Opinion

Opinion | Anthony Flint

Sometimes, even a thrifty Yankee environmentalist has to buy a new car

11flint 1968 Chevrolet Malibu Handout
The 1968 Chevrolet Malibu convertible.

I used to drive a BMW, until it overheated on the way to a launch party for my book about visionary urbanist Jane Jacobs. I took that as a sign. That year, in 2009, I bought a silver 2010 Prius that has served me well. It was the butt of jokes, but it was transportation, it was spry, it was home. I changed the way I drove off when red lights turned to green, and it was a rare occasion when I switched from economy to “power mode.” I was righteous in my environmental contribution, spewing less in emissions every time the in-dash display indicated my propulsion was powered by the battery.

Lately, though, the silver steed has been the worse for wear — cracks in the fender sealed with duct tape, a crumpled passenger door thanks to someone who hit me in a parking lot and didn’t leave a note, and a slightly disturbing loud sound whenever I drove on the highway. The dings and dents and scratches on the rear fender looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. Somebody keyed a side panel — out of sheer principle, I’ve always speculated — on my last days parking in South Boston.

I’m a Yankee who believes in using it up and wearing it out. My first car was handed down, a 1968 Chevrolet Malibu convertible, that I drove, in my Hush Puppies, until the frame rusted out. Next was a sky-blue Buick Skylark, a company car my father no longer needed, with a Dukakis-for-President sticker on the chrome bumper. My grandfather offered to trade it in for a Cadillac Cimarron — Spanish for “wild thing” — which I drove until it would drive no more, conking out on I-95 as we were on our way to a Super Bowl party, in the late ’90s, my wife sitting silent next to me in the front seat of the tow truck on the night ride home.

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Use it until it disintegrates. The same credo applies to shoes and suits, much to the entertainment of my extended family, who will readily kick a couch to the curb at the first sign of a scuff. But on a recent day at Toyota of Watertown, I succumbed, accepting a generous offer on a trade-in. There was a charcoal gray 2017 Prius V3 on the lot, all full of promise and 88 miles on the odometer, and they were ready to sell it to me.

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Yet I felt the guilt that only an environmentalist can feel, about the resources that were consumed and the energy spent making this vehicle, in Japan, and shipping it here. We all should be driving less, and if we do drive, it should be in a fully electric vehicle, recharged with electricity from solar and wind. I could have held out for the new $30,000 Tesla, and just hid my face when I pulled up to the valet in the meantime.

But then I started to feel better. Thanks to improvements in the hybrid system, the new car will use the battery more often and spew less carbon into the atmosphere. They will fix up my old car and sell it to somebody else, who will pay under $10,000 and drive it for another 60,000 miles — to work and for family trips and to see grandparents in a neighboring state.

So I took a deep breath. The next day, I started driving a car unadorned with duct tape.

Taking delivery was bittersweet. I took a picture of this year’s model next to the dented silver steed. I steadfastly declined an array of options and extras, trying to stay Spartan. Still, pointing out the impossibly shiny vehicle to the staff of nearby Victor’s Diner, I felt sheepish. This was supposed to be a big moment, but dogged by being both a Yankee and a walk-the-walk environmentalist, I couldn’t celebrate the consumerism.

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Even my one small homage to recycling was deterred. I hoped to transfer my marker plates, faded green numbers on a dirty white background, honoring the tradition of them being on my previous cars. But I was told in no uncertain terms that the old plates wouldn’t pass inspection, because the Commonwealth wants everybody to drive now with bright red-and-white reflective plates, legible by police and the EZDrive electronic tolling
cameras.

In the showroom, the salesmen looked at me quizzically when I insisted on keeping the old plate. But I think I know just the place to hang it on the wall of my basement. They can’t take that away from me.

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. He can be reached at anthony.flint@gmail.com.