Perhaps the most annoying thing about the Tire Extinguishers is that green lentils are their main weapon. At least according to the instructions on the website, it’s that simple: open the valve cap, put lentils in it – it can also be raw couscous – and close it again. Result: the car tire deflates. To be applied to any SUV, they write, preferably in an expensive or middle class neighborhood, and this at night, “under the cover of darkness”.
Recently, the Tire Extinguishers, a self-proclaimed international, leaderless activist group seeking a ban on SUVs (sports utility vehicles) wants to enforce, also in the Netherlands. At the beginning of September they took, so explain themselves, to graze twelve cars in Zwolle. “Your gas guzzler kills!” was the message on the pamphlet they left under the windshield wipers. Including a treatise on the harmful consequences of SUVs for the climate, the environment and road safety.
The empty car tires made a lot of noise, also in The Hague, Hengelo and Apeldoorn, where the activists had also started working. Several declarations have already been made in Zwolle. Even if nothing has been destroyed, a police spokesperson says, making someone else’s property unusable falls under vandalism, and is therefore punishable by law. On Twitter there was reasonable criticism about any missed medical treatments and young mothers who could be deprived. Above all, though, there was anger toward this “scum,” including threats with baseball bats and poisons from firearms.
Cowardly, anonymous anarchists versus climate-devastating antisocial SUV drivers; nothing can be left out of the culture struggle, that much is clear. But if you do try, you can hardly ignore some inconvenient truths about the SUV.
In 2020, more than half of the new electric models on the car market were SUVs
Over the years, most cars have gotten bigger with the addition of crumple zones, technological ingenuity and comfort. The Mini Cooper, for example, is no longer mini, but one and a half times the size of the original. In addition, today’s cars are a lot heavier: the renewed, electric version of the beloved Volkswagen camper van that will be on the market this autumn, weighs 2,500 kilos, more than twice as much as the original from 1950.
The SUV is the superlative of the growing passenger car. And wildly popular. Since March last year, the SUV has been the most sold car type in the Netherlands, more popular than the smaller hatchback, according to data from RDC, a data company for the car world. The cause is a chicken-and-egg story: car manufacturers respond to consumer demand, but also boost it by bringing more and more SUV models onto the market.
This development is even more pronounced with electric cars. The customer wants to be able to cover longer distances, and therefore needs a larger battery – and therefore a larger car. For the industry, large models are attractive because they are more profitable and thus help to pay for the switch to electric cars. The result: in 2020, more than half of the new electric models were an SUV.
From a smaller petrol car to an electric SUV, will that be the path to a greener car?
That path would ignore the fact that producing a large electric car battery produces much more CO .2 is released with a small one. And that the extraction of raw materials for that battery – lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese – pollutes the environment, costs a lot of water and is often at the expense of local communities. Moreover, these raw materials are scarce, because the mining and processing industry cannot keep up with the exploding demand.
The average battery of an electric car has become about 60 percent heavier between 2015 and 2021, calculated the International Energy Agency (IEA). That is good for the range, but a heavier car also needs more electricity to drive. This way you literally and figuratively get further from home.
Do SUV drivers not think about this or do they simply make a different decision when buying a car? A tweet from a Zwolle resident suggests the first: “You deflated my fully electric car, sorry people.” In other words: this was the wrong target, because those who drive electrically are doing well.
The Tire Extinguishers have no mercy for hybrid or electric SUVs. “Electrification is not going to help us out of the climate crisis,” they write on their site. They are, of course, right when they say that a world full of electric SUVs keeps the Paris climate goals further out of the picture than a world without cars. But can’t an imperfect improvement – an electric SUV instead of a petrol car – be good enough?
“There is a lot of miscommunication about electric cars,” says Farzaneh Bahrami, lecturer in Urban Design and Mobility at the University of Groningen. “And it’s time to take something away from their halo. People think, ‘I drive zero-emissions and I paid more for it, so I’m doing my part.’ But they don’t realize that the pollution for production takes place elsewhere and that the tires of electric cars release more microplastics because those cars are heavier. And most importantly, they overlook the simple fact that what they can do with an electric SUV can also be done with a much smaller electric car, especially in the city.”
In the city, an SUV takes up more scarce public space and thus privatizes it, Bahrami sees, for example because they no longer fit in parking spaces. Moreover, the perception of increased safety for the occupants is only partially valid: by feeling safer, SUV drivers take more risks and are more likely to be involved in a collision.
Does this mean that SUVs should be banned, as the activists want? Or banned from inner cities, as some argue? Or, as the IEA proposes, should there be a tax on heavy batteries?
This subject hardly plays a role in politics in The Hague and that is not surprising to Bahrami. It goes the way things like this usually go, she says: the business community responds much faster to new developments than policymakers. Only when the SUV is the new normal, the question arises whether that is desirable. As far as Bahrami is concerned, the actions of the Tire Extinguishers and the angry reactions “start a conversation that we are not having enough”.
If that conversation is there, could it perhaps first be about awareness, instead of prohibitions or restrictions on freedom of movement? Because not everyone knows the full background of their car. Dwelling on that is something new. Other factors, such as unconscious social norms (the neighbor has them too) or simply the range in the showroom now often weigh more heavily. While you can also be guided by the question: what am I going to do with that car, cross a desert or take the kids to school?
Also read: End is near for the ‘cart for shopping’
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 1, 2022