Prius Preening

Is my hybrid turning my kids into eco-snobs?

Emily Bazelon was online July 12 to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

On an average Saturday morning, there are five blue Toyota Priuses in the parking lot of our synagogue. I know because my children count them, starting with ours. They could do this with any popular item they own, of course (not that they have too many chances in our late-adapting household). But their hybrid love made me cringe last week, when the New York Times ran a story about the success of the Prius (purchase required), and I saw myself in it.

Why are Prius sales surging when other hybrids are slumping, the Times asked? Because buyers “want everyone to know they are driving a hybrid.” According to a marketing survey (which the Times ran in a graphic I couldn’t hide from), more buyers bought the Prius this year because it “makes a statement about me” (57 percent) than because of its better gas mileage (36 percent) or lower carbon dioxide emissions (25 percent) or new technology (7 percent).

If I’m being honest, I’d answer “all of the above” in response to that survey. It also made me worry about how my kids perceive our family Prius ownership. Do they think we’re doing our small bit to save the Earth, or are they imbibing a look-at-me smugness?

This is a problem that can arise in many contexts—nationalism and religion spring to mind. There’s a fine line between pride in one’s identity and unearned moral superiority. But environmentalism has particular pitfalls. One’s salvation from sin doesn’t depend on anyone else’s salvation, not directly. But one’s salvation from global warming does. My air conditioning is cooling off my house and heating up your planet.

Kids get this, I think. They also get that grown-ups think the matter urgent. It’s a hard lesson to miss when we’re surrounded by a doomsday culture spawned by fears of global warming. On Earth Day, my son’s first-grade class learned about saving Dear Mother Earth by recycling and conserving water and, yes, telling other people to do those things (starting at home with their families). Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for Eli turning off lights and telling his younger brother, Simon, to quit blasting the hot water. I’m also all for Al Gore sounding the alarm to adults. But the mass death threat lurking in kid-aimed lessons about climate change reminds me of the antinuclear propaganda I grew up with in the 1980s. Remember The Day After? I don’t think my 7-year-old and 4-year-old really need exposure to end-of-the-world scenarios. I’ve read them the 1971 The Lorax lots of times, but one later Seuss title we don’t own is the Cold War allegory  The Butter Battle Book.

Scare tactics and smugness will not win the day for the planet. Thomas Friedman makes this point well with his proposed motto, “Green is the new red, white and blue.” He argues that going green should be “capitalistic and patriotic,” an ethos that belongs to Kansas as much as to the liberal precincts of Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. If environmentalism remains the snooty project of the Pious Prius Brigade, then my kids and your kids, or their kids or grandkids, will be moving to Greenland.

Following Friedman, I want to make sure Eli and Simon never utter the kid version of the sort of overbearing environmentalism exemplified by this New Yorker quote:  “I do daily yoga with my wife. We live in an energy-efficient house with solar-panel appliances. We use organic linens and towels. We try to ride bikes to work.” Don’t you want to punch this guy? I do. I thought of him a couple of weekends ago when we went on a family camping trip. In the middle of a clear West Virginia stream, some of our fellow campers soaped up, shampoo and all, with nary a thought, seemingly, to the chemicals they were injecting straight into the water. Eli looked at them and then at my husband and me. “Those people shouldn’t be doing that!” he said. “We should stop them, shouldn’t we?” We shook our heads and told him to keep his voice down, and while I can’t quite remember what we said, I hope it was some halfway coherent explanation about how sometimes you just have to let other people be.

At the same time, when kids feel the pull of a powerful family ethic—a strong belief in its own way of doing things—that’s a thing to behold. We know a 14-year-old who is a strict and committed vegetarian. He believes that it’s wrong to kill animals to eat them, and he converted his parents and his two brothers to eating His Way. There’s real force to their collective choice to respect and live out his principles, and a kind of beauty, too. I’ve written before about trying to inculcate a countercultural family ethic. I’m still committed. And, in our house, some greeniness is part of it. Last winter, when we decided to buy our first new car in 13 years, I was editing the Slate Green Challenge. My husband does environmental work for a living. It seemed ridiculous not to take the biggest chance we had to reduce the family carbon count—and the tax break we got from D.C. was nice, too.

Also—and here’s where the “making a statement” part comes in—neither of us really wanted to drive a minivan, our other logical option, given the many-kid carpools in our future. This feeling was tied to green values, sure, but it was also about an aesthetic: avoiding, for now, becoming a minivan mom.

I like our Prius. It’s quiet and easy to park. It’s averaging gas mileage of 43.4 miles per gallon, not off the charts by any means, but significantly better than the car we traded in for it. Eli and Simon enjoy watching the small video screen on the dashboard, which shows the car’s relative use of electricity and gas at any given moment (at least I think that’s what it’s doing). We all like that hip feeling that comes with other people asking questions about a new product you’ve decided to make your own.

So far, I’m happy to say, the kids don’t seem to have jumped from Prius pleasure to Prius preening. When Eli spotted yet another blue one on the road yesterday, he asked why the car is so popular. I couldn’t resist annoyingly answering with, “Why do you think it is?”

Silence in the back seat.

“Well, why did we get one?” I prompted.

More silence, then in a small voice, “So we won’t poison the air.”

I launched into Gore speak: We’re still driving, so we’re still poisoning the air, except that actually we’re not poisoning it, since carbon dioxide isn’t poison, but, yes, we’d gotten the car to help at least a little bit with global warming. I took a breath so I could continue with my explanation, when Simon cut me off.

“I know why we got it,” he said. “Because the old green car smelled bad.”

Good answer.