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James Dechant | Thursday, February 15, 2007

Change is not easy, but, as David Bowie sang, you’ve got to turn and face the strain. I don’t really know what that means, but I intend to use it as a starting point to talk about environmental change, car manufacturers and the power of the consumer.Earlier this year, the Environment Commissioner of the European Commission, Stavros Dimas, endorsed mandatory standards for auto manufacturers aimed at reducing cars’ carbon dioxide output. The new standards would require the average car produced by a company – allowing specific models to be above or below the standard – to emit only 120 grams of CO2 per kilometer by the year 2012. Mr. Dimas, however, drives a Mercedes – inherited from his predecessor, admittedly – that pumps out over 270 grams per kilometer. People laughed at his hypocrisy, and the motor industry balked at such ridiculous reforms.Meanwhile, the majority of society continued their lives as usual. People drove instead of walked, left their lights on and ignored recycling bins. Changing for the greener sounds like a good idea, but we neglect our responsibility to change ourselves.Pollution is a problem, and we are right to push politicians to enforce more stringent standards. Every time policymakers start to create regulations and goals, they butt heads with industries that become recalcitrant at any mention of boundary or limit to their capital pursuits. When this happens, the public inevitably shakes its head and thinks the matter is out of its hands.But it’s not. In our capital society, industry and the public are inseparable. The automobile industry, for example, does not exist as a separate entity apart from the government or outside the influence of the public. We control it and we can affect its course. We prefer to set up the manufacturer as a scapegoat for societal greed. And sure, the industries deserve blame for their unwillingness to change. But the objections of auto manufacturers are often valid: if they have to increase engine efficiency, car prices may rise. This would mean fewer cars sold, and in turn those high-end car manufacturers could be forced to cut jobs. In that case, the auto manufacturers reflect the sad truth about us: we are afraid to change, too lazy to mend our ways and too greedy to give up what we want. If we could change, we would embrace hybrids and other technologies, and “luxury cars” would become a thing of the past.We say we want change, but how many people are trading in their BMWs for a Focus or Prius? The technology needed to take the first steps already exists (for urban dwellers, the bicycle has been around for over a century), but we are unwilling to embrace it. Instead, we wait for carmakers to drop off free electric cars in our driveways. When this doesn’t happen, we accuse our government of giving them too much slack.We have, in effect, created a nice little proxy war between our governments and the industries. They spar over the specifics, one side representing our hypocrisy and the other our greed. During this whole masquerade, we can sit back comfortably and wait for the regulations that will never come. We feel no obligation to change our ways, and we continue to pump carbon into our air.But if we could realize that we are the deciding factor in progress – and by we, I mean not just America or Europe, but the entire globe – then we would realize our obligation to work for change. And we can do a lot.First, our knowledge compels us to exercise our power as consumers by making wise, conscious decisions with the products we use, the companies we buy from, and the manner of living we choose. We are social creatures, and a change that will dramatically affect the entire world must come from across the board, not just from the words of our political leaders or the reluctant consent of our economical figureheads.Second, we must demand that our politicians avoid hypocrisy in their demands of the industry – auto, energy, or otherwise – which is made up, run by, and supported by the public. Our governmental leaders ought to lead by example. Driving a Hummer to work and then asking a car manufacturer to cut emissions may – conceivably, possibly, hypothetically – send mixed messages to some.Finally, we are obliged to use our influence as human beings upon each other and communicate directly with the industry whenever we have the chance. It may seem difficult or nigh impossible to have any sort of effect on the pyramidal structure of most industries, when so much of the decision-making processes rest in the hands of so few. But eventually information can filter upstream and even the highest echelons can hear the voice of the consumer, when they speak in a united and strong fashion.Hopefully the EU can enforce their standards, and hopefully the public will welcome the green changes so economies are not sacrificed. But all this depends on the consumer, on the public – on us.

James Dechant is a junior studying abroad in Rome this semester. Questions, complaints and rude remarks can be sent to jdechant@nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.