Prius Envy

The following comes to us from my old friend on Valparaiso University's intramural basketball courts, Jon Pahl, now professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Prius Envy, By Jon Pahl

I succumbed to Prius envy. I’ve been tempted for a long time. But I wasn’t aware how tantalizing this auto-seduction had become in American history until I drove the car home and stood staring at it, for minutes on end, sitting in my driveway. I wanted to bow down to it. It was like the proverbial golden calf of biblical lore. Except it’s red. And it’s a car.

Several of my colleagues owned the economical and environmentally-friendly hybrid autos before me. When I was considering buying a new vehicle, I asked them about their experiences with the Prius. They each replied, independently: “I love it.”

Now, I know that love is a many, splendored thing. But what does it mean about the state of a culture—about our collective unconscious as a historical by-product, when people resort to “loving” their automobiles? I can’t say that I love my Prius, yet. I like it a lot. I’m fond of it. And I probably even felt lust in my heart in the days leading up to my acquisition.

But how did it come about that the word “love” so easily became attached to a commodity—a ton or so of steel and plastic and rubber? This is a historical question of considerable significance. Is “love” in a market economy merely a reflection of something’s economic value? Perhaps this book has already been written. Call it—Auto-Love: How We Learned to Love Our Cars, and To Hell with Everyone Else.

And, yes, there is a webpage: It’s worth a visit, and will not be blocked by your porn spamfilter. Katharine T. Alvord’s suggestion: Divorce your Car! (it’s on Amazon), seems a little extreme. But in an effort to purify my soul, I’ve been finding things not to like about the Prius. I need to keep it in its place.

For starters, the push button starter strikes all the wrong erotic notes, for me. I’ve taken to actually inserting my “smart key” into the slot in the dash where it can go, but doesn’t have to. Part of this is practical: that way I don’t lose the key. Part of it, though, feels like a more spiritual thing: the idea of riding around with the key for a car in my pocket, rather then securely cocooned in its slot, seems positively a waste of energy.

Then, the navigation system is creepy. I’ve never owned a car with a global positioning system before. It’s an eerie experience, to me anyway, knowing that as I drive down Chester Road here in Swarthmore, there’s a satellite somewhere in the sky with its eye upon me.
I picture this satellite as a Cyclops-God hybrid. When I was in Sunday School, we sang a song that recently came to mind as I was driving: “Oh, be careful, little hands, what you touch,” I sang, “There’s a Savior up above, and He’s looking down with love, so be careful, little hands, what you touch.” I never could figure out why I had to be careful if the Savior was so loving, but that’s another column, at least.

And now, four decades after Sunday School, the suspicion is ingrained in me, and there really is a Thing in the sky looking down on me. I hope the satellite is loving. I fear it’s just indifferent.

And when I’m really paranoid, I imagine it as Dick Cheney.

Another spiritual feature of the Prius that I hadn’t reckoned with is that it fosters self-righteousness. I felt this acutely shortly after I drove the car off the dealer’s lot. A big SUV drove by, and I positively gloated, as I glanced down at the touchscreen display and noted that I was getting 39.7 miles per gallon. “Sucker,” I thought to myself. Probably I could get a bumper sticker to advertise my spiritual superiority: “What Would Jesus Drive?” The answer would be implicit in my own choice, which, conveniently, would incarnate the automotive preferences of the Eternal One.

And then there’s the nagging question about just how eco-friendly the car really is. It was made in Japan, which meant it took tons of carbon dioxide, spewing from an ocean-going cargo-container vessel’s smokestacks, to get it to me here in Pennsylvania. It contains batteries laced with bad chemicals and metals. What will happen to them when I’m done with it?

All in all, then, I’ve managed so far to keep from loving my Prius. I’m pretty much in synch, I think, with Jane Holtz Kay, who in Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back, suggested that when we love our cars we love a “sealed chamber of isolation.”

But the Prius does have a killer sound system, and I do love hearing Diane Schuur’s silken voice singing “Just the Thought of You” through its speakers, as I silently, and carbon-dioxide emissions-free, slip my way through Swarthmore.

Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and he teaches at Temple University and Princeton. He’s the author of Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces.


Rebecca said…
I got over my Prius envy by going to the competition and buying a Honda Civic Hybrid. My average gas mileage exceeds the mean for the Prius (whoohoo!). I love my car! I love her so much I named her Hildegarde, after the redoubtable nun von Bingen.

We cruise down the highway at 55.8mpg and it's hard not to feel the love...
Amy said…
I got over it, too and bought a Honda hybrid. Is this a gendered thing or is it just that you can't see out f the back window of the Prius? Sure, I don't get the instant "cool" cache of driving a pious, oops a Prius, but ooohhhh the gas mileage!

All you need is love....
Randall said…
My wife and I stayed with my advisor Bert Wyatt-Brown and his wife Anne at their cabin in Maine this past weekend. They recently purchased a Prius, as did my sister and brother-in-law. All I have to say is that we were wowed by its quitness and the awesome gps/computer system. That puts our TomTom to shame! I certainly had Prius envy. 50 mpg compared to our CRV's 25 is something.

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