Mother Earth vs. H2 Moms

h2I swore I wouldn't make a fuss about General Motors' latest Hummer, the H2. I told myself I'd ignore the jingoistic and earth-destroying images its marketers promote. I promised I wouldn't get worked up about a silly -- albeit enormous --truck, even if it was a blatant waste of valuable materials and a greedy guzzler of precious fuels.

But in the wake of recent news coverage of the H2, I've decided I just can't hold it in any longer. In national media a couple of months ago, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger unabashedly touted his affection for the colossus. A few weeks before that, in an equally media-ready display, the Earth Liberation Front ignited a score of Hummers in a California dealership. It was time for me to speak up.

I haven't always been spiteful about GM's Hummer. In fact, the first time I saw the H2, I laughed. There it was: a shiny black, three-ton hulk of metal squatting pugnaciously on the narrow beach road near my parents' home. It seemed preposterously overdressed and overeager for the byways of my small hometown. What purpose could it possibly serve here, I thought, chuckling. Who would want a 16-by-7-foot ex-military vehicle here, in shoreline Connecticut, in the summer?

I soon found out. A small-framed young woman with a toddler in her arms and a six-year-old at her hip crossed the street in front of me. She opened the boxy door of the towering vehicle and swung her children into its massive back seat. Then she shut the door with a slam, started up the machine, and, peering mildly into the side view mirrors, pulled the truck away from the curve and around the bend.

h2 and arnold
Arnold Schwarzenegger and his favorite car.

And so I learned who, exactly, wants the Hummer. Originally designed as a U.S. combat vehicle and first modified for civilian use in 1992, the Hummer is no longer just the trophy of high profile, high testosterone male celebrities. No, now the Hummer is a family car.

I'm not the only one surprised. Michael Kelly, Chairman of the Georgia-based auto maker Avanti, was recently issued a permanent injunction making it illegal for his corporation to imitate the H2's design -- its "trade dress" -- in its own models. In an article reporting the injunction, he commented that he was startled to find that it was women -- not the men he'd expected -- who were interested in Avanti's and GM's new breed of extreme sport utility vehicles. At a showing of Avanti's H2-like Studebaker XUV, in fact, Kelly reported that his mega-vehicle gleaned a more positive "reaction" from "middle age moms who still have kids in school" than it did from rugged hunks eager to crush rock and ford rivers with four-wheel drive.

His findings aren't anomalous. GM itself notes that most of its buyers are rich women in their mid-forties. Newspapers reporting Hummer-love repeatedly include phrases such as "a gift for my wife," "a safe car for kids," and "a trip to the grocery store."

h2 on rock
Taking on the 60% inclines of your typical Starbucks parking lot.

And so, even though H2 is basically a gigantic bundle of gears, torque, and posh luxury options, and even though its ads seem to target young, single, adventure-hungry people, the cars more often satisfy the tastes of wealthy suburban families with strollers and hockey gear. Despite GM's insistence that the H2 is a "rugged off-roading icon," and "an exhilarating, uncompromising off-road vehicle," the new car seems to see precious few of the 60% inclines, 40% side slopes and 16-inch vertical walls that its engineers designed it to devour. Instead, the monstrosities are complacently rumbling through suburbia, taking up space on the sidelines of youth soccer fields and Starbucks parking lots.

And this is what makes me so mad. It's not simply GM's tremendous lack of respect for the environment (H2 fuel economy tops out at around ten miles per gallon). It's not merely the Hummer's exorbitant price (at about $50K apiece, its cost approximates that of the median annual income per household of America's richest ten states). It's not even just its role as a symbol -- or what GM proudly terms a "legacy" -- of human arrogance toward natural resources, natural landscapes, and natural modes of transportation. What makes me angriest is that despite these flaws, young parents -- and particularly mothers -- are the Hummer's biggest fans.

I could stomach the advent of the H2 if the usual suspects were buying them. As much as I hate to admit it, the amount of damage caused by a few hundred torque-loving gear-heads in their new boxes o' testosterone is probably not all that great in the grand scheme of things.

But mothers? Mothers teach the next generation of Americans how to think, what to value, and how to spend their money. If they're buying Hummers, they show their children -- and the rest of us -- that their thoughts, values, and money are being directed towards a machine that represents the worst in American over-consumption and anti-environmentalism. By buying Hummers, they're not just polluting the suburban oases they call home; they're letting their kids think it's ok to do so, and to spend a lot of money doing it. More dangerous than increasing fossil-fuel consumption itself, they are increasing the population of Americans who refuse to consider the environmental and public health consequences of their consumer choices.

Simply put, when rich suburban moms (or dads) buy the new Hummer, they boldly endorse values that contradict social responsibility. And while H2-fever may not last forever, that endorsement will.

It is a "legacy," after all.

A 2003 graduate from Columbia University, Cait Antisdale Boyle now lives in Burlington, Vermont, where she is currently exploring a career in environmental journalism. She is 21 years old.

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