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From the Archives: Ask the Ethicist: Buying a car at Carleton

Note from the original 2003 publication: The purpose of the “Carleton Ethicist” is to provide insight and reflection on everyday dilemmas facing individuals on campus. The “Carleton Ethicist” is not one person, but instead a group of Carleton faculty, staff, students, administrators and alumni who take turns responding to submitted questions.

Question of the Week:

I am considering buying a car. At Carleton, I would use it to buy groceries, run errands and attend more are and music events in Minneapolis. Assuming I can afford it, is it ethical to buy this car, or do my planned uses justify the environmental costs of car use?

Ethicist’s Response: By Katja Meyer ’02 and Lesanna Dobrahner ’04

The American transportation system is automobile-based and, subsequently, we are the major contributor to carbon dioxide emissions. However, living at Carleton may be one of the few times in our lives when we can divorce ourselves from this petroleum dependency. Though recent expansion in Northfield reinforces automobile use, it is still possible to effectively get around in Northfield and beyond by walking, biking and using public transportation.

When considering your perceived need for a vehicle in Northfield, you should think about how much you actually need to drive a personal vehicle in town. Walking and biking can bring you to downtown Northfield and as far as Target. If you need to go to the clinic or somewhere further, there are several public transportation options. Between the intercampus shuttle and the Northfield Transit, you can get anywhere in Northfield, either for free or for $1.

Walking and biking to the Twin Cities, however, is not a very convenient option. Taking the Co-op bus and hitching a ride with a friend are your two main options. While this is more complicated than walking to Econofoods, it can be done and it reduces your fossil fuel consumption. Also, as you may know, Carleton arranges special transportation to many large music and cultural events. This option is often easier than driving yourself to the Cities and finding a parking spot.

If you have considered what you might use a car for and still think the uses outweigh the environmental costs, there are a few things you can do to make yourself a conscientious car owner. First, you can make a commitment to using the vehicle only when you are leaving Northfield. This means using your feet or bicycle when you go to the Rec Center, Econofoods, or Blue Monday’s. Second, you can avoid driving alone and decrease fuel consumption by carpooling to the Twin Cities. Finally, you can take fuel efficiency and overall emissions into consideration when making your car purchase.

You can get around and maintain an environmental conscience whether or not you decide to purchase a car. Ultimately, it is up to you to weigh the pros and cons of car ownership and environmental costs and make a decision based on what is most important to you.

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