“Unclean at Any Speed” – A Recommended Article

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Photo-illustration: Smalldog Imageworks; Photos: car, Transtock/Corbis; coal: Nolimitpictures/iStockphoto

Unclean at Any Speed This is an important article by Ozzie Zehner, a former electric vehicle enthusiast who can no longer count himself in those ranks, as he now believes that electric vehicles trades one set of environmental problems for another.

Zehner cites a 2010 study by the National Academies (commissioned by Congress, rather than being industry funded) as perhaps the most comprehensive account of electric car effects to date.  Zehner writes,

The National Academies’ assessment didn’t ignore those difficult-to-measure realities. It drew together the effects of vehicle construction, fuel extraction, refining, emissions, and other factors. In a gut punch to electric-car advocates, it concluded that the vehicles’ lifetime health and environmental damages (excluding long-term climatic effects) are actually greater than those of gasoline-powered cars. Indeed, the study found that an electric car is likely worse than a car fueled exclusively by gasoline derived from Canadian tar sands!

As for greenhouse-gas emissions and their influence on future climate, the researchers didn’t ignore those either. The investigators, like many others who have probed this issue, found that electric vehicles generally produce fewer of these emissions than their gasoline- or diesel-fueled counterparts—but only marginally so when full life-cycle effects are accounted for. The lifetime difference in greenhouse-gas emissions between vehicles powered by batteries and those powered by low-sulfur diesel, for example, was hardly discernible.

Zehner also writes of a more “fundamental illusion at work on the electric-car stage.”

All of the aforementioned studies compare electric vehicles with petroleum-powered ones. In doing so, their findings draw attention away from the broad array of transportation options available—such as walking, bicycling, and using mass transit.

There’s no doubt that gasoline- and diesel-fueled cars are expensive and dirty. Road accidents kill tens of thousands of people annually in the United States alone and injure countless more. Using these kinds of vehicles as a standard against which to judge another technology sets a remarkably low bar. Even if electric cars someday clear that bar, how will they stack up against other alternatives?

The alternatives? Zehner notes the large subsidies provided to the electric vehicle industry.  Think about where else that money might be used to have real impacts.

Upon closer consideration, moving from petroleum-fueled vehicles to electric cars begins to look more and more like shifting from one brand of cigarettes to another. We wouldn’t expect doctors to endorse such a thing. Should environmentally minded people really revere electric cars? Perhaps we should look beyond the shiny gadgets now being offered and revisit some less sexy but potent options—smog reduction, bike lanes, energy taxes, and land-use changes to start. Let’s not be seduced by high-tech illusions.

This is where Permaculture Principle #9 comes into play: Use Small and Slow Solutions. David Holmgren writes:

[E.F.] Schumacher’s Intermediate Technology Development Group and many other non-government groups working in developing countries, have promoted technology and development methods that:

  • are small scale
  • are simple to apply and maintain
  • are labour-intensive rather than capital-or energy-intensive
  • use local resources
  • support local markets

These intermediate technologies have been far more effective in achieving economic, social and environmental benefits than conventional development technology pushed by corporations and most government aid.

– David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

Rather than pouring money into an electric car (which we can’t afford anyway), my wife and I discussed for a while the idea of becoming a single car household. When our Mazda was totaled (while parked in a driveway – no one was injured), the problem became the solution and we put the insurance money in our bank account rather than into a new vehicle.

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We now share a 1993 Honda Civic hatchback – the only vehicle I’ve ever purchased new from a dealer.  It gets great gas mileage, and by holding on to it I’m not participating in further environmental destruction or the embodied energy costs of new car production.

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It’s been challenging sometimes to coordinate our schedules, but by owning only one car it forces reduced vehicle trips (Permaculture Principle #4: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback).  I carpool to work once a week with a neighbor, and Angela consolidated trips to maximize her car use on that day.

Use of bicycles and other modes of alternative transportation has also increased, though not yet to the extent we had hoped – there’s always room for continuous improvement.  I had also hoped to do more carpooling, but have found co-workers reluctant to relenquish their auto-autonomy.

Ozzie Zehner is right – let’s not be seduced by high tech options, but instead let’s find ways to reduce consumption of resources and their impacts. Smog reduction, bicycle infrastructure, taxes on energy use, and forward thinking land use changes would be a great start. His entire article is well worth reading. Check it out and read with an open mind.

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3 comments on ““Unclean at Any Speed” – A Recommended Article

  1. Peter Wadham says:

    A very good article. The biggest problem with electric cars. Is as you have pointed out that we are just replacing one brand for another. I call this substitution. It happens with organic gardening and farming as well. A properly designed, thought out and built electric car is a useful tool. For a start my wife is only able to walk short distances. So we need some type of transport. A small two seater vehicle would suit us fine. We are too frightened to go on the road in a very small car. We hired one and both felt unsafe. Because of people riding around in large cars that carry only one person. So we use the most efficient, smallest car that we feel safe in and can afford to buy and run. I would use a weather proof, one person, electrically assisted, human powered vehicle if I could afford to buy one and it was legal on the road. Most of my journeys are within ten kms of my house and I rarely travel faster than 50km/hr doing less than 20kms per day.

  2. […] “Unclean at Any Speed” – A Recommended Article (integralpermaculture.wordpress.com) […]

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