The little LEAF is a tough little car.
For more than 20 years I’ve driven—and loved—pickup trucks. My fondness for these vehicles has made the relationships long-lived, and so there have been only two such loves in my life. The most recent one lasted 15 years. I kiss each truck sadly when it’s finally time to say goodbye.
No relationship is perfect, of course. Because we live on a country acreage, I have felt justified driving vehicles that, for all their glories, had one disturbing drawback: they sucked down twice as much gas as any number of cars I could have owned instead. The issue was not budgetary but environmental. Trucks pump a lot of carbon into the atmosphere; they hunger for fossil fuel.
But I was justified in spewing CO2 and pouring endless gallons of gas into my tank, wasn’t I? After all, a man’s got to haul the trees he’s felled, the storm-snapped limbs that have blocked the road, lumber for his endless projects, 50-gallon barrels to hold up the dock, loads of gravel and manure, and huge piles of mulch. There are bikes to be thrown in the back for an impromptu ride, a sofa to be taken for reupholstering, a new washing machine to be brought home. With high clearance and four-wheel drive, my trucks would go anywhere, anytime.
True, 98 percent of the time they were just big boxy cars with bad mileage. But that was a price I was willing to pay to have them perpetually at the ready.
My last truck, after 17 years of life, succumbed to a weakness baked into Toyota Tacomas of a certain vintage: its frame rotted almost to the breaking point. It was unsafe to sell, so I took $1000 for it at the salvage yard. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I was without a vehicle, feeling stripped and vulnerable like a man on the field without his chariot. What to do?
Another newer and better truck was the obvious solution. But my wife had another idea. How about an all-electric Nissan LEAF, a smallish low-slung hatchback with minor cargo space, an inability to haul any significant payload at all, and a range that would never get us to Iowa City and back? Perfect! A few days later we were driving to Wisconsin with a U-Haul car dolly to bring a used one home. And then, sitting in our gravel driveway, where the shadow of a pickup had always stood tall and strong, we had just this diminutive, climate-friendly pair: a Prius and a LEAF.
If it sounds like I went through some kind of drastic, overnight conversion, I did. My trucks, for all their attractiveness and usefulness, were not actually necessary. If I gave up on pickups, the price would be nothing worse than a degree of inconvenience. Looked at this way, the tipping of the scales was all too obvious. It was a formulation I could not refuse.
I must admit, though, that I loved my trucks for reasons other than their convenience. I loved the style and no-nonsense feel of a pickup, sitting high above the road with a can-do, down-to-business satisfaction I might call machismo except for the fact that women can feel it too.
How big will my inconvenience be? I will still be able to get my jobs done. Even if people started abandoning their pickups in droves for the sake of the climate, there will always be trucks that are actually needed to support the work of their owners. I can borrow or rent one for those scattered situations when I really need a truck. Or I can arrange for delivery where I would otherwise haul something myself. Will this cost extra? Sure, but not that much (and gas savings alone will more than cover that). Will it be inconvenient? Sure, but not in any really significant way. I’ll still accomplish what I need to accomplish.
What’s really at stake in all this? I can’t help thinking there is no more serious challenge facing humanity than climate change. We have a long way to go to convince ourselves and our leaders that drastic action is called for, and there is almost no time left to accomplish it.
I’m under no illusion that taking one truck or a million trucks off the road will save the planet’s atmosphere. With the LEAF, we’ve been able to plug in off the grid much of the time, and so its “zero emissions” emblem means a lot to us. But even electric cars, radical as they are, will not in themselves be enough. It’s the same story with other personal choices, like changing light bulbs. A billion compact fluorescents will not make a big enough dent in our deadly carbon overload to reverse the trends of climate change.
The important thing, for me, is a shift in thinking, in my sense of what is personally acceptable and what is not, what is socially responsible and what is not. The only way to know that my thinking has actually shifted is to see that my actions reflect the change. My actions are what remind myself, and signal to others, what I think is important.
We need action on a scale far larger than our personal choices in automobiles and light bulbs. We need fearless, mandated policy shifts on the national and global level. But these large-scale changes will never occur unless we the people start feeling, on a personal level, that they are so pressing and critical that they cannot be ignored. And this is what makes our personal shifts so meaningful.
But I started out talking about love. How does my pickup-free life feel now? Am I left with a truck-shaped hole in my heart? Yes I am, and it aches sometimes. But it’s the kind of ache that comes when you give up something you love, but you know deep down it’s ultimately not right for you.
Goodbye, trucks; I loved you well. Maybe we can still be friends?