Culture At Large

Sins of emission: playing my part in the Volkswagen scandal

Erica Schemper

This past spring, my husband and I purchased what we thought was the perfect family car for an environmentally sensitive but fun-loving family of five. After months of research, we ruled out larger SUVs (too environmentally destructive) and minivans (gas guzzlers and a little too frumpy for our taste). We narrowed our choices down to three wagons with sufficient backseat width and good stowage capacity. Among those three options was one that I jokingly referred to as my mid-life-crisis mommy car: the Volkswagen Jetta TDI wagon, preferably in lipstick red.

On Good Friday, the local dealer called my husband to tell him that someone had just traded in a barely used red Jetta SportWagen TDI. While I knew the theology of this was all off, it felt like God was smiling on me (through the car’s massive sunroof), offering a reward for years of driving little economy cars. We christened her “Hildy” and took a cross-country family road trip over the summer, satisfied that her fuel economy and low emissions were part of our commitment to being good stewards of creation.

Last week, while shuttling kids to school, I heard the news: my now-beloved Jetta is part of a massive scheme of deception by Volkswagen. An independent study has revealed that Volkswagen installed software called a “defeat device” in its 2009 to 2015 diesel models. The defeat device kicks into gear when the car detects that it’s undergoing an emissions test, and delivers the performance needed to pass. But under normal driving conditions, these engines emit up to 40 times the amount of nitrogen oxide permitted by EPA standards.

I’m feeling Psalm 146 this week as I tool around in my Jetta.

In a moment of dark humor, I posted this on Facebook: “Suggestions for bumper stickers for Volkswagen TDI drivers?” My wise friend Benjamin wrote: “On some level, I knew.”

Of course, I couldn’t have figured this out by myself. I’m no car expert, so I put my trust in government regulators and consumer advisory groups. I have very little understanding of how cars are put together, but I admire those who use their abilities to design and build vehicles. I assume, and hope, that there are people engineering cars and writing computer software for engines in ways that strive toward more efficient and clean use of energy. I consider that to be kingdom work, restoring the world to the shalom intended by the Creator.

Yet the Volkswagen scandal is a reminder of how our human sinfulness, in ways both individually and corporately, holds us back from shalom. It’s a story of greed, pride, self-deception and outright lies, mostly by engineers and corporate officials. And even if I didn’t know about it, on some level, no matter how clean my fossil-fueled vehicle seemed to be, I remained complicit in a world economy that is damaging creation.

The psalmist writes, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” I’m feeling Psalm 146 this week as I tool around in my Jetta and try not to think about what’s actually coming out of the tailpipe. Becoming better stewards of creation will take constant vigilance against our fallenness, along with God’s faithful presence and guidance for everyone, from executives and engineers to legislators and drivers. As Psalm 146 reminds us: “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever.”

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Science & Technology, Technology, Environment