A few years ago I was jogging along when I came upon a fine fog hovering over the sidewalk. The idiot neighbor was busy spraying his lawn with some kind of carcinogenic chemical to make it green. Good for him. But my lungs bore the brunt of it. Economists refer to that as an externality. An externality is any cost to a behavior or activity or mode of production that you do not have to bear yourself: you can download it onto others (such as the lungs of an unsuspecting jogger).
Externalities are sometimes illegal as in the corporation dumping toxic green sludge into the town’s water supply at night. Other times, as with Mr. Wants-a-green-lawn-at-the-cost-of-my-lungs, they are legal. But whether or not city council okays the dumping of the sludge or the spraying of the lawn, externalities are usually immoral. Some externalities may be morally permissible because they are trivial or the benefits far outweigh the deficits for the same people who bear the externality, but that is typically not the case.
With that in mind, consider Ron Kilano, columnist with “Motor Trend”, as he compare the BMW M3 with the Volkswagen GTI. If you are not a fan of automotive journalism, I ask you to wade through the paragraph to get the helpful contenxt for the punchline in the final sentence:
In the dual-clutch GTI, it delivers 0-60 in 5.9 seconds, The dual-clutch M3, in comparison, puts down 4.1, 14/20, and 11.6. But the 4.0-liter M3 is worlds quicker, you say. Sure, but the wedgy Vee-Dub is no slouch, and there isn’t an editor on this staff who doesn’t resemble the Chesire Cat when one appears on the sign-out sheet. Moreover, are a couple seconds worth a 4.7-ton bump in annual carbon footprint? (Kilno, “two a t,” Motor Trend (Nov. 2010), 34, emphasis added)
Now that is the kind of question an automotive journalist like Mr. Kilno should not be asking. Think about it. Your desire to get to 60 mph from the stop light 1.8 seconds quicker means that you put an additional 4.7 tons of carbon into the atmosphere a year. Classic externality. You bloody well sure don’t bear the cost of that. And it sure isn’t trivial as a consensus of climatologists has repeatedly warned us. Estimates are that, among other things, there could be a billion climate refugees within the next several decades. And getting to 60 mph 1.8 seconds quicker is not a sufficient moral justification for that 4.7 ton contribution to the problem.
So should we all be driving Volkswagen GTIs? If only that were so. But do you really need to get to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds? That’s still plenty fast and the fuel economy still isn’t exactly stellar. (In fact, the GTI is only moderately more fuel effficient than a Ford Model T!) Perhaps we should really all behind the wheel of the horrendous 2 cylinder Nano made by the Indian car company Tata. After all, who says you ever need to get to 60?
Of course once we start on this course of reasoning it is difficult to stop. Can we really justify a Tata over a scooter? (At least a Vespa has more coolness factor darting around Sicily than a Tata will ever have weaving through New Delhi.) But as efficient as a scooter is, it still has its own externalities. Can we really justify a scooter over a plain old bike?
Now things are getting out of control. I’m clearly being unreasonable. If I reexamine the reasons we need to drive our BMWs and eat our grapes flown in from Chile, and keep our houses warmed (and cooled) at 70 degrees, I will realize that these are morally sufficient justifications for these externalities. Sure, I could choose to focus on those poor folk who bear the brunt of our daily choices, but as my neighbor would no doubt remind me, the grass is greener on the other side.