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Editorial: Of cars, chemistry, and human nature

by Michael McCoy
May 26, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 17


I bought a new car the other day. Well, new to me anyway. Steeped in the frugality of my parents, I’ve never bought a new car, and at this point, I probably never will.

The car, a 2018 Honda Fit, does happen to be the newest and most expensive used car I’ve ever purchased. It’s in the subcompact category and gets 36 mi/gal (15 km/L) during combined city and highway driving, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

That’s a good mileage figure, one that I could say is my contribution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions. But if I’m being honest, fuel efficiency was not the first, or even the second, reason I bought the car.

I live in New York City and park on the street wherever I can find a spot—so an electric vehicle is out, as charging would be tough—so the main reason I bought the Fit is that it’s tiny and therefore easy to park. The second reason goes back to that inherited frugality: the car’s good gas mileage means it’s cheap to fill up.

As a reasonably well-informed person who works for a magazine about chemistry, I understand that we earthlings are pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And on an intellectual level, I realize I have a part to play in abating those emissions. But when it comes to making day-to-day purchasing decisions, I find I don’t give much consideration to my carbon footprint.

And I’m embarrassed to say, I paid no attention at all to the Fit’s tires, even after having just edited Alex Scott’s fascinating cover story about efforts to make tires more sustainable (see page 28).

As Scott reports, the tire industry is taking steps to reduce the carbon footprint of car and truck tires by using natural or renewable raw materials where it can and by pursuing chemical-based methods of recycling tires at the end of their lives. These efforts, though, are overshadowed by growing concern in the environmental community that microparticles, which are created when tires abrade on the road surface, are hazardous to the health of certain fish—and possibly to other animals and people as well.

I’m going to cut myself some slack about the tires. It was raining that Saturday, and my inspection of the vehicle was cursory. Plus, the tires were already on the car and not the focus of my purchasing decision.

But I’ve had other occasions to buy tires, and I never weighed the environmental impact of one brand versus another. It may be that other people are considering the environment more seriously than I do when they buy tires and other products; the prevalence of gas-guzzling SUVs on our streets leads me to believe they are not. Meanwhile, the Fit and several other subcompacts are not even sold in the US anymore.

So, is this editorial’s depressing takeaway that we are blithely fiddling while the planet heats up to a slow burn? Yes, in part. But my other point is that it’s important to understand human nature if we are to minimize the harm that we do. Most of us don’t consider the climate enough when buying cars, tires, or anything else, for those choices to stem the crisis.

The hard truth is that getting out of this hole will require institutions that make decisions informed by data and science. And yes, we need governments to create incentives and penalties that can influence our purchases and other behaviors in a way that protects the climate. We don’t like to be told what to do—that’s also human nature—but like the proverbial donkey, we are susceptible to carrots and sticks. Prodding, a whole lot of ingenuity, and more are what it is going to take to fix our planet.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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