Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Little Car that Environmentalists Love to Hate

Note: I wrote this essay for the Breakthrough Institute Blog. This first appeared here. The Breakthrough Institute, founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is a progressive think tank focusing on environmental issues.

Car A gets a fuel efficiency of 46 miles per gallon. Car B gets about 50 miles per gallon. Car A is called the Toyota Prius and is hailed by environmentalists as a step towards solving global warming. Car B, a new car called the Tata Nano unveiled by an Indian company, is reviled by environmentalists as disastrous for global warming. The New York Times devotes an entire editorial condemning the Tata Nano. Columnist and author Tom Friedman calls for the Tata Nano to be “taxed like crazy.” The reason for this extreme criticism? The Tata Nano is cheap - very cheap. It is a revolutionary new car design that will cost only about $2,500 and will bring car ownership within reach of millions of new people in the developing world.

The environmentalists’ hypocrisy is breathtaking. How can anything be criticized simply for being affordable? Tomorrow, if college education is made more accessible and affordable in India, will the New York Times denounce it on the grounds that college graduates tend to earn more and buy more consumer goods and hence enlarge their environmental “footprint”? The attitude of many environmentalists today is not unlike that of the Duke of Wellington at the dawn of the railroad era, who criticized the railways on the grounds that they would “only encourage the common people to move about needlessly.”

Many environmentalists take the view that human civilization and development have been unmitigated disasters for the planet. In this view, human activities such as economic development, industrialization, consumerism, car-ownership, etc., have been guilty of destroying the environment and causing global warming. Supposedly the only way out is to curb these human activities and abandon our vain attempts to achieve progress and “growth.” In this view, an ideal society is one that is based on limited ambition, limited needs and subsistence production.

Based on this core idea that human activities are inherently bad for the planet, the solutions that environmentalists propose generally involve imposition of limits, quotas, punitive taxes, restrictions, etc., with the aim of curbing human activities and human initiative.

True, limits and quotas can certainly lead to some modest reductions in energy consumption. However, to address global warming, it is necessary to achieve not just modest reductions, but fundamental paradigm-changing shifts in energy usage. This calls for key breakthroughs in energy technology, which can hardly be achieved through a limits-and-quotas approach. Consider the following:

- As authors Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger point out, it is highly unlikely that simply introducing restrictive quotas for typewriters would have instigated critical breakthroughs in computer technology. Rather, public investment in science and technology was the key.

- One of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century was the Green Revolution in countries like India. It dramatically increased food production, thereby avoiding the Malthusian catastrophe of a global “gigantic inevitable famine” caused by population growth outstripping food supply. The Green Revolution was built upon new agricultural technologies and infrastructure. Just like the Computer Revolution, it was not primarily the introduction of food quotas, but rather, large public investments and human ingenuity that made the Green Revolution possible.

What many environmentalists do not seem to understand is that if global warming is ever to be solved, it will be solved by human ingenuity, by technological innovation, by further human progress. The idea that the environment should be saved by severely curbing human ingenuity and human initiative is fundamentally flawed. While we should certainly seek to mitigate the negative side-effects of development, the emphasis must be on moving forward, on further human progress. Human civilization and development have been wonderful. People today live longer, fuller, lives, with more prosperity, freedom, opportunity, and choice, than ever before. How can this be a bad thing? The world needs more progress and development, not less.

The solution to global warming lies not in restricting, but rather, in encouraging human ingenuity and human initiative to develop new innovative clean energy technologies. The Tata Nano is part of a trend: the tendency of companies in countries like India and China to take a product, squeeze costs out of it, and make it much more affordable. The most prominent example is the proliferation of ultra-cheap “made in China” products on the shelves of Wal-Mart. Another example is Indian drug companies selling antiretroviral AIDS drugs in Africa for a fraction of the price charged by Western drug companies. Rather than railing against this trend for bringing “Western-style” consumerism within the reach of millions of the world’s less-wealthy, will it not be better if environmentalists seek to utilize this Indian and Chinese ingenuity to drive down the price of clean energy technologies?

At its core, our approach to dealing with global warming must articulate a positive vision that people - including millions in the developing world - can embrace, not just a nightmare that people need to be scared of. As Nordhaus and Shellenberger point out, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., is remembered not for his “I have a Nightmare” speech, but for his “I have a Dream” speech.

Imagine if, instead of painting the Tata Nano as a nightmarish “carbon-emitter,” the New York Times editorial had said something like this: “We have a dream that one day every Indian family will be able to afford a car that runs on clean energy. This dream can become a reality if technological innovations make clean energy affordable to all. We call upon the U.S. government to fund a massive new initiative to develop new affordable clean energy technologies.”

Now, that would have been a vision I’d have loved to embrace. Dreams, after all, are far more powerful than nightmares!

On a personal note, my father worked in Tata Motors for many years, and I spent my childhood in India in a township dominated by a Tata Motors factory. Years ago, I myself worked in the company for a few months. For me, the Tata Nano, with its innovative technology, is certainly something to celebrate.

Also see this.


Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

See comments here.

February 05, 2008 6:13 PM  
Blogger Ramesh said...

