There are weeks like this, where the news is all bad. From pictures like this one (above), to the extinction of a long-endangered species to a swarm of stories about how the opening salvo of climate change is upon us as we dither about and do nothing (see here, here, and here).
But there is good news. Below the thrum of the engines that drive us ever onward to the precipice, there are signs that a foot is beginning to press on the brake.
Automakers, often deaf and blind to environmental concerns, always have one sharp eye open, and that open eye looks at marketing data. In that data, there is proof that people are associating their driving with environmental consequences. How do we know? We certainly didn’t see any secret documents. But just as astronomers can figure out how big something is by the way light bends as it speeds by, we can tell what consumers tell researchers by the resulting ad campaigns.
What do those ad campaigns tell us? Well, despite the loosening oil supply and coasting prices of the past few months, automakers have not shelved the green-marketing efforts that they rolled out in the $3-a-gallon days. Instead, they’ve kept on. This is a sign that consumers still respond to environmental messages, despite easing gas prices.
If you’re really stuck in cynicism (and it can be tempting), you’ll say many of these green-marketing efforts are hollow and ironically promote the opposite–more consumption, not less. You might even point out that an Escalade that can burn ethanol (but will probably burn plain old gas) is hardly the icon of a green revolution.
And you would be right: The marriage of profitable gas guzzlers to greenwashing ad campaigns may seem twisted to any environmentalist, but to automakers, it is simply the marriage of the product they want to sell with a message they think will help them sell it.
But the sincerity or insincerity of corporate messaging is beside the point. What matters is the apparent perception by car companies that desirable consumers are starting to factor environmental concerns into their carbuying decisions. It’s a good sign. As we pursue progress, American automakers will clearly require being pulled every step of the way. But a shift in public priorities just might be a machine with enough towing capacity for the job.