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What Cheating Emissions Standards Tells Us About Ourselves

To understand the outrage over the Volkswagen scandal and recall, consider the meat industry.
(Photo: josefkubes/Shutterstock)

(Photo: josefkubes/Shutterstock)

Volkswagen diesel owners are burned up because the world’s largest car manufacturer (by sales) used software rigged to evade emissions standards in the United States and Europe. Drivers who thought they were doing right by the environment suddenly learned that they were harming it. So the outrage is understandable.

But what, exactly, is the outrage about? I suspect that VW diesel drivers aren’t necessarily angry because of the actual ecological harm they may have caused. Instead, they’re angry because of something more personal: They’ve been betrayed. Perhaps worse, they’ve been betrayed by a brand. When the most conspicuous brand we display—our cars—no longer symbolizes virtue, we no longer symbolize virtue. And that stings.

Look at what we’ve learned about meat production. Throughout modern history, consumers have eaten meat—hundreds of pounds of it a year—while being mercifully unaware of its ecological consequences. In November 2006, all that changed. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published a groundbreaking document called “Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options.” The shadow was not only long but, much like the VW revelation, it was very dark.

To present car ownership as a superficial display of ecological enlightenment is not to suggest that VW diesel owners are shallow people who really don’t care about the environment.

The report—which was spread far and wide—showed that the meat industry generated more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined (around 18 percent). It caused 65 percent of all nitrous oxide emissions—a gas with 296 times more global warming potential than carbon—and turned out to be the largest cause of methane output. Livestock, we learned, took up 30 percent of the world’s arable land, most of it degraded under their hooves. In the Amazon, 70 percent of the region’s forest has been cleared for the sole purpose of grazing animals. Topping it off, livestock production was declared “among the most damaging sectors to the Earth’s increasingly scarce water resources.” The report’s summary put it bluntly: “remedies urgently needed.”

In the face of this revelation—and, really, for most consumers it was a revelation—meat consumers did not react with a sense of betrayal. Instead, they reacted with a shrug and kept eating meat. In the U.S., rates of meat consumption barely dipped, and they now appear to be heading back up to 2006 levels. To the best of my knowledge, nobody ever expressed a kind of how could you do this to me outrage over the meat industry; nobody lashed himself for having unknowingly caused so much environmental damage. Most people just went on eating meat with a general awareness that it wasn’t very good for the environment.

They could get away with this reaction, in part, because meat isn’t a brand. As far as consumer items go, it’s largely ephemeral. The outside world generally has no idea how much—or what kind of—meat you eat. You buy meat, you eat meat, and it’s gone. Not so for the maligned VW. Research on the psychology of brand attachment reveals that the phenomenon of such loyalty has little to do with the actual good that might be accomplished by owning the brand and everything to do with the bond of trust and affection it fosters—in this case a bond manifested in a moving display of environmental virtue.

Not incidentally, if a VW owner was genuinely peeved because of the actual ecological harm caused, she could relax. The ecological effects of the betrayal were, in the grand scheme, unsurprising and minor. Unsurprising because it has happened before. Minor because diesel engines are 85-percent cleaner than they were a generation ago and, more to the point, the majority of emissions derive from old, poorly maintained cars—not VW diesels, even those equipped with wacky software.

To present car ownership as a superficial display of ecological enlightenment is not to suggest that VW diesel owners are shallow people who really don’t care about the environment. Not at all. Instead, it’s to suggest that they’re realists who understand that, not only are we in the age of the anthropocene, but that it may be too late to undo its most harmful ecological effects.

Recall that folks of a certain age watched the transition to the anthropocene happen. They knew what it was like, back when a crying Indian and a landfill epitomized environmentalism, to have realistic hope in environmental change. To the extent that such hope has vanished, the decision to drive a car that symbolizes concern for the environment is a meaningful expression of nostalgia for a cause that may indeed be lost. To sully that brand, as VW has done, is to render meaningless one of the last ways we have to conspicuously declare that, as individuals, we think that the Earth matters.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.