Commentary

A few weeks ago, a machine that will save tens of thousands of lives every year – many of them young children – officially went on sale in India, beginning a journey that promises to improve the living standard of millions of families in one of the world’s most impoverished nations.

And yet, many environmentalists who profess to be on a mission to save mankind are condemning this new device as an “environmental disaster” they would like to wish out of existence. Chief U.N. climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri, who shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize, has said "I am having nightmares" about it. Many other groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth also lament its debut.

What is this contraption that offers so much hope yet is so terrifying to some?

The Tata Nano, a tiny car with carbon-dioxide emissions of just 100 g/km and average fuel economy of 55 mpg (4.3 L/100 km).

Priced at $2,500, it is the world’s cheapest car and designed specifically to give South Asia’s low-income families a safer, all-weather alternative to a motorcycle or scooter, currently the only “family car” millions can afford.

If you have ever seen a family of four or five or six, weaving through India’s chaotic traffic on a scooter, with infants and toddlers perched on the handlebars or hanging onto mom and dad for dear life, you can understand the momentous achievement the Nano represents.

India has the highest traffic-death rate in the world, exceeding 100,000 fatalities and more than 2 million serious injuries annually. That’s a worse toll than India suffers from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, combined. A large percentage of these traffic deaths are motorcyclists who are so vulnerable in India’s undisciplined traffic.

Ask any Indian parent why they would take such safety risks, and they will say they would prefer to take their children to school in a car, but a motorbike is the only transportation they can afford.

Starting now, the Nano offers a safe, affordable alternative. Sales bookings began April 9, and demand is expected to far exceed supply.

It is exactly this popularity that critics from green groups – 100% of whom we can assume do not have to drive their children to school on a scooter – fear. They are afraid the Nano will become so popular it will spark an industrial revolution, such as Henry Ford’s Model T did in the U.S.

In other words, demand for the Nano will soar; leading to more factories being built, creating more jobs, which in turn will create more demand for cars, accelerating India’s production of greenhouse gases. The Nano will create progress. And gosh, that will be terrible.

Unfortunately, this contemptible viewpoint, spewed from comfortable middle-class lodgings in the U.S. and Western Europe, has not received the heaping dose of ridicule it deserves. In the worst kind of cultural elitism imaginable, environmentalists argue that in their noble war on global warming, tens of thousands of traffic deaths annually in the developing world are acceptable casualties.

This is an utterly unacceptable position to take, no matter what. The birth of the Nano is an historic event that needs to be celebrated, and environmentalists need to reevaluate their rhetoric and game plan.

Otherwise, the world soon may decide the cure for global climate change is worse than the disease.

dwinter@wardsauto.com