Tesla SUV with wings or not, we should kill the electric car
Environmental groups are cheering: Tesla unveiled its newest fleet of electric vehicles this weekend, and California recently tightened its emissions standards. I was once enthusiastic about electric cars, too – as a solution to our environmental and energy challenges. I was wrong.
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Even if mining companies clean up their operations (which at least will require much stricter international regulations) and engineers increase battery storage capacity (which they will, very slowly) there is still a bigger problem looming on the horizon: Alternative-fuel vehicles stand to define and spread patterns of “sustainable living” that cannot be easily sustained without cars.Skip to next paragraph
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Cars enable people to spread out into patterns of suburban development, which induces ecological consequences beyond the side effects of the vehicle itself. Even the most efficient hybrid or electric cars can’t resolve the larger ecological impacts of sprawl. In fact, their green badges of honor might even help them fuel it. For a time, this may not pose a problem, but eventually it will. Sprawl has positive and negative effects on Americans, but its intensification is clearly at odds with the long-term ideals of the environmental movement.
The suburban architecture of fully disengaged homes and megastores, connected by wide streets and highways, has prompted a mass deployment of energy resources that would have been unthinkable just a generation before its formation. It is from within the suburban addiction that Americans grew to understand extreme energy waste as perfectly normal.
This life isn’t just wasteful. It’s expensive, too. Relatively efficient city dwellers end up subsidizing new suburban road construction, power lines, sewers, and water mains – at a cost of about $13,426 per suburbanite, according to a recent study.
IN PICTURES: The multiple shapes of the electric car
Upon closer consideration, shifting from gasoline to electric vehicles starts to appear synonymous with switching a smoking habit from cloves to menthols. Even with all of the hype surrounding hybrid and electric vehicles, these machines are becoming somewhat of a cliché in some circles. Hybrid and electric vehicles may offer partial solutions within certain contexts, but those contexts are looking to be frightfully limited.
It isn’t acceptable for doctors to promote menthol cigarettes. Should environmentally minded people promote alternatively fueled automobiles? Some community groups are saying “No.” They’re showing how concerned citizens are better achieving their environmental objectives by supporting more durable options such as walkable neighborhoods, bicycling infrastructure, carpooling, traffic calming (incorporating physical features to slow or reduce traffic – wider sidewalks, roundabouts, etc.), and comfortable public transit.
These transportation strategies have a proven track record of success in cities across the globe. Beyond their greening impact, they can also make cities more vibrant, affordable, and pleasant places to live. Green strategies that improve people’s lived experience, rather than emptying their wallets, have the potential to catch on.
Now that’s genuinely energizing.
Ozzie Zehner is the author of “Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism.” He is a visiting scholar at the University of California – Berkeley.