human race committed species suicide…but in an eco-friendly way, of course.
I say, screw that. I say that you can drive a Tacoma and love your Mother. I say that you can ride a dirt bike and not be the devil incarnate. I say that the starkly black and white scorn of treehuggers not only ignores the reality of a polychrome world, it turns off people who should and do care about the fate of the planet, and it drives potential activists away from the movement because they think they’ll be judged and unwelcome for what they drive. Finally, I say that the issues facing all of us are far more looming and in need of collective action than to squabble over how we get around — we desperately need to act, desperately need to pressure our leaders to cowboy up and deal with global warming, but what we drive is far less important than driving change.
If I could have an electric motor in my van, I would. If I could afford the $20,000 to install a high-mileage clean diesel, I would. If I could convince Land Rover or Toyota or Ford to build electric or hybrid SUVs and trucks, I would. But I can’t. So, I’ll do what I can do, and the next time I get behind the wheel of my Syncro and head into the dirt, I’ll do it happily. Happily and without apology.
Overlandia is the art, science, and romance of driving in the dirt.