In A Word: Autobesity

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Autobesity
noun: aw-toh bee-si-tee
the phenomenon of cars getting bigger and heavier year by year


Ours is a supersized world. We live in houses three times bigger than those our parents and grandparents lived in during the 1950s. We scarf down hamburgers twenty-three percent larger than they were originally and quench our thirst with soft drinks bigger by fifty-two percent

And we get into the driver’s seats of enormous cars. The most popular vehicles in the U.S. are the Ford F-Series trucks, led by the F-150, which is just shy of 17.5 feet long, with a width of 6.6 feet (not including mirrors). First coined in The Guardian newspaper, the term “autobesity” gives vocabulary to our penchant for these large vehicles. 

We don’t want to participate in car shaming. We know that there are some who drive large vehicles because they were injured in a car accident while driving a smaller car; we know of others who shuttle any number of kids to hockey rinks throughout the winter and lug around camping gear in the warmer weather; and we know of still others who travel with two (ahem) oversized dogs. 

But we also know that the auto industry has done a very good job of promoting car culture broadly, and big cars specifically. They’ve convinced us that SUVs are synonymous with freedom, with exploring, and with, frankly, dominating. 

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And yet, as Doug Gordon, co-host of The War on Cars podcast, recently told an interviewer, think about where we choose to go on vacation. Most of us seek out places where we don’t need vehicles — where we can walk or bike, he said, specifically citing Martha’s Vineyard as such a destination. 

And there’s no ignoring the higher environmental cost of driving larger vehicles, even electric ones. So it’s worth weighing our autobesity and considering, ummm, lightening our carprint.

The New Yorker’s Elisabeth Kolbert says, simply, that “The move toward bigger and heavier vehicles … is incompatible with the goal of reducing global emissions.” 

She does the math for us: “The I.E.A. [International Energy Agency] report noted that the average S.U.V. consumes about twenty per cent more oil than the average medium-sized car does to drive the same number of miles. Oil use translates directly into CO2, so the average S.U.V. is also releasing twenty per cent more carbon per mile driven.”

If your supersized vehicle is electric, that’s a good thing. But, again, Kolbert is here with the math: “Heavier vehicles require more energy to move around, and so, until the world is operating on zero-carbon electricity, the more an EV weighs, the more emissions it will produce.” And “autobese” EVs require a larger (and heavier) battery to move them around.

What’s behind our love of these leviathans? Friend of Bluedot, Dan Becker, the director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Safe Climate Transport Campaign, told Kolbert that they’re “rolling profit machines.” Automakers, he said, are “very happy to make them bigger and bigger” because they make more money on SUVs. 

There are, of course, other attendant autobesity issues: Heavier vehicles are more dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians and smaller vehicles. Even parking lots, which devour land, will have to grow to accommodate these beasts.

Like any good doctor, Kolbert offers sound advice: Consider our vehicle’s girth and trim down, or eliminate it altogether. 

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Leslie Garrett
Leslie Garrett
Leslie Garrett is a journalist and the Editorial Director of Bluedot, Inc. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, and more. She is the author of more than 15 books, including The Virtuous Consumer, a book on living more sustainably. Leslie lives most of the year in Canada with her husband, three children, three dogs and three cats. She is building a home on Martha's Vineyard.
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