Slate’s Anne Applebaum takes the opportunity presented by Indian automaker Tata’s roll-out of its cheap, micromini car, the Nano, to identify what I have long considered to be one of the most vexatious issues confronting the planet – the need to weigh the positive human effects of the rise of developing economies on their citizens against the decidedly negative effects of the consequent increase in consumption in these countries on the environment.
In her essay “The Nano Challenge,” Applebaum succinctly puts it this way: “…The Nano comes with its own moral conundrum: What happens when the laudable, currently fashionable movement to improve the environment comes directly into conflict with the equally laudable, equally fashionable movement to improve the lives of the poor?”
Indeed. The Nano will hit the Indian market costing a very affordable $2,500, making it the world’s cheapest car. It promises to greatly ease transportation challenges in the many rural parts of the country, and no doubt there will be high demand in India for a method of conveyance that gets the driver out of the rain and the wind (motorbikes are currently the subcontinent’s vehicle of choice). Thinking about how much more difficult my American life would be without a car, I can’t argue with the assertion that at least in some basic ways, the Nano is poised to elevate the quality of life for India as a whole.
It’s an obvious point to make that ascendant economies present opportunities for their participants to consume more stuff. When countries start to throw off more GDP and per capita income, their people can then afford cars, TVs, household appliances…things that suck energy, in other words. And so it is with India. Their economy is starting to hum, and now the people can drive. All 1.1 billion of them.
So this presents a problem. All those people driving cars will spew a lot of carbon emissions. The Nano may be small and promise 50 miles to the gallon, but that’s an awful lot of emissions, no matter what the fuel efficiency. And the country is only getting bigger – it’s expected to have more people than China by 2050 – and every little Indian baby born is one more tiny, adorable, carbon footprint walking the Earth. (Speaking of China, the world’s present most populous nation is in talks to bring the Nano to its own people. Hooray.) So while it’s great that the Indian people are getting an affordable tool that improves their daily lives, they’re getting it at the cost of a tremendous amount of environmental stress on their own ecosystem and, eventually, everyone else’s.
Short of a well-designed public transportation system, which seems unlikely in virtually any large country as it requires an efficient bureaucracy and political will, this is probably something the world will be seeing a lot more of – nations coming up with ways to affordably improve their standard of living, with these ways coming at a significant environmental cost. There will, understandably, be a lot of hand-wringing among inveterate greenies like myself, but this is the very definition of an uphill battle. When a large market creates a need, and somebody meets the need cheaply, standing in the way of that demand dynamic is like trying to hold back a tsunami with a trash can lid.
Should we resignedly be satisfied with the fact that the emerging economies of the world are meeting their transportation needs from Day One with an emphasis on small, fuel-efficient cars, and look at them as a sort of laboratory producing possible solutions for our own transportation challenges? Or is there no other responsible option than to sound the alarm with the conviction that cars=sprawl=bye bye, Sunderbans?