TCS Daily


Isn't This What You Want?

By Kenneth Green - January 24, 2008 12:00 AM

Tata, India's largest vehicle manufacturer, has decided to bring mobility to the masses, introducing an Indian-style "people's car," a petite rear-engine car called the Nano that gets 50 miles to the gallon, and will sell for the amazingly low price of $2,500. Until recently such an innovation would have been met with humanist hosannas, by people who think development is a positive thing. After all, in the past, it was a near-universal goal to help people in developing countries have access to the same quality-of-life builders as people do in developed countries: a healthy diet, affordable electricity, heating and cooling systems, sanitation systems, and yes, the unparalleled mobility of personal vehicle ownership. The United Nations Human Development Report was launched in 1990 to "[put] people back at the center of the development process in terms of economic debate, policy and advocacy....Bringing about development of the people, by the people, and for the people, and emphasizing that the goals of development are choices and freedoms.

As the song would say, that was then, and this is now. Reaction to the announcement of the Nano - which clearly represents more choice and more freedom for the people of India - has been characterized by revulsion among the green crowd. Chief U.N. climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri, who shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize, says "I am having nightmares" about the Nano. Jamie Leather, a transport specialist with the Asian Development Bank is skipping straight to gridlock, worrying that traffic jams and congestion are next. "It's a major concern," she says. Columnist Thomas Friedman sternly lectures India's 1.35 million people: "No, No, No, Don't Follow Us." In an anti-Nano column, Friedman quotes Sunita Narain, the Director of New Delhi's Center for Science and Environment as saying, "India can't ban a $2,500 car, but it can tax it like crazy until it has a mass transit system that can give people another cheap mobility option." Asia Society author Mira Kamdar proclaims, "If millions of Indians and Chinese get to have their own cars, the planet is doomed." Her answer is, basically, let them ride buses and bikes.

Let's take a deep breath. India has over a billion people, a quarter of which live below the poverty line, according to the CIA world fact book. The per-capita gross domestic product (a reflection of individual wealth) is about 10% of ours. These people need all the help they can get in order to move their people to work. Tata says they expect to sell 250,000 Nanos a year. At that rate, it will take 20 years to have as many Nanos on the road in all of India as there are cars (of any kind!) in Los Angeles County, presuming none of them wear out. This is not the stuff of traffic jams, smog-alerts, or climate-panic. But it is the stuff that reveals the true sentiments of environmentalists.

Green crusaders like to pretend that they are not forcing us to choose between having a healthy environment or a healthy economy. But it's clear from the reaction to the Nano that this is exactly what they are offering. Rather than greeting a high-mileage compact car with enthusiasm and faith in the ability of India's people to use them wisely, environmentalist reaction is akin to what Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of the Population Bomb, said about the prospect of free, unlimited energy in the days of the cold-fusion hoax, that it would be like "giving a machine gun to an idiot child." Too many greens view progress as threat, and their answer is always the forced choice: either you can have environmental protection as they define it (mass transit, dense urban living, low-energy lifestyles) or you can have your own car. You can't have both.

The Nano, in theory, is the kind of car that greens say they want all of us to drive - a high mileage compact - but the prospect of actually having one on the market so others can have our ideal vehicle repels them, and their true agenda "tax people into mass transit" becomes clear. As long as this is the choice they are offering, environment or development, greens are doomed to failure. Only by embracing the power of markets to both fuel human development, and generate wealth to allow for environmental protection are we going manage to avoid environmental degradation as humans will - and must - seek ever higher quality of life, as millions of years of evolutionary selection have shaped them to do.

Kenneth P. Green is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute


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