Guest Column

It ain’t easy being green: Volkswagen is not alone

November 13, 2015
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Here’s what I would ideally like my car to do: drive me in comfort, style and power wherever I wish to go, use very little fossil fuel, emit almost no climate-changing carbon dioxide and, finally, spew none of the toxic nitrogen dioxide gases that are known to shorten the lifespan of humans.

No one backs their car out of the driveway thinking today will be the day they add enough poisonous gases into the air to finally choke the life out of a hundred or so neighbors. Thanks to companies like Volkswagen, many car owners had years of feeling like they were, in fact, part of the solution to climate change and air pollution because they had made a conscious, ethical choice to “drive green.”

The high performance of the Volkswagen diesel was matched only by the high-mindedness of its ad campaign. Consumers were reassured that performance came at no real cost to the environment. Great miles per gallon, low emissions and a nice look — well, you can understand why Volkswagen diesels became the darlings of the Northeast and Northwest, where people really do seem to care about such things (see sales of Prius).

Which is one reason why, when it all came crashing down a few months ago, we were left to read editorials that had words like “heartbroken” in their titles. People believedin Volkswagen, people lovedtheir diesels, and the sense of betrayal among owners (and even some non-owners who coveted their neighbors’ cars) was deep, devastating and, well, heartbreaking.

Not unlike, apparently, finding out your beloved partner, who professed your same progressive passions and ideals, environmental commitments and visions, had been cheating on you all along with a Hummer-driving oil executive.

From the Corvair to ignition-switch “problems,” there was certainly outrage and recrimination over General Motors’ issues, but there just doesn’t seem to be the same sense of broken trust.

I suspect that is because GM never really has positioned itself as the savior of anything. It has rarely gone out of its way to promise much besides transportation. While we’d prefer not to die in their vehicles, GM’s message has always been a pretty clear caveat emptor: Buyer beware.

Expectations of GM are simply not as high as they are of those sophisticated Europeans who promised sleek, safe, deftly engineered driving machines that wouldn’t hurt a moth at 90 miles per hour.

As Volkswagen conspired to do at least three awful, unethical, indefensible things — cheat the emissions test, lie to regulators and defraud consumers — it was behaving worse than GM because of the sheer level of hypocrisy.

And as it turns out, VW was not alone. Other car companies — especially European — are complicit in similar practices. We consumers of these engineering marvels might be complicit too, duped by our strong desire that technology fix our less-than-environmentally friendly transportation habits. The Germans! The Japanese! The Americans! They will get us home with the sky still blue.

Alas, according to diesel expert John Vidal, carmakers “want to increase fuel economy, but they must also reduce carbon dioxide emissions to avoid global warming and clean up the nitrogen dioxide exhaust gases that poison people. It is chemically nearly impossible to do it all. Improve one and you will probably make another worse … .”

Volkswagen apologized — for getting caught, one suspects — after lying and cheating for many months when the much-maligned EPA finally figured out exactly what source code defeated the emissions tests. It might have, however feebly, pointed to the “impossible” standards set by Americans to keep our air relatively clean and said, “Look, this is what you get when you don’t really want to face the radical changes in energy, transportation and consumption habits that will be necessary to stem the sources of environmental degradation.”

Business and industry might yet prove to be the institutions that save us from ourselves by realizing which goods and services will coincide with our long-term interests. In the meantime, I expect this Volkswagen scandal will be only one of many such similar cases, given our desire for a miracle cure. To carry on, Volkswagen will need to regain our trust and find ways to earn our confidence again.

But perhaps those of us who so desperately want to “buy green” ought also start being a little less trusting of our own “will to believe.”

Michael DeWilde is a professor of philosophy and director of the Koeze Business Ethics Initiative at Grand Valley State University.

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