After the unveiling of the Model 3, then after the IPCC climate report, there have been a rash of articles asking if electric cars can essentially save the world. The consensus seems to be that if powered mostly by renewable energy, then they might save us from cooking the planet.
We severely disagree. Not about that specific point, but about the overall sentiment.
Before unveiling the Model 3, Elon Musk talked about the dangers of climate change and the burning of fossil fuels. In this context, the message was clear: his mission was to save the planet. And the savior would be EVs.
However, this approach is quite a narrow perspective on our civilization’s problems.
If we had a magic wand that could sequester all the excess carbon emissions tomorrow, we still wouldn’t save the planet.
Because we would simply be solving the most imminent environmental crisis (that we know of): climate breakdown.
Our carbon footprint isn’t the core problem, it’s merely a symptom. The real problem is not about our carbon footprint. It’s about our civilization’s footprint.
We have oceans full of plastic, animals ranging from birds to whales suffocating from the inside, their stomachs full of our garbage. Deforestation, loss of biodiversity, oil spills, strip mining, the immense power of corporations and nation states to wreak havoc on the planet, etc. With consumerism powering our global economy and the culture of disposability of products from spoons to pocket supercomputers (our smartphones), the footprint of our civilization is the core disease, the central crisis.
Cars are merely the poster boy of this gigantic footprint.
Instead of living in modest apartments, we live in McMansions. Instead of washing a few dishes, we buy and throw away disposable plates. Instead of using grey water, we use drinking water to flush down our waste. And instead of utilizing an invention that makes us the most efficient creatures on the planet for getting around, the humble bicycle, we have designed and unleashed upon the world the monstrosity that is the car: a 4–6000 pound machine taking up absurdly large amounts of cubic feet, used to transport merely a few hundred pounds of flesh.
We could choose to have much lighter infrastructure systems, like bicycle and light rail based transit, but alas, that mode of transport doesn’t stroke our egos as hard. Even a sprawling city like Los Angeles could go car free relatively cheaply and without waiting for any technological breakthroughs, but for some reason, such ideas seem “unrealistic.”
Not only are cars terrible for the planet, they’re terrible for us! They make our cities loud, expensive, ugly, toxic, and deadly.
Cars are truly the perfect symbol of just how badly we’ve been squandering the precious resources of the planet.
Electric cars plus solar might help solve the carbon issue. But it still takes TONS of carbon to product just one car. So EVs have an enormous carbon footprint without having driven a single mile.
Even ignoring this grim fact, even if EVs could help alleviate this crisis, so what? That’s just one crisis down. Just one of many crisis generated by our sprawling and obese civilization, not the core existential issue we face.
What about the laundry list of other ecological time bombs waiting to go off? Our marine life will still be bursting at the seams with plastic, our forests and animals will still be systematically eliminated, our cities will continue to sprawl, etc, etc, etc.
Do we really want to live in a perpetual state of constant collective anxiety and guilt? Is that fair to our kids? To each other?
So sure, we can feel good about ourselves and our electric cars. But if we want to continue this project of human civilization, we’ll have to come to grips with our collective gigantic footprint that no amount of engineering prowess or solar can solve.
We need a degrowth or a radical sustainability plan, not band-aids.
For instance, Have A Go is focused on a dramatically reducing our civilization’s footprint in the mobility sector by working on adoption of electric micromobility that are over 100 times more efficient, smaller, lighter, and more human-centric in almost every metric than cars.
We need such efforts in every single industry. Our very existence depends on it.