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Column: Blowing smoke to make a point

For $500, anyone with a diesel truck can install a smoke stack and equipment to “roll coal” — waste as a form of protest.

For $500, anyone with a diesel truck can install a smoke stack and equipment to “roll coal” — waste as a form of protest.

Forty-five second YouTube clips don't come any more American than "Prius Repellent." It starts with a camera angled from the passenger side window of a truck, pointed at the namesake Japanese hybrid car. After 12 establishing seconds, the cameraman moves and points out the back window, where viewers can read the ominous decal:


At 23 seconds, the engine revs and the viewer finally learns what the arrows were pointing at. Smoke pours out of dual stacks, right in the path of the Prius, which retreats into the rear view. The truck's passengers share a well-earned chortle.

"Prius Repellent" is a perfect introduction to one of the Obama era's great conservative subcultures: the men and women who "roll coal." For as little as $500, anyone with a diesel truck and a dream can install a smoke stack and the equipment that lets a driver "trick the engine" into needing more fuel. The result is a burst of black smoke that doubles as a political or cultural statement — a protest against the EPA, a ritual shaming of hybrid "rice burners" and a stellar source of truck memes. The "Prius repellent" decal is easy to find on truck fan sites, as are memes of single or double stack trucks humiliating the drivers of smaller cars.

"Rolling coal" is not new. It grew out of the modifications people would do on their vehicles for truck pulls. It's just only recently entered the online culture wars.

The liberals seem a little surprised that conspicuous consumption — waste, even — could be a method of protest. They shouldn't be. The motivation for political coal rolling is roughly the same one that gets people buying guns and ammo after mass shootings. The expectation, every time, is that liberals will capitalize on the shootings to ban guns, so it's time to stock up.

The use-it-before-liberals-ban-it instinct is powerful. Since 2007, environmental activists have campaigned for an "Earth hour," 60 minutes in which people turn off all electricity. Since 2009, the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute has responded to this with Human Achievement Hour, a call to spend those same 60 minutes by keeping the lights on.

"Utilize something that requires energy to make," says Michelle Minton, director of "sin industry" studies at CEI. "Make a phone call to someone you love. Have a beer."

The point is to expose how the people turning off electricity are just preening, when they have access to technology and medicine that the global poor are being denied. (One meme portrays the hermit state of North Korea at night, without any lights, in a state of "permanent earth hour.")

What about the push for calorie labeling, for smaller soda sizes, for mandatory calisthenics led by Michelle Obama? This, too, is being battled with conspicuous consumption. CEI, which gets some of its funding from the energy and food industries, has co-opted the Salvation Army's annual Doughnut Day as a time for "patriotic civil disobedience." To participate, eat two doughnuts.

But those are ideas germinated in the libertarian/conservative think tanks of Washington. Coal rolling is genuinely grass-roots: No PR guru would come up with something like this.

Rolling coal has everything to do with the EPA. It has everything to do with Barack Obama. It has everything to do with the tax credits that go to hybrids and electric cars.

The lifestyle isn't for everyone. A couple of years ago, Sean Miller discovered that the high elevation of his Arizona county made his truck roll coal without any special modification. For a while, he uploaded videos of his towering "hybrid repellent."

But the gimmick wore on him. He'd be driving, and the road behind him would fill with smoke. Conspicuous, yes, but after a while it got embarrassing.

"I know a lot of these guys thrive on how much coal they can roll when they're in town next to hybrid cars," said Miller. "It's just a testosterone thing. It's manhood. It's who can blow the most smoke, whose is blacker. The blacker it is, the more fuel you have in your injectors. It was kind of fun. But I'll be honest with you. I decided I'd save some money. It's like throwing dollar bills out the window."

© 2014 Slate

Column: Blowing smoke to make a point 07/07/14 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2014 2:21pm]
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