Opinion: Juiced on SUVs and Prozac

By Harv Teitelbaum

EVERGREEN, Colorado, May 16, 2003 (ENS) - Every time I have the misfortune of unwittingly getting caught in rush hour traffic, I am struck by the magnitude and incivility of the condition. No civilized people should allow themselves to be subjected to such trauma. Recovering from the experience, I keep expecting to read headlines or see news bulletins about the crime of today’s massive traffic tie-up. But apparently this is now normal urban activity, undeserving of notice.

What is interesting to note is that, as roads and public places have become increasingly congested, the average car interior, along with the average home’s square footage, have bloated proportionately. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that the reason we have bigger and bigger cars and houses is to compensate for our shrinking public spaces.

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Rush hour traffic, Denver, Colorado, November 2001 (Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy NREL)
But instead of showing news coverage of people being herded like cattle, the TV is showing an ad for a cavernous SUV. The ad does not show a suburbanite yakking away on a cell phone, obliviously hurling tons of steel across lanes of choked traffic, while rushing from mall to mall on robotic shopping errands. No, it instead presents scenes of forests, rivers and mountains, scenes of nature where the only visitor is Modern Man and his supersized SUV. OK, sometimes MM is accompanied by the family.

The image is always one of space and openness and freedom. What is being marketed here is not security, not utility, not even macho independence, but room.

As I contemplated this, another commercial came on, this time for some psychiatric drugs. It occurred to me that these pills might be considered the SUV’s of the inner environment. “Feeling constricted, things closing in on you? Well, take our little overpriced pill and maybe you won’t notice any more.” Traffic jams will no longer bother you. Having to pay for space, serenity, quiet, clean air and water - these things will no longer bother you.

Thank goodness there are still some basic, straightforward products being sold on TV, products like...well, orange juice, for example. But wait. This orange juice commercial shows a young suburbanite, maniacally dashing through the morning tasks, fueled by...orange juice? Is this what’s it’s come to, selling orange juice as speed? “Not to be taken with... Side effects were generally mild...”

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Happy pills (Photo credit unknown)
So are SUV’s being sold as happy pills, to treat a society where all the walls are closing in? Or are ingestibles being sold as SUV’s, vehicles for personal freedom?

I don’t know, but consider this. As uncongested open space becomes more scarce, advertisers are increasingly turning to computer generated imagery for the “natural” settings in which to place their clients' vehicles. In other words, even the images of room now need to be manufactured. Virtual reality, therefore, is behind not only the way we’re sold products, but the mental images and preset expectations for the things we purchase, both to swallow and to drive. No wonder we have nature scenes as wallpaper on our computer monitors - more soothing, stupifying reinforcers of our denial.

And it wouldn’t be economically productive for the media or the government to go out of their way and upset us with all these notions. It seems as if, to satisfy the merchants of sprawl, who conspire with the illusionists of growth, who abet the demigods of the GDP [Gross Domestic Product], we’ve allowed our delusions of progress to back us into subdivided, commercially zoned corners. While, to divert our attention, we’re thrown bones of increased interior space, both physical and mental.

Speaking of which, I continue to flip through the channels looking for some good escapist fare. Oh, look. There’s George Bush, telling the rest of the world that global warming doesn’t exist, and that preserving the shrinking natural environment is less important than expanding our domestic economy.

Where are my pills?

{Harv Teitelbam is an ecologist, certified treeclimber, and writer who lives in Evergreen, Colorado.}