Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cars

I drove to a meeting today, and since I don't have a car, I had to borrow one. I asked around and tried to make arrangements. Before long, I realized that there might only be one car available for borrowing: an old Toyota Land Cruiser with a cracked muffler.

The meeting was in a big building in a suburban office park with a lot, so the chances that anyone would notice my transportation situation were pretty slim. But, even so, the thought of driving to a meeting about responsible consumption in a big, loud, smoky SUV had me feeling a little uncomfortable.

Luckily it turned out that Mom was able to lend me her delivery van. It's covered with yellow magnets reminding everyone that it belongs to Wild Thyme Flowers, and it certainly doesn't blow anyone away with its fuel efficiency, but it let me drive to the meeting feeling acceptably unhypocritical.

...

I've never had any affinity for big or fast or powerful cars. Eating food that's shipped halfway around the world I get. Blasting air conditioning I get. Flying around in planes everywhere I get. Taking long showers I get. Those things are tempting. Cars? Not at all. Dave Chappelle has presented quite a reasonable argument telling me why I should be tempted, but, apparently, I'm a statistical outlier on this one.

Maybe that's why I'm having such a strange and conflicted reaction to the fact that GM just unveiled a Green Hummer.

Should we, as concerned consumers, commend GM? Should we consider supporting them next time we buy a vehicle? Should an upgrade from 10 to 20 miles per gallon be meaningful to us? Should we care that the Green Hummer will be able to run on ethanol? Is a Green Hummer an important step in the direction of legitimately clean cars? Does this announcement show that GM is committing to leading the world in a sustainable direction?

Hmmm...

I guess this might sound ridiculous coming from someone whose idea of sexy transportation is the IBOT, but I think I'm ready to applaud GM for this move. It's small, but it's a real step. It's people wanting to feel a little bit greener, and it's GM responding to what those people want.

That's hopeful, and that's empowering. It's also a powerful reminder that we should ask GM and every other big company for much much more.

...

PS: I've owned two cars. Both old. Both pretty ratty. One, a Chevy Corsica we called the Silver Bullet, had a brief but successful film career. It plays a crucial supporting role in American Dream, a short film by the Hawkins Brothers. Fourth movie from the top.

5 comments:

Sarah said...

Do you really think a "green" hummer is empowering? What about big corporations using green just to sell more junk that no one needs that destroys our planet? What about calling products "green" so consumers don't have to think seriously about their consumption patterns and can assuage their guilt without altering their lifestyle? There is nothing green about a hummer. It represents so much that is wrong with this country and this world and boosting it's fuel efficiency to 20mph and calling it "green" is just a further example of that.

Jake de Grazia said...

I agree that the hummer itself is not green at all. It is something for which there is absolutely zero NEED and thus a prime candidate for elimination from the world.

The reality is that people want it.

The fact that people want world-damaging things that are unanimously acknowledged to be unnecessary (Hummers) is, in my opinion, an education* problem. A huge education problem, no doubt, and a problem we should all (GM included) be working to solve.

What I think is empowering is the fact that the creation of a "Green Hummer" is GM's RESPONSE to what its customers have demanded.

Hummer customers certainly haven't demanded enough, but that's due to their ignorance and stubbornness and lack of awareness. The second the customers, having decided they want 50 mpg cars or cars made of bamboo, make that clear to GM, GM will build them what they want.

I just think it's important to remember (and exciting) that we can communicate to these companies what we want and how to change, and they'll do what we want.

*I mean education in a broad sense here, not just classroom education.

jlp said...

I'm fairly new to this stuff so I'm sure I'm not saying anything new but this discussion of green-labeling for incremental improvement really reminds me of that first story from Freakonomics about incentives.

A couple of economists in Israel learned of a common child care dilemma in which parents would frequently pick up their children late. The economists offered a possible solution -- fine parents a modest amount for being late. What they found when testing this solution is that parents would arrive late with even greater frequency. The lesson? People are able to put a dollar value on their social commitments. It turned out that the fine simply allowed parents to buy a clean conscience.

Could this notion apply to the over application of green-labeling too? Could consumers, in aggregate, end up doing even greater harm to the environment by consuming more simply because they feel they've paid their due by buying products with green labels?

I think it's safe to say that a vehicle with as little utility as a Hummer drinking 20mpg is not objectively green, even if it does represent a 2-fold improvement. I say this falls under the over application of green-labeling.

Now that I think of it, I'm sure this notion has been discussed plenty in carbon offset circles.

Jake de Grazia said...

Buying a clean conscience. You're absolutely right. That's a worry.

Reading what you wrote and thinking back on that Freakonomics reminds me once again that this product comparison website we're building is just one tiny part of the solution. We really should find a way to communicate to our users that they should do a lot more than just buy one brand of laundry detergent over another.

At the same time, we should always keep in mind that even if we do attract millions of people to a totally amazing website and help them buy toward a more perfect market, our work is far from done. There's so much good work to be done for this world, and just because we've made a contribution doesn't mean we do too much patting ourselves on the back. We need to get right back to work and make more and more and more positive change.

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