"My Hovercraft is Full of Eels", or the Semantics of Lying

January 11, 2007 at 11:33 AM

I dropped Jessica off at school yesterday, and I happened across a most perplexing sign. Affixed to the back of one of Seattle's many "eco-friendly buses" was the following tag line: "Brown Bear Car Wash: Good for your car, Good for the environment".

I must backpedal for a brief moment. I am not generally concerned about the environment. I'm not given to boycotting, publicly reprobating, picketing, or other actions because of environmental concerns. You can ask my wife: I only get worked up about a small, seemingly silly set of things (although, as an INTP/INTJ mix, I think they're of paramount importance). One item in this set is semantics: the linguistic study of meaning. Again, my wife can attest that I get irate, confused, or at best bemused when people misappropriate words, or use them in (what I consider to be) ambiguous ways (e.g., "He ate the cookies on the couch"; wait, where were the cookies, and where was he?).

Although I was alone in the car, I had to laugh out loud — does anyone still know what the word good means? How could a car wash be "good" for the environment? When I arrived at home, I had to investigate further. A simple search brought me to Brown Bear's "Helping The Environment" page. Ah, there it is again -- "helping" the environment.

Cars and the environment — this topic is all the rage in marketing nowadays, isn't it? Everyone claims that their particular product is Good: you ought to use our car wash because it's Good for the environment; you ought to have a hybrid car; et cetera, et cetera. We all know that there are "lies, damned lies, and statistics", but this is especially manifest in car-related marketing.

Just as another piece of anecdotal evidence: my wife and I drive a 1990 Toyota Corolla wagon; we average 28 MPG. Ford's new Escape Hybrid claims 31 when in the city and 36 when on the highway; everyone knows that this sort of claim is dubious at best and will soon be lowered by more realistic testing. So, in the 18 years (yes, 18: they had to design and manufacture the car in 1989 in order to sell it in 1990) since my car was manufactured, the auto industry has only managed to increase gas mileage by (a very generous estimate of) ~4.5 MPG?

Let's go back to the car wash diatribe, shall we?

Brown Bear's "Helping the Environment" page makes it painfully clear that car washes are not good for the environment. What!? Oh, I see: their claim (which is likely valid) is that washing in a commercial car wash facility has less environmental impact than washing in one's own driveway. So, from the information provided in the aforementioned page and the advertisement on the back of the Metro bus, I have derived the following definition of "good":

A process or device that effects a particular entity and provides any improvement whatsoever in those effects when compared to the effects of a different process or device with identical objectives is considered to be "good" for the entity, regardless of the actual net effect the first device has on said entity.

That's a mouthful, and it's patently false. Something is good for the environment if in and of itself it improves the environment. For example, if taking your car to Brown Bear Car Wash caused an accretion in the ozone layer, or washed off oil drenched Penguins, one could claim it was doing good for the environment. Simply causing less damage than an alternative washing method is not the same as doing something "good" -- it's doing less bad.

I often feel like I'm living in Monty Python's Tobacconist Sketch (which I submit below as Exhibit A), where claims that companies make about the world are to be treated with severe suspicion.

So here's my lemma. It's a rather radical proposition that I hope will aid you when viewing the world.

LESS BAD is not the same as GOOD

Remaining on their current trajectory, cars will never be good for the environment. Washing a car will never be good for the environment. Even biking to work, which I do as often as the weather permits, is simply neutral with regard to the environment.

Sweetus Vitus take 2! Sweetus Vitus! Exhibit B: Environment Neutral Transportation

Returning to the Monty Python sketch, I would merely like to change the end charge and bring it against Brown Bear:

You are hereby charged that on the 28th day of May you did willfully and with malice aforethought publish an alleged car wash advertisement with intent to cause mass deception and unwarranted positive connotations with your company name.

People often forget that doing no evil is better than doing the lesser evil. So don't drive a car, much less wash one if you're concerned about the environment.