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EarthSave promotes a shift toward a healthy plant-based diet.
Vol 19 No. 2
April 2008

Bigness Gone Berserk

By Gene C. Sager

In a strange, modern way, Berserkers are among us today. The original Berserkers were ancient Viking warriors whose overkill destruction gained them notoriety and a place in our language. Berserkers became so “zoned” that they were capable of unbelievable, irrational behavior. Hence, we use the phrase “gone berserk.”

As a philosopher, I stand on the streets of the nation, crying, “Why?” Why are the new houses today twice as big as those built in the 1950’s? Why do so many people drive the big and tall Urban Attack Vehicles (UAVs)? Soft drink cups provide such a Big Gulp that many Americans have expanded to XXXL and beyond. Popular culture idealizes large genitalia, encouraging outrageous surgeries, drugs, and enhancers. Many writers have remarked on the gargantuan size of international corporations which arguable wield more power than some midsized nation-states. Less noticed, perhaps, is the insane growth of smaller giants like BBQs, which have tripled in bulk in the past 10 years; the barbie has become a big silver bulwark with tanks, gages, shelves, and heavy duty tools. Strollers have grown to be bulky Urban Attack Vehicles for children, especially dangerous to pedestrians in crowded situations.

“Urban Attack Vehicles” is my term for the vehicles normally called Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs). We need to come to terms with these oversized pickup trucks with extra seating space. They are not cars. They have a truck underframe; they are elephantized pickup trucks. They range from the big Escalades and Expeditions to the somewhat smaller Explorers. The Toyota RAV-4 looks like an SUV, but it is built on a car frame, making it a cross dresser (or crossover vehicle). SUVs are built for off road driving and pulling trailers and boats. But the vast majority of SUV owners never go off road and never pull trailers. They are not attacking the outback; they are attacking our urban scene. This is overkill behavior like dressing for combat to go to an office job, the mall, or to school. Imagine a desk bound computer programmer getting a romantic vision of outdoor adventure by driving a Sequoia V-8. Or imagine a baby boomer muscling an armored car to the supermarket to buy groceries with a credit card.

Some SUV owners claim they bought this vehicle because of its extra seating and storage space. But a minivan will provide the same space without the overkill. Minivans like the Honda Odyssey are quite spacey and have a good safety rating as well. Modern Berserkers offer me this reason for driving an SUV: they are safer than other vehicles. The scant truth behind this claim concerns only exact head-on collisions. For an impact at any other angle, an SUV is not an advantage but a liability because they are liable to roll over. And since SUVs are “high and mighty” they cannot swerve to avoid hazards and collisions. Berserkers try to ignore the “swerve dilemma”: if SUV drivers do not swerve to avoid danger, they crash into it; if they do swerve, they will most likely tip over. In either case, a serious accident occurs. Someone has to put the truth bluntly: SUVs drive like a pig on stilts.

What is unbelievable is that even after the above facts were made public at all levels, including the car guys on Saturday morning radio, SUVs are still popular. Popular, despite their gas-guzzling and truck emissions. SUVs are categorized as trucks and so are allowed to pollute more than cars.

The new hybrid SUVs are not a solution. Their mpg performance is only a few miles better than the pure bred SUVs, and no wonder: they are big and heavy. Our best choice is not between a pure SUV and a hybrid SUV. If an armored tank is not a good choice for city and freeway driving, a hybrid tank is not a good choice either. One engineer has put it this way: the Titanic with a slight upgrade is still the Titanic.

Big vehicles mean parking problems and housing issues. No surprise that some older garages are too small for the new vehicles. No surprise that new houses today provide bigger garages. What is surprising is that the new houses also provide twice as much the living space as houses built in the 50s. The average American family is actually smaller now, but the houses are much bigger. Some of my students see no problem with the extra space, telling their old professor that it’s no big deal. But the additional space in these bloated houses is not merely “extra.” It means higher mortgages, higher taxes, higher heating and cooling bills, higher furnishing costs, and in general, more costly maintenance. As with SUVs, big houses consume too much and waste too much.

The logic of extra space is a strange one, trapping modern Berserkers into irrational actions; oddly, these actions are considered “normal” or “ordinary.” An old adage has been twisted into this principle: Bigness is the mother of necessity. A Berserker abhors a vacuum, so an extra room must be filled at all costs. Like it or not, use it or not, the family must buy a pool table, a wine refrigerator, a home entertainment karaoke system, or... In the Land of the Large, the needless becomes necessary, and this strange phenomenon is considered normal! Just as the insane SUVs have become ordinary or normal, so have the monster houses. Both involve logical fallacies (needing the needless), and are destructive in terms of natural resources and pollution.

An extra room might be filled by a big TV with a giant screen fit for a hall; the room must be big because you have to keep moving back to get a good view. And big bedrooms can be filled with beds fit for royalty. A “full size bed” is not full enough. People now prefer queen and king size beds. One plausible explanation for this is that Americans are bigger (read fatter and wider) than at any time in the history of the U.S. The Surgeon General says that too many of us are overweight and that we have an obesity crisis. A sign of the times: Disneyland has increased the size of the boats in the Small World ride because so many of their customers are wide-girth heavy weights. It’s a small world after all -- too small for its inhabitants.

The problem of the bulging American is not simply a matter of personal resolve. Big food conglomerates and the fast food industry work hard at breaking down our resolve. Equally devastating to our resolve is a fallacy that logicians call false dilemma. We are accustomed to thinking of our options as just two: Either we keep eating our usual fare; or, we go on a diet. Going on a diet is symbolized by a dry rice cake and a half grapefruit; it usually means calculating calories and carbs. A huge diet industry touts expensive mixtures such as foamy chocolate-flavored shakes to replace meals. No wonder the phrase “Diets don’t work” has a ring of truth.

This dilemma (usual fare vs. go on a diet) is false – a gross simplification of the range of viable options. One simple alternative is to eat less meat, less dairy, less sugar, and less fat. The point is that we have many options, and we need to be aware of them. We are not so much dumb as numb. We have become paralyzed by commercial and social pressures, distractions, and false dilemmas.

In some, we are like a blind horseman riding a blind horse, consuming more and more. Bigness gone berserk is destroying our planet and our health. Once the veil is lifted, we see that the big SUVs, monster houses, and bulging waistlines are contributing mightily to our decline. It’s time now to come to our senses.

Gene Sager is Professor of Philosophy at Palomar College, San Marcos, California. He has published numerous articles on environmental issues. John Robbins’ books sparked his interest in EarthSave.