The tortoise and the hummer (and the nano!)

hummer_vs_nanoToday, the Tata Nano (Wikipedia entry), the first “people’s car” of the 21st century, rolled out of a dealership in Mumbai, hitting the streets at 56 miles per gallon (and 1300 lbs; its a 4 passenger vehicle!). Compare this with the pinnacle of US auto ingenuity, the Hummer, a 6 passenger vehicle built for one, weighing in at 6600 lbs and 10 miles per gallon.

When the Nano was first announced, as a cheap car that “anyone” could afford, many Environmentalists saw this as the end of the world– the cat was out of the bag- now everyone would be driving cars and causing global warming! And I’ll have to admit that my knee-jerk reaction was the same. As an environmental science professor deeply concerned with global warming and its primary cause, the combustion of fossil fuels, this just seemed another way to accelerate the heating of our planet.

But then, I thought about it. And now, I’m ready to celebrate the arrival of the Nano. First of all, I love having a car (most of the time- except when parking it!)- so how could I reasonably begrudge someone else from having one? I should be congratulating people for having the chance to own their first car!

And will stopping people from driving a tiny, inexpensive, and fuel-efficient car solve global warming? I think not. The problem here is not about preventing people with small amounts of capital from having the opportunity to burn fossil fuels. It is about finding and enabling alternative energies and means to help everyone go about their business without burning carbon. And maybe by actually being in the same boat (or car actually!), we humans will be driven to work together better to solve global warming (pun intended).

Regardless, Indians are now driving Nanos and Americans are driving Hummers. And down the line, I suspect the cars Americans drive are going to look a lot more like Nanos than the other way around. Either way, when it comes time to make international deals to limit carbon emissions and solve global warming, we really are all in the same boat, whether it be a Nano or a Hummer. And if such deals never come to pass, or if technology fails to find alternatives, at least us Americans will not be the only ones who got to enjoy burning petroleum before it was all burned away, and with it, the climate system as we have known it.

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