People interested in a beautiful and abundant human future need to acknowledge the potential of technology. Part of the reason why environmentalists have not developed a bigger audience over the decades since Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” in 1962 is our reflexive demonization of machinery. If we are “competing for hearts and minds” as the cliche goes, then we need to endorse technological solutions that our audience will find as compelling as the automatic transmission and the Jacuzzi bathtub.
Machines make us more powerful, mobile and comfortable. Their speed and momentum can also aggravate the damage done by our mistakes. Most of us have marveled at one time or another at the shocking results of a minor automobile accident. The fender-bender that was barely felt in the driver’s seat distorted sheet metal and shattered glass. Those of us who drive tractors and bulldozers usually have a story of when we turned the machine a little too quickly and tore a hole in the dam of our pond or destroyed a barn door. We travel 550 miles per hour in airliners that weigh almost a million pounds. There’s bound to be some collateral damage. With great power comes great potential – for good or ill.
The destructive potential of our technology doesn’t prevent us from feeling the exhilaration of rapid acceleration. The human manias for speed and mobility have contributed generously to the destructive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Still, it doesn’t do us any good to deny the joys of horsepower.
My teenage son and I thrilled to the sound of Audi’s R10 racecars rumbling by on my TV screen, dominating the pack at Le Mans, Laguna Seca, and Sebring beginning back in 2006. Audi’s diesel-powered cars contributed a new baritone note to the chorus of tenors in sports-car racing. The revolutionary new diesels were about 10 percent more fuel-efficient than the competitors, the equivalent of a 30-lap advantage in endurance races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And beginning in 2008 they burned bio-diesel brewed from food waste, a very low-sulfur diesel fuel that is said to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by as much as 90 percent when compared with traditional diesel fuels. Audi was virtually unbeatable on the racetrack after introducing the diesel power plants and race organizers bent over backwards to try to diminish the Audi advantage by reducing the capacity of fuel tanks and mandating pit stops. In other words, the car was a leader both environmentally and on the racetrack. Best of all, the racecar’s reputation has helped make fuel efficient Audis sexy. Teams in a 2008 fuel-efficiency marathon drove the sporty Audi A4 diesel more than 1,000 miles between Basel and Vienna at highway speeds getting over 60 miles per gallon, average! Four teams got better than 68 miles per gallon in conventional Audis off the dealer’s lot.
Is automobile racing environmentally responsible? That’s a hard question to answer. Worldwide, it probably does a lot less harm than unnecessary trips to the grocery store. Racing technology probably helps make passenger cars more efficient. On the other hand, racing extols speed and deifies horsepower.
In any event, I don’t think human beings are going to end our love affair with powerful, nimble transportation machines. We love fine contraptions. That’s human nature. Therefore, I think environmentalists should strive to understand the joy experienced by the race fan, the motorcyclist and the snowmobiler, and we should use that understanding to stimulate the human imagination in ways that benefit the planet.