Too dreadful even for Clarkson?

Sian's responds to the launch of a new righthand drive Hummer

I have been kept busy this bank holiday, dissing the launch in the UK of the new Hummer monstrosity.

In the hope you’ve never heard of such a thing. Here’s a few basic facts. A Hummer is (surprise) a giant 4x4, based on an armoured car thingy used by the US army. Style icon Arnold Schwartzenegger was responsible for persuading them to make a ‘civilian’ version a few years ago. General Motors have since bought the franchise and their new H3 is being launched in right-hand-drive for the first time in Manchester this week.

The H3 gets around 15mpg in town and its carbon dioxide emissions are equally atrocious, ranging between 327 and 346 gm/km. These figures put the H3 more than 100 g/km above the cut-off point for top car tax Band G, and make it – scientifically – a whole Citroen too big.

I’m not sure what GM think they are playing at. There’s something incredibly wrong about launching a stupendously wasteful car at this moment in history, just when almost everyone is seeing the light and trying to reduce their carbon footprint.

Even in the USA, where a ‘normal’ car is about double the size of a Ford Focus, the sheer horridness of the Hummer has spawned a campaign of organised derision in the form of the FUH2 website, which collects phone camera snaps of people giving ‘the official Hummer salute’ to passing idiots.

Rising fuel prices in America have meant the gas-guzzler strategy hasn’t worked out for GM in business terms either. Plummeting sales of 4x4s – sending profits into free-fall – mean the company is rapidly laying off workers and closing factories, while imports of climate-conscious Japanese cars soar. So it’s hard to see why GM think pushing giant cars will serve them any better in the UK, where petrol costs even more, taxes are getting (marginally) higher for top emitters and there’s a fully fledged backlash against off-road wastemonsters.

Given this, I am also having difficulty imagining who might want one of these nowadays. The H3 has the aesthetics of a transit van and the driver visibility of a tank (thanks to its tiny windows that are a legacy of its military origins) which makes it a nightmare to steer around pedestrians and cyclists. I dread to think what its rear blind spot is, and I wouldn’t fancy trying to park one either.

The Manchester-based dealership where the H3 will be sold is claming in its launch material that there is a market for these things amongst young men who ‘have got and don’t care’. But actually I doubt there are many fashion points left for big gas-guzzlers now, even outside London. (I think it’s significant they didn’t plan the launch here in the capital, where a congestion charge of £25 a day is on the cards.) Even young, white-shirted blokes probably do care about looking ridiculous and getting evil glances from absolutely everyone when they drive down the street. You’d have to be Jeremy Clarkson himself to enjoy that.

In fact, Clarkson exhibited curiously mixed views on the H3’s predecessor, the H2 (these were only available in left-hand-drive and there are, thankfully, only a few hundred on our streets). In his review for the Times back in 2003 he said that despite its faults he, “loved it. I loved the look of the thing most of all” but, by 2005, the H2 had descended in his estimation to the wrong end of his personal ‘cockometer’ scale (which is definitely saying something). I’m holding out a slim hope that he will give the H3 a rave review. That will surely see it off for good.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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