Dodging the Consequences

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Commentary

Of cars and catchy slogans

By Matt Edens

As I write this on a sunny Saturday afternoon, there are two incongruous events going on scant yards from one another in downtown Knoxville.

The first, EarthFest, is Knoxville's Earth Day celebration: a good chance to grab some organic popcorn, catch a few bands for free and browse a few exhibits. However, having mixed feelings about the whole Mickey Rooney â“Let's Put On a Showâ” approach to â“raising awarenessâ” on any issue, I don't know how much good the event, and hundreds more like it around the globe, will actually do for the environment.

I will give the event organizers credit for running a â“Zero-Waste Event,â” more or less. Supposedly, last year's event attracted 10,000 and, through extensive recycling and composting, generated only two bags of trash. (A â“Two-Trash-Bag Event,â” while more accurate, apparently wasn't a catchy enough slogan).

Such quibbles aside, EarthFest was, without a doubt, far more earth friendly than the second event going on a couple hundred yards to the east, deep inside the cavernous and otherwise empty bowels of the Knoxville Convention Center. I'm talking, of course, about the News Sentinel 's Auto Show.

Now, before you write me off as some sort of crazy, tree-hugging car-hater, let me say that, like most Americans, I'm actually quite fond of cars and something of an agnostic on the whole issue of anthropomorphic global warming. But I also find it unfathomable that, while in the midst of a war in the Middle East, ostensibly touched off by a Saudi terrorist, we aren't getting a little more serious about our dependence on foreign oil.

Of the dozens of cars on display, only a handful were hybrids. Despite all The Decider's â“addicted to oilâ” rhetoric, Detroit has been reticent about embracing hybrid technology and, other than the token Ford Escape and Chevy Silverado (whose hybrid system shaves only 10 percent off fuel consumption), American hybrid models like Saturn's Aura and Vue are only starting to hit showrooms, several years behind Honda and Toyota. Strange, isn't it, how reducing our dependence upon foreign oil seems to depend on foreign cars?

Even odder is how many of the cars at this year's auto show seemed to be channeling Detroit's gas-guzzling glory days of the '60s and '70s. From the Dodge Challenger to the new Chevy Camaro there was an abundance of anachronistic sheet metal on the showroom floor.

The devolution doesn't stop at styling, either. High-horsepower, low-mileage V-8s seem to be making a minor comeback, too. The Charger, Dodge's other retro street-rod, has a 340 horsepower HEMI under the hood and gets the sort of gas mileage usually associated with SUVs: 17 miles per gallon, city.

The big, fuel-hungry beast is, however, a blast to drive, as I discovered recently, courtesy of a friend's rental car. But tooling around some twisty back roads, getting in touch with your inner Steve McQueen, is one thing. Driving it on the daily commute, I suspect, would be akin to hitching Seattle Slew to a hay wagon.

Idling in stop-start traffic atop 340 angry horses seems emblematic of the modern American lifestyle. It's not so much about what you actually do as what you can imagine yourself doing. Consider, for instance, the notion that we could ease into the future on cruise control if only our cars were all hybrids or burned ethanol or even hydrogen (conveniently overlooking the energy involved in either â“alternativeâ” fuel's production). Changing what the engine runs on does little to address all the other costs of our sprawling, car-dependent society.

What costs? One doesn't have to look too far around Knox County to find one. Currently, most every parent north of the river is up in arms over the school board's recent high school rezoning proposal. Most of the reshuffling is meant to fill the massive new school out in Hardin Valley, itself supposedly built to ease overcrowding at Farragut High in fast-growing, far-west Knox County. But, over on the east side, other parents are equally angry at proposals to send kids from Carter and Gibbs to Austin-East, a move aimed, as the school system put it, to â“maintain a viable student population at Austin-Eastâ” despite a decades-long population exodus from East Knoxville. So whether one has moved to the suburbs or remained in the inner city, it seems the hidden consequences of sprawl have come home to roost.

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