Sid - I did read your article cautiously and attempted to be fair in judging your perception of other 'Environmentalists'. Let me point out a few misgivings that I had with your article - India is about to make a choice, somewhere akin to where the United States was in the early 20th century. America made a choice to let the automobile dictate its terms of progress and has become a slave to this addiction. At that time, oil was considered an infinite source, western hegemony was guaranteed and environmental concerns limited to a few Grey haired people. Fast forward to the early 21st century and we arrive at the crossroads where a sleeping giant is about to awaken. It has choices of blindly following a past leader, competing for even scarcer resources and try an out industrialize the competition. Guess what the Tata Nano represents? The automobile is essentially a 100+ year old design that is repackaged and re-branded to meet our changing tastes and appetites, The Nano definitely is not a technological breakthrough but represents what cheap labor and stripping a vehicle down to its bare bones can achieve. It represents the failure of Indian Industry to recognize the inevitable decline of the automobile as we see it. The Prius is but a stop gap measure to reduce emissions and not consumption in a country where a few people consume an enormous amount of the world's resources. (The mileage is a bonus) Imagine if a lot of people consume an even more amount of a non-renewable resource? Its a zero sum game and guess who will lose? The nightmare scenario being pointed out by the New York Times and other concerned souls is not to discourage Indian Industrialization but to seek solutions for the future and not for the past. Ramesh Nair

February 06, 2008 6:28 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Hi Ramesh, thanks for leaving a comment here. Here are some responses.

1. The U.S. did make certain choices in the early 20th century regarding automobiles, railways, infrastructure, etc. I agree that not all these choices were perfect. Sure, some mistakes were made, and some things could have been done better. However, on whole these changes represent progress and growth, and an advancing civilization. The Ford Model T, which made widespread car-ownership possible in America, was certainly not perfect. Perhaps it would have been better if it had been electric powered. Certainly it would have been better if it had been equipped with air-bags and seat-belts. Sure, it would have been better if Americans had developed mass-transit systems in cities like Los Angeles. But whatever the faults and imperfections, the mass produced car and the road infrastructure brought increased mobility to millions of Americans. This opened up new opportunities for economic advancement, for accessing new resources, for exchange of ideas and information, for political participation, etc. Mobility became an important tool for peoples' empowerment. Whatever the imperfections, these developments have, on the whole, been a positive phenomenon for human civilization. I completely reject the view held by many environmentalists that development and progress have been bad. According to these environmentalists, we should roll back all the technological, economic and social advances that have been made in the last 100 years (or is it last 1000 years?) and ideally we should go back to the stone age and live in caves.

2. I also disagree with the argument made by some environmentalists that by increasing the number of cars, India is just following the "American road to disaster". It is often said, either explicitly or implicitly, that instead of the American model, India should rather follow the "European model" or the "Japanese model" that encourages mass transit. European cities like Amsterdam and Paris are held out as examples. I have nothing against the "European/Japanese" model. By all means, mass transit systems must be encouraged. However, I think that it is a completely mistaken belief that simply restricting small cars will lead to the magical appearance of mass transit systems. I think that if you want mass transit systems, you must invest in them. I do not think that this is a zero-sum game, an "either-or" situation. Banning small cars is neither necessary nor sufficient to create effective mass-transit systems. Even in the much touted European/Japanese model, car ownership is extremely widespread. Western Europe and Japan have a car ownership rate of about 500 cars for every 1000 people. India has only about 7 cars per 1000 people (the U.S. has some 750 cars per 1000 people).

3. I don't know exactly you mean when you say that the automobile is "a 100+ year old design that is repackaged". Sure, the idea of some kind of a mobility device has been around for ages. Why only 100 years? Before that there were various kinds of wagons and carriages drawn by horses, bullocks, etc. But surely a modern car is very different from the Model T Ford of the 1920s, which in turn was very different from a horseless carriage from the late 1800s, which in turn was very different from a horse-drawn carriage from 1800, which in turn was very different from the Roman chariot from 100AD, and so on. Taken this way, yes, the automobile is indeed nothing but "a 5000+ year old design that is repackaged". In future, mobility devices may be different from today's cars. But I seriously doubt that the need and demand for mobility devices will disappear altogether in the foreseeable future.

4. You say that this is a zero sum game because "non-renewable resource" are limited. It is true that there are certain natural resources that are non-renewable. However, the most important natural resources available to us are human resources - human ingenuity, human creativity, human intelligence. And guess what? Human resources are infinitely renewable and have infinite potential.

February 07, 2008 12:53 AM  
Blogger Barun said...

Dear Siddharth,

Since you had a personal connection with Tata Motors, I thought this latest article of mine would interest you. I argue how many more may be able to come out of poverty, if the land market is liberalised, and industry and agriculture become true partners in this process of economic development.

The industrial revolution may yet come to India, riding the Nano; a century late, perhaps, but better late than never. The bitter debate over land acquisition in Singur, for the Tata Motor factory, should help us appreciate the urgent need for liberalizing the land market, and pave the way for truly "inclusive growth". The potential benefit of unlocking the economic value of land, particularly for the poor, is beyond our imagination.

