Viewing the World Through Green-Colored Glasses

August 2, 2009

In the novel, The Wizard of Oz, everyone was required to don a pair of green tinted glasses before entering Emerald City.

“I am the Guardian of the Gates, and since you demand to see the Great Oz I must take you to his Palace. But first you must put on the spectacles”…. He opened the big box, and Dorothy saw that it was filled with spectacles of every size and shape. All of them had green glasses in them. The Guardian of the Gates found a pair that would just fit Dorothy and put them over her eyes. There were two golden bands fastened to them that passed around the back of her head, where they were locked together by a little key that was at the end of a chain the Guardian of the Gates wore around his neck. When they were on, Dorothy could not take them off had she wished, but of course she did not wish to be blinded by the glare of the Emerald City, so she said nothing.
– L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

I wonder whether some of our federal government’s green initiatives aren’t like those green glasses visitors were required to wear inside the Emerald City.

One of our work trucks qualifies for what has turned out to be the most popular section of the stimulus package, Cash for Clunkers. I would hardly call the shiny white one-ton pickup which carries air conditioning units and furnaces anywhere and everywhere we ask it to go a clunker. Still the $4,500 credit towards a new vehicle would be far more than we could get for the truck if we sold it. Should we turn it in?

I hesitated to participate in this program, in part, because of my irrational attachment to the cars and trucks I have driven for any length of time. It would make me sad to turn in this truck, which has and continues to serve us so faithfully, to be destroyed. In her article “U-Turn in Cash for Clunkers Causing Whiplash” for The New York Times (August 2, 2009), reporter Katharine Q. Seelye described what happens to the vehicles people turn in. “Nick Clites… took a reporter through the process as he prepped a 1988 BMW 535iS, with 214,000 miles on the odometer, for its death. He drained the oil, then donned a silky blue protective suit, goggles and gloves and poured a sodium silicate solution into the engine. He revved the car, and within a few seconds, the solution hardened, the engine seized up and was kaput. Wreckers were called to pick up the car, remove the spoiled engine and crush the car.”

Irrational attachments aside, I began to question the environmental wisdom of destroying so-called clunkers, many of which may still have quite a few years of life and service left in them. For each car that’s reduced to salvage, a manufacturer gets to sell a brand new car. Would the total amount of extra gas that clunker would have used before it died a natural death (compared to the gas used by a new vehicle with better mileage) been anywhere near as much as the amount of energy expended and greenhouse gases release in the mining and transporting of the resources required to build the car, the manufacturing of the car itself, and the transport of that car to its point of sale? I doubt it.

Furthermore, people who owe nothing on the clunkers they are turning in now find themselves deep in debt on their new cars. Some of these people may have been able to purchased a used car for cash or for a much smaller loan but the temptation to purchase a new car or otherwise lose the ‘free money’ being offered for their clunker was too great to resist. The sad irony in all of this is that dealers may have already accepted more clunkers than the funds allocated by the government will cover. To protect themselves, many dealers have had buyers of new cars under the program sign contracts stating that if the government does not come through with the money for the clunker, the buyer will pay the difference. Want your clunker back? It’s too late. The sodium silicate will have already done its job. You now owe the dealer another $3,500 to $4,500. Have we gone from sub-prime mortgages to sub-prime auto loans?

I am troubled in the same way by the $1,500 tax credit being offered for the purchase an installation of high energy air conditioning systems. To qualify for this credit, the new cooling system must have a SEER rating of 16. To achieve this, the homeowner is not looking at simply replacing one piece of equipment — maybe one which is leaking refrigerant or has locked up or gone to ground and cannot be repaired. No, to qualify for the tax credit, the homeowner will need to replace the entire system – the condensing unit, the evaporator coil, and the furnace – as a two stage furnace is required to achieve the minimum SEER. A new plenum will probably be required as well. There is no doubt that the high efficiency system will use far less energy than the system being replaced. But if all or even some of the equipment being discarded was still functioning properly at the time it was disposed of, will with the energy savings achieved by operating the new system ever make up for the energy that was used to mine the metals, manufacturer the new equipment, and transport it to its point of sale?

Will the earth and its atmosphere benefit in the long run from the auto rebates and ac tax credits? There’s no question the manufacturers and dealers will. Maybe the green they’re seeing isn’t the green of mother earth but the green of cold cash.

Towards the end of The Wizard of Oz , the wizard himself tells Dorothy, “I ordered them to build this City, and my Palace and… then I thought, as the country was so green and beautiful, I would call it the Emerald City; and to make the name fit better I put green spectacles on all the people, so that everything they saw was green.”

“But isn’t everything here green?” asked Dorothy.

“No more than in any other city,” replied Oz; “but when you wear green spectacles, why of course everything you see looks green to you.”