Tiny Car, Tough Questions

If you haven’t done so already, meet the Nano, possibly the most significant new car of the decade: Small, cute and snub-nosed, it fits four people and a duffel bag, has a single windshield wiper, travels at 65 mph — and it’s all yours for the princely sum of $2,500, roughly the same price as the DVD system in your neighbor’s Lexus and about half the price of the cheapest cars on the market.

Even better, at least for the philosophically minded, 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?

By its very existence, the Nano embodies this dilemma. Though the Indian-made car will remain out of reach for the poorest, it’s an obvious boon for those Indians just entering the middle class, and not only as a convenience. As Indians become more mobile, jobs will become more flexible, trade and commerce easier, growth even faster. “I hope this changes the way people travel in rural India,” the manufacturer declared as the car was unveiled at the Auto Expo in New Delhi. “We are a country of a billion, and most are denied connectivity.”

But if all goes according to plan, 250,000 Nanos will be manufactured in the car’s first year of production, and production will rise rapidly as factories are opened in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. Though the Nano uses less gasoline than many larger cars, the enormous potential numbers could mean an equally enormous environmental impact. Since it will be a long time before Nano drivers are able to afford the $20,000-plus hybrids now on the market, let alone a Honda FCX Clarity — the experimental hydrogen car, thought to be worth some $10 million apiece — that means an exponential rise in carbon emissions as well as other kinds of pollutants. The top U.N. climate scientist, Indian economist Rajendra Pachauri — chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore — has said that he is already “having nightmares” about precisely this scenario.

What’s true of cars is true of many other products: There is still a vast disparity between the world of the cheap and mass-produced and the world of the exclusive and green. Hershey bars can be purchased online, in bulk, for 52 cents apiece; a 1.5-ounce organic granola bar (containing organic Goji berries, agave nectar and Himalayan salt) will set you back $4.49. If you think that’s a silly example (okay, it is), think about the organic produce available in many supermarkets, at higher prices. You may feel virtuous when you pay for it — I know I do — but it’s not going to feed the masses.

What does feed the masses, at least at the moment, is no secret: high-tech farming, chemical fertilizers, genetically engineered crops. Modern means of communication and transport — cars, telephones, computers — will eventually make the poor richer, too. Though there are many fans of “environmentally sustainable development” who believe we can have less poverty, less pollution and lower carbon emissions at the same time, that’s not happening in the real world, as the unveiling of the Nano well demonstrates.

I’m not making an ideological argument here or manufacturing an excuse for American super-consumers, with our Hummers and McMansions. I’m not offering a proper answer to the puzzle proffered above either, unfortunately, but just stating the rarely acknowledged facts: Probably there should be an emissions-free car available for $2,500 (or an organic granola bar for 52 cents), but, at the moment, there isn’t. There must be a way to reconcile mass car ownership with global warming, but, at the moment, we haven’t found it. There is no profound reason that good environmental policies have to come into conflict with economic growth, but they often do. In many countries, the desire not to be poor is stronger than the desire to breathe clean air. Look at photographs of Beijing’s smog if you don’t believe me.

Maybe technology will save us. But in the meantime, the global conversation about climate change, environmental conservation and fossil fuel consumption would become infinitely more interesting if the participants, particularly the ones dressed in organic haute couture, forthrightly acknowledged the real trade-offs. At the recent Bali conference on climate change, there was some talk of compensating developing countries for preserving their forests, as well as of subsidies for clean technology. If, at the next conference, delegates focus even a few minutes of their attention on the millions of Nano cars that will take to the roads in India and elsewhere over the next few years, we’ll know they’re really serious.

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