RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Low Roads Can Lead to Good Places

Last week, my Honda Insight hybrid celebrated two milestones: six years old and 80,000 miles. Its lifetime MPG has been 57.8 miles.

We celebrated the event with a real blow-out. I mean that a tire blew out on a windy blacktop road. And then, we celebrated some more with a new set of tires. A small price to pay. When I got the car, I was told the 80K mark would mean buying a new set of batteries -- about $2,500 worth -- but Honda has extended the estimated battery life to 150,000 miles.

Back in 2001, gas was about $1.50 a gallon and there was no tax credit for hybrids. I bought the car because, I reasoned, I could take the risk. Owning a hybrid, I could encourage other people to do the same thing and encourage car makers to figure out how to make better cars, more efficient. It was the right thing, ethically speaking, to do.

And there was a bonus: The car could make me an environmental snob.

Now, several friends have traded their old heaps in for new hybrids, mostly Priuses, and the manufacturers are, indeed, advertising fuel efficiency in their sales materials for all cars. But before I get too smug, I remind myself that no one has ever complimented my ethical motives when they talk about my car. Instead, they ask how much money I've saved. In other words, purchasers aren't making decisions based on virtue.

With fuel costs pushing past $3 per gallon, efficiency has become an environmental motivator. Efficiency, measured in dollars, has made it less eccentric to do the right thing. But, ironically, that is fueling a split in the environmental community.

While environmentalists have for long years argued that their decision to go green was based on moral and ethical arguments, the economic argument said that environmentalism didn't make sense.

This argument that economics and environmentalism were at odds has been applied to every kind of environmental effort. Coal mine owners argued that it cost too much to fix the land after strip mining and that it was more efficient to leave it bare. Wood cutters argued that it cost too much to re-plant the forests. Electric companies argued that it's too expensive to put scrubbers on smokestacks.

Now the arguments are changing. One industry after another realizes that environmentalism makes economic sense. They're putting skylights in plants to let the sunshine provide light and they're capturing heat from equipment to pump through the furnaces. They're adding solar power and windmills and using light bulbs that take less power. They're replanting forests.

The planet counts it the same whether the waste is reduced at Wal-Mart or at the corner store. It doesn't mean that you have to shop at Wal-Mart. This is about saving the planet.

Some environmentalists disagree. They argue that saving the planet has something to do with motives. If you're making a profit by doing the right thing, they say, you're doing it wrong.

There is no doubt that, if you can take the risk, it's wonderful to tool along on the moral high road. Early adopters set examples and create good will for new ideas. At the same time, most Americans make decisions based on economics. Whether it's money, bushels, milliseconds, home runs, or acres, we like to add them up. We like to keep score.

One idea that has drawn ridicule from environmental moralists is carbon trading. In carbon trading, a corporation that pollutes by putting carbon dioxide into the air can buy credits from someone that absorbs carbon from the air. So a utility plant can buy credits from a forest owner or a farmer. This has occasionally been compared to selling pardons for sinning.

There's an element of truth in that comparison. As the vision of carbon-trading has developed, we imagine that drivers of SUVs or owners of oversized houses will be able to pay something to grannys that don't travel. This means, the old-school environmentalists argue, that the rich can continue to be wasteful and not change their ways as long as they can pay for it.

But let's imagine this carbon-trading industry from the planet's perspective. Poor countries that have nothing to sell except rain forest might collect enough from polluters to keep their forests. Developers might find that the cost of turning farmland into subdivisions is too high and turn their sights to re-habbing urban buildings. The price of sinning -- owning the SUV or ridiculous house -- might become high enough that owners downsize.

And what if governments were charged a carbon tax for building new roads without bike lanes, or not building light rail systems, or for waging war?

Ever wonder how much carbon a fighter jet puts into the air?

Many proposals, mostly coming from Europe, are being kicked around, and if there is a final scheme it will probably not meet everyone's standards. It may not give credit for eating local, shopping with our neighbors or putting in solar panels. At the same time, it could give us a way to count the carbon costs and savings of our culture. With or without the ethical snobbery, we need to give it a good hard look.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2007

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