The blogosphere is atwitter about Audi’s Super Bowl commercial, with some environmental critics frowning at the funny ad. The commercial shows green police arresting people for all sorts of unsustainable behavior—using plastic bags, batteries, and incandescent light bulbs—while one Audi driver escapes the dragnet because his TDI is “super clean.” The ad tells us that we can be free and sustainable if we drive an Audi.
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I wrote about another Audi commercial that many bicycle advocates took issue with. The issues with that ad were the same: does making a cleaner car give us our freedom and our sustainability too, or do we need to give up our freedom and our way of life to be sustainable? The answer more about good policy than it is amazing technology.
Americans are a peculiar sort of people. Yes, we tamed a continent, put a man on the moon, helped win World War II, and we have the world’s largest military and economy. But we also have the biggest footprint, using more resources and emitting more pollution than any other country. American Exceptionalism holds that our long history of success as a society is tied closely with our individual freedom and this notion was stirred up by Audi during, appropriately, the most American of events, the Super Bowl.
My own experience in the public health arena taught me that freedom was just as important to people as their health. As the Tobacco Tzar I often saw people’s acknowledgment that smoking is bad run straight into their belief that people should have the freedom to decide for themselves what they do.
So “freedom” is one theme at work in the commercial; the other strain is about technology. We Americans tend to think we are smart enough that we can invent our way out of our problems. Perhaps engineers could create methods to reduce carbon in our atmosphere, or maybe we could create huge repositories under the ocean for captured carbon. And we could drive “super clean” cars.
Maybe we can do those things. I hope so. However, in the end, the best way to reduce climate impacts (and create jobs too) is through a comprehensive cap and trade program supplemented by deeply and widely implemented energy efficiencies and a few other policies.
Cap and trade would reduce carbon emissions over time and incentivize innovation and a shift toward cleaner energy. Energy efficiencies create jobs and save lots of money; they can even shield the most vulnerable households from energy prices. In other words, it may turn out to be true that we can fix our problems—with smart policies that gradually but fundamentally rearrange our way of life away from carbon.
So in a way, Audi could be right. We can poke fun at environmental watch dogs, have our uniquely American way of life, and reduce our impact on the planet. But the way to achieving that kind of freedom probably isn’t going to be on four wheels.