Free India's land market
by Barun Mitra
5 February 2008

February 07, 2008 1:37 AM  
Blogger Ramesh said...

Sid- in response to your points, I offer the following for your consideration.
1. Progress is not a uni-directional choice. Mankind has often paused and made corrections in the direction of responsible growth. Sometimes the changes are forced through technological advances, (Steam engine to internal combustion), sometimes political (capitalism against socialism) and sometimes even social (European choices as against American). Environmentalists are not planning on bringing back the stone age but rather like the canary in a mine, they are warning of an environmental catastrophe in the name of development. (Don’t kill the canary in the mine)The best way to explain this is by understanding one’s carbon footprint. Most Americans have a footprint that is enormous but with their relatively smaller population they have gotten away with it in a world of have’s and have-nots. As India and China race to be members of that club, our carbon footprint increases and due to the extraordinary number of people, the magnitude of the impending disaster is many fold. The New York Times and Washington Post articles failed to mention the fact (lest they sound patronizing) that India and China lack the laws or environmental sensitivities which in the west are of growing concern.
2. The question of mass transit is key in a globalizing world. Look at all the major cities that have a global impact on trade and notice that infrastructure in mass transit is a key. Recently, a trade group from my neck of the woods went to India (Delhi in particular with its new Metro) and were shocked at the lack of progress in this regard. Transportation and moving people from one point to another are very important but not in the form of worshipping the 2 or the 4 wheel variety. The point being that if every one took to a car, gridlock is the likely result. You can only build so many roads before your social fabric breaks apart. I could point out that the introduction of highways and the lack of mass transit resulted in the explosion called suburbia in the United States. The resultant inner city disaster that followed is a case study by itself. Would India really like to follow hat model? It will be inevitable if everyone in the major cities drives a car and believes in commuting to work.
3. My point with regards to the ‘100 year old design’ is that the car of today still has an internal combustion engine with enhanced features (fairly different from a Roman Chariot? though the point is well taken since they all apparently seem to have wheels?) The Tata Nano doesn’t represent a technological breakthrough as is being touted, rather the stripping away of key technologies especially with regards to anti-pollutant devices and safety. The demand for automobiles is enormous in India but if the Indian Government and People could pause and think for a minute – Does this represent our best choice?
4. My point exactly, the human resource is the most important one and we have a choice to make – the Nano certainly doesn’t represent a wise choice at least in this writer’s opinion.

February 07, 2008 5:49 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Dear Mr. Mitra,

Very interesting article. The suggestions you provide are eminently sensible. A well-regulated free market in land is desperately needed in India to enable citizens to fully utilize what for many is one of their most valuable assets.

On a side note, I also really like what you propose to save the dwindling tiger population in India (see here).



February 07, 2008 11:18 PM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Hi Ramesh,

It is certainly possible for progress to change directions. But what is important is to be forward-looking, not backward-looking. Forward movement is a necessary condition for progress. The way to move forward is to develop new technologies to solve the problems of the day, such as global warming. Banning or restricting technologies left, right and center does not represent forward movement. Banning the Tata Nano (or "taxing it like crazy") would be regressive rather than progressive. Just look at the some of the examples you yourself have given. The internal combustion (IC) engine did not displace the steam engine by imposing bans and restrictions. Rather, by technological innovation the IC engine reached a stage where people found it more convenient and effective than the steam engine. In fact, advancements in steam engine technology set the stage for the IC engine. If you want electric motors to replace IC engines, you must invest in technology and develop viable electric motors. Similarly if you want more people to use mass transit, you must invest in mass transit technology and infrastructure. Banning small cars is neither necessary nor sufficient in order to promote electric engines, mass transit, etc. This is not a zero-sum game.

Unfortunately, in India there is a severe lack of infrastructure development - mass transit systems, roads, power plants, water treatment plants, etc. There are many reasons for this. One of the reasons (admittedly not the main one) is the opposition to all large scale infrastructure projects - including mass transit projects - by the anti-progressive traditionalist environmental movement inspired partly by Gandhian traditionalism, which is led by such worthies as Medha Patkar, Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy, etc. (for more about my views on such movements see this). If you are in favor of mass transit (as I am), you should, at the very least, denounce the anti-progressive conservative environmental movement's opposition to large mass transit projects like metro rail systems. By denouncing the Tata Nano, you are barking up the wrong tree.



February 08, 2008 12:05 AM  
Blogger william said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

February 10, 2009 8:45 PM  
Anonymous BIRD OF PARADISE said...

Eco-radicals want smaller cars so more people will be killed in accedents becuase they want fewer people on the earth becuase they have fallen hook,line and sinker for PAUL EHRILCHES bull kaka book THE POPULATION BOMB and becuase their adical granola munching liberal stupidheads

April 08, 2009 12:53 PM  
Blogger VarahaMihira Gopu said...

Environmentalists, and journalists and lawmakers; and hence, the general public, dont often understand basic concepts like scale or economic concepts like wealth or tradeoffs. Idealism is what they preach, economics is what they practice.

Along this line -

September 10, 2014 2:44 AM  

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