Friday, February 08, 2008

Deneen's Cynicism about Electric Cars

Patrick Deneen of Georgetown has some typically bracing thoughts about electric cars, and, by extension, about our whole way of life:
* * * Our environmental "greenness" is as substantial as our March 17 Irishness: each is wholly superficial and bears no actual relation to reality.

A case in point: out of curiosity, I attended the Washington D.C. Auto Show two weeks ago, and wasn't remotely surprised that every auto manufacturer prominently advertised all the ways that they are embracing a "green future." Signs bragging about the mileage of existing cars - as if the frequent invocation that a car can get 30 mpg will convince us that this is actually good mileage! * * * This is a feel-good advertising campaign that promises more of just what we've been doing - paying absolutely no attention to what it is we are doing. * * *

On the environmental Left, our bourgeois bohemian centrists, even our Schwarzneggerian Republicans - along with various automobile manufacturers - there's a great deal of excitement about the prospect of a "clean" biofuel-powered or plug-in electric car. No more dirty emissions, no more addiction to oil! Just fill it with vegetable oil or plug it in and save the planet.

Alas, were it that easy - as easy as putting on a hat that says "Erin Go Braugh." A report in today's "New York Times" recounts growing evidence of the enormous destruction and carbon emissions of "bio-fuels," the boom in which is resulting in the destruction of huge swaths of carbon-consuming rainforests and nature preserves. It turns out our rush to adopt this new, "clean" energy source - which, incidentally, is also resulting in the starvation of poor peoples who cannot afford the rising price of food, a consequence of our refusal to drive less to eat at "TGIF" and "Dunkin' Donuts" - is contributing mightily to the ravaging of the planet.

Further, enthusiasts of the electric car can spare nary a thought to the question of where electricity comes from (do we suppose we collect the static electricity generated by rubbing our sneakers on a carpet?). Well, what a surprise it is to most people to learn that we generate most of our electricity using coal, followed by natural gas and then distantly by nuclear, water, wind and solar. Our "clean" electric car future is going to be powered by a different (and still limited) fossil fuel, one that is considerably more polluting than refined oil and which is mined in ways that destroys the land and unsettles communities.

* * *

[I]f we are going to have an electric fleet, it will surely be running to a great extent on "dirty coal" (Note that no one will call it that - it will just be called "coal," with adjectival descriptors magically disappearing). Or, the second possibility is that we really truly mean it about "going green," and thus forgo our current way of life, begin to make changes to our built community so that we can walk more, buy goods from more local sources, and live smaller and leaner and poorer.
Live smaller, leaner, and poorer -- probably good advice, but it would never fly as a campaign slogan, which leads one to pessimism that our "built community" will ever change unless something akin to Kunstler's Long Emergency takes place. I'm not sure why we humans have such an ingrained bias against believing in hedonic adaptation, or why -- even when we know that affective forecasting has proven wrong time and time again in our own lives -- we think that it will really work this time.


Blogger paul scott said...

This is a typical blog post from someone who is new to the issue of electric vehicles. To categorically lump all EV enthusiasts in the group of folks, like this author, who are just now waking up to the emergency and say that we don't discuss where the electricity comes from is just pure bunk.

See the film, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and then go to and you'll find that those who have been deeply involved in the EV movement are equally involved in greening the grid.

I get this complaint about the "long tailpipe" all the time, and my first question to the person complaining is, why are you getting your electricity from a dirty source? You use way more electricity in your house than you would use in an EV. As a matter of fact, most Americans WASTE more electricity in their homes than they would use in an EV.

True EV proponents advocate greening the grid and moving transportation off of oil and onto renewable electricity. Quit complaining and get a solar system for your house!

As an aside, every study that has looked at the well-to-wheels pollution generated from gas vs. electric has concluded that the electric option is responsible for much less pollution even if the power comes from the national grid which is about 55% coal. Here in California, our grid is less than 10% coal because we are actively reducing the need for it through efficiency and renewables.

Beyond the enviro reasons for going to EVs are two other equally important reasons. All of our electricity is domestic, but we buy about 70% of our oil from foreign countries to the tune of about $400 billion per year.

Further, we are in a war in Iraq because of the oil they have. We have never, and will never, fight a war for electricity.

The only reason we don't have millions of EVs running silently and pollution-free in the U.S. is because of the refusal of the car companies to build them.

3:51 PM  

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