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.