Saturday, 21 July 2007

Hummer bummer splits suburban America

With the sun going down on Brandywine St and the lawn sprinklers hissing gently in the background, worried groups of neighbours are talking quietly about a shocking act of domestic terrorism on their doorsteps.

Some have just returned from the nearby Whole Foods organic store, one worried-looking family pulls up in a Prius. Children pour out carrying musical instruments from their Suzuki lesson.

But, despite its seeming like a Norman Rockwell poster, Brandywine St, in the suburbs of Washington DC is now on the frontline of America's fractious debate about climate change.

In the early hours of Monday morning, two masked men arrived there wielding baseball bats and a machete. They then set about attacking the enormous Hummer that had been parked there less than a week.

As owner Gareth Groves slept, they smashed every window, battered the panels, slashed the oversized tires and scrawled "for the environ" on the side of the 2m-high behemoth. The attackers caused more than US$12,000 ($15,000) worth of damage before running into the night.

As an act of eco-vandalism, it was not as spectacular as previous episodes. A couple of years ago three environmental activists firebombed several Hummer and 4x4 dealerships in California. One of them is now serving an eight-year jail term in a federal penitentiary and two others are on the run from the FBI.

The argument over Hummers and vehicles like them goes all the way to the White House. For 20 years car manufacturers have successfully blocked attempts to force them to become more efficient.

Opinion polls reveal that, given an option, three-quarters of Americans want dramatic increases in fuel-efficient cars, but they prefer to buy gas-guzzling Hummers, Cadillacs and behemoth-sized pickup trucks.

Thirty years ago "light trucks", as 4x4 vehicles are classified , were only a fifth of all sales. Today they account for more than half. And in June, according to the latest figures from General Motors, the world's largest car manufacturer, Hummer sales were up 11 per cent.

As the New Yorker magazine put it: "We buy gas guzzlers, but we vote for gas sipping."

Last month the US Senate passed an energy bill that for the first time in nearly 20 years would have forced an improvement in the fuel efficiency of cars and 4x4s.

However, it became dead in the water because of the intervention of Michigan Congressman John Dingell, who could fairly be described as friendly to the car lobby. He wanted fuel economy improvements that were condemned as being even weaker than the toothless measures proposed by President George W. Bush.

Now given how fractious the debate has become, both over Hummers on suburban roads and the fuel efficiency of American cars, it is unclear whether any fuel requirements will make it into the bill before Congress, or even when the House will get around to debating it.

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