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A Piece of the Environmental High Ground

by: Jason Newell    18 August 2006

San Bernardino's mayor has one. So does Sen. Barbara Boxer. The California Democrat has two of them, actually.

And Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Phil Angelides has bragged that his family owns three.

At a time when all the talk of gas prices and global warming is pulling more folks onto the "green" bandwagon, hybrid cars have become a must-have for anyone who wants a piece of the environmental high ground.

Want to show you care about global warming, about minimizing harmful pollutants, about cutting back on fossil fuel consumption? Drive a hybrid.

Sure, some buyers are drawn by the technology, the opportunity to zip solo down a car-pool lane or see savings at the gas pump.

But from a purely economic standpoint, their higher sticker prices mean it can take several years of cheaper fill-ups before an owner sees a savings over what he would have spent on a comparable non-hybrid economy car.

Essentially, the hybrid car is a statement, an emblem.

"Unless you do an awful lot of urban driving, it's awfully hard to see how you're going to come out ahead (economically)," said Rudi Volti, a Pitzer College sociology professor and author of the book "Cars and Culture."

"A lot of people (buy hybrids) for the same reason you buy a Ferrari or a hemi - it's kind of an indicator of who you are as a person and where your interests lie."

As the campaign against global warming has emerged from the confines of scientific journals and established a pop-culture presence, the hybrid car has become one of its chief icons.

And as the hybrid's popularity has grown, so too has the pop sensibility that it's important to care about the effects of global warming.

Al Gore's film on the subject, "An Inconvenient Truth," has grossed nearly $20 million - a small fortune for a documentary. Musicians have tackled the issue in songs and interviews.

Celebrities and politicians have embraced the cause, with dozens - including musician James Taylor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and skateboarder Tony Hawk - lending their names, faces and alarmed statements to stopglobalwarming.org, one of the issue's most prominent Web sites.

The site urges individuals to make simple lifestyle changes it says can spare thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere each year, and at the same time, save a wad of cash. (Even if its money-saving estimates seem a bit inflated.)

Take shorter showers, it says, to save 350 pounds of carbon dioxide and $99 a year. Dry laundry on a clothesline to save 700 pounds and $75 a year.

And, of course, buy a hybrid car.

San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris, who gets around in a red Toyota Prius, said he chose the car partly for its cool gadgets and roominess, but also for the message it sends.

"It is a statement car as well," Morris said. "It was important to me as the mayor to make a statement not just to my friends but to the community as well that I am deeply concerned about our environment."

Plenty of other politicians are coming to realize that their cars can speak louder than words.

In this energy-conscious culture, driving a hybrid is noble, responsible. Drive an SUV, and you risk being seen as a villain.

Los Angeles Times columnists have made a sport of ribbing elected officials whose gas guzzling they deem excessive.

Jaime de la Vega, Los Angeles' deputy mayor of transportation, has taken jabs for driving a Hummer. The five Los Angeles County supervisors got the treatment for getting around in luxury sedans and a Ford Expedition.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger, pushing environmental issues in his re-election bid, has steered clear of his Hummers.

"Nowadays, if I was running for office, I think I'd rather be seen driving a hybrid than a Hummer," said Volti, the Pitzer professor.

Still, for many, the virtues of the hybrid are hardly limitless. A simple Google search for "hybrid car" and "holier than thou" shows as much.

"South Park," the irreverent Comedy Central cartoon, satirized all the fuss over who drives what in a recent episode, when residents of the show's fictional Denver-area town trade in their SUVs for a popular brand of hybrid car: the Pious.

But the self-congratulatory townsfolk soon realize they are emitting a new form of pollution, when dark clouds of "smug" begin to form. After they junk the cars to save South Park, Stan, one of the main characters, sums up the story's moral.

"Hybrid cars are important - they may even save our planet some day," he says. "What you all need to do is just learn to drive hybrids and not be smug about it."