Week of 5/7/2006

Dear EarthTalk: Is General Motors’ new “H3” Hummer any friendlier to the environment than earlier models, or is it just a little smaller?

—Fred Poisson, Bridgton, Maine

Indeed, everything is relative. While the new Hummer H3 is smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient than its larger predecessors, it is far from an environmentally friendly vehicle. Hardly fuel efficient, the H3 gets just 16 miles per gallon (MPG) in city driving and 20 on the highway.

According to the non-profit Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, General Motors (GM) developed the less-expensive Hummer H3—in the wake of shrinking sales of its larger H1 and H2 models—to compete with other midsized Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) in the mid-$30,000 price bracket, such as the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Toyota 4Runner and Jeep Grand Cherokee. The move paid off, as GM turned a spiraling downward sales trend for the Hummer line into a 200 percent overall sales boost for the brand with the introduction of the H3 last year.

As the biggest and most visible of the large SUVs, previous Hummer models raised hackles among even more moderate environmentalists (as well as highway safety proponents) for their excessive, imposing size and weight as well as their fuel consumption and contribution of polluting emissions. Far worse than its offspring, the Hummer H2 gets only 10 MPG in the city and 13 MPG on the highway, and generates more carbon dioxide per mile than almost any other light truck. The vehicle’s debut prompted a number of anti-hummer websites and campaigns, including “Hummerdinger” from the Sierra Club, complete with facts, figures and a few short films, and a “Hummer and Hummerer” ad parody circulated widely on the Internet.

Probably the only way to really “green up” a Hummer—or, for that matter, any SUV—would be to follow the lead of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who drives a one-of-a-kind Hummer H2 modified by GM engineers to run on compressed hydrogen instead of gasoline. The prototype car’s primary tailpipe emission is water vapor. GM owns the vehicle but shares it with Schwarzenegger’s office in order to raise awareness about the possibilities for the cars of the future. For his part, Schwarzenegger, who expressed interest during his gubernatorial campaign in vehicles powered by alternative fuels, likes to drive his hydrogen-powered Hummer in order to “demonstrate the economic and technical viability of hydrogen.”

With the exception of Arnold’s H2, the H3 does qualify as the most environmentally responsible Hummer on the road today. But that’s not saying much, as SUVs are notorious for their poor fuel efficiency and heavy emissions. Environmentalists in need of SUV styling or functionality would do better to look into gasoline-electric hybrids versions of the Ford Escape or Toyota Highlander, each of which get about 33 MPG in the city and 28 MPG on the highways.

CONTACTS: Consumers Union “Greener Choices” website, www.eco-labels.org/greenconsumers/home.cfm ; Hummerdinger, www.sierraclubplus.org/hummerdinger ; “Hummer and Hummerer” ad parody, www.electrifyingtimes.com/hummer_hummerer.html .

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that African-Americans are said to suffer the most in the U.S. from pollution and other environmental ills?

—Jon Stein, Novato, CA

While conducting research upon completion of his sociology Ph.D. in Houston in 1979, Dr. Robert Bullard noticed that all the city’s garbage dumps were located in and around neighborhoods inhabited primarily by African-Americans, even though blacks only accounted for a quarter of the city’s population. Bullard hypothesized that such discriminatory siting was no coincidence, especially since Houston had no zoning laws to regulate land use. At the time, his findings helped a middle class African American community in the city prevent the building of a new dump facility in their neighborhood.

Fearful that the Houston situation was no anomaly, Bullard cast his net wider to find more examples of what he called “environmental racism.” Indeed, he found not only dumps, but also polluting factories and other industrial blemishes throughout the American Southeast—from West Virginia to Alabama to Texas to Louisiana to Florida—located where poor and sometimes middle class African Americans lived. While discriminatory decision-making was no doubt a factor, Bullard also theorized that such communities’ lack of political experience also contributed to their predicament. Such realizations gave birth to an entire new political movement, and today thousands of activists in the U.S. and elsewhere monitor policymaking, lobby for new laws and fight City Hall in the struggle for “environmental justice.”

In his seminal 1990 book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, Dr. Bullard emphasizes that the kinds of problems he uncovered in black communities in the Southeast are not limited to a particular region or ethnicity. “People of color in all regions of the country bear a disproportionate share of the nation’s environmental problems,” he said. The book, now in its third edition, highlights some of the cases Bullard considered over two decades, and makes a compelling case for taking into account issues of fairness when it comes to the siting and remediation of hazardous facilities of any type.

Bullard’s pioneering work also helped shatter the myth that minority communities didn’t care about the environment. With financial help from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Bullard convened the first National People of Color Environmental Summit held in October 1991, and a year later published the first version of the People of Color Environmental Groups Directory with listings for more than 300 different groups in the U.S. alone. An expanded version of the directory released in 2000 is available free online from the website of Bullard’s Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

These days Bullard is marshalling all the resources he can to monitor the “mother of all clean-ups” in post-Katrina New Orleans, and has been highly critical of the slow pace of federal and state efforts. Acknowledging that funds are limited, Bullard wonders, “which neighborhoods will get cleaned up and which ones will be left contaminated.” No doubt, though, residents are glad to have Dr. Bullard and the thousands of environmental justice activists he inspired on their side this time around.

CONTACTS: Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University,www.ejrc.cau.edu ; People of Color Environmental Groups Directory, www.ejrc.cau.edu/poc2000.htm .