We have an attitude problem about cars

Driving in this morning, I heard a bit on NPR about GM and bankruptcy and the dismal economics of the auto industry in general. During the segment, the reporter made kind of a side point about the fact that automakers think a lot of pent-up demand for new cars is building as we speak. The logic goes: We usually buy 14 million new cars per year; right now we’re buying at a rate of only 9 million per year; sooner or later we’ll have to cash in those junkers we’re driving and get ourselves down to the dealership.

I’m here to ask, Will we really? At my house, we own two cars. One is a 1984 Volkswagen GTI that gets about 30 miles per gallon. It developed some problems about a year and a half ago and had to be taken off the road, but my husband slowly put it back together and now it’s driveable again. I used to drive a 1988 Dodge Caravan, which died with 394,000 miles on it. At that point, we treated ourselves to something relatively spiffy: a 1995 Nissan truck (up to 29 mpg!) with only 200,000 miles. No rust. Runs great.

My point is not to brag about our antique car collection, but to provide an example to counter the assumption that people "need" new cars. (Cubans famously provide a much more extreme example.) It is, in fact, entirely possible to live your life with an older car. Or, to put it another way, most cars hit the junkyard much sooner than they really need to. If Americans are currently buying fewer new cars than usual, we could all take that as proof that our standards have been artificially high, at substantial cost to the environment.

I’m aware, of course, of the gas mileage concerns. Why not grab a new Prius and pollute less, now? That’s a valid argument. What I’m saying is that, in general, almost all our stuff—including cars—gets trashed too early. We love what’s new and shiny, and that causes tons of waste.

What do you think—are old cars worth loving? Or does efficiency trump the landfill?

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