Capitalism, the Electric Car’s Achilles Heel: Shifting Pollution from Exhaust-Pipes to Smokestacks | AmericaWakieWakie
June 14th, 2014
In seemingly altruistic fashion, Elon Musk, current CEO of Tesla Motor Co., announced last Thursday the electric car manufacturer would be “giving away” its proprietary Supercharger technology along with all of its patents. In the name of progress Musk proclaimed, “[Patents] serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors.”
But before we start worshipping the entrepreneurial spirit of Tesla we ought to ask, what progress is Musk actually talking about?
At face value it might seem simple enough, after all, Tesla’s own website states the company is “Committed to Electric,” that they make “[T]he best electric cars and electric powertrains in the world” and therefore offer “the most efficient path to a sustainable energy future.” The company goes on to state, “Tesla’s goal is to accelerate the world’s transition to electric mobility with a full range of increasingly affordable electric cars. We’re catalyzing change in the industry. Tesla vehicles… are fun to drive and environmentally responsible.”
So, simple enough, yes (if you follow the money). In the scope of the company’s recent announcement, the progress Musk alludes to is firmly rooted in catalyzing the electric car industry in order to accelerate the world’s transition away from gasoline powered automobiles.
That reveals another question though: Does such a transition rooted in the hands of the automobile industry create a sustainable, environmentally responsible future?
“Revolutionary” Consumerism: END THE MACHINE BY BUYING GREEN!
In 17 Contradictions of Capitalism, Marxist author David Harvey noted that capitalism never actually deals with its problems by resolving them, it merely moves the problems elsewhere. Under-gridding everything Tesla does is this tendency. Contrary to their fancy phrases of sustainable, environmental responsibility, we cannot buy our way into a healthy planet.
The logic of capitalism is always on the side of profit. Tesla’s decision to go open-source and reveal its patents does not act contrary to this basic tenant. They are making a calculated maneuver, that by allowing other electric car producers access to their proven model they may more rapidly defeat their traditional, fossil-fueled competitors. The quicker gasoline fueled cars are pushed out of the market, the better it is for Tesla.
However, even if there was a massive switch to electric vehicles to displace America’s petroleum addiction, little in the name of environmental responsibility or sustainability could be gained without an extensive infrastructure of renewable energy. Absent such an infrastructure we will simply shift our pollution from the exhaust-pipes of automobiles to the smokestacks of coal and natural gas power plants, a potential step backwards not forward.
As the Scientific American reported:
“The mining of coal is an ugly and environmentally destructive process. And, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) burning the substance in power plants sends some 48 tons of mercury — a known neurotoxin — into Americans’ air and water every year (1999 figures, the latest year for which data are available). Furthermore, coal burning contributes some 40 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that coal mining and burning cause a whopping $62 billion worth of environmental damage every year in the U.S. alone, not to mention its profound impact on our health.
Upwards of half of all the electricity in the U.S. is derived from coal… On top of this trend, dozens of electric and plug-in hybrid cars are in the works from the world’s carmakers. It stands to reason that, unless we start to source significant amounts of electricity from renewables (solar, wind, etc.), coal-fired plants will not only continue but may actually increase their discharges of mercury, carbon dioxide and other toxins due to greater numbers of electric cars on the road.”
Sometimes though, like with the transition to electric automobiles, the profit motive and “progressive” initiatives can find ways to go hand-in-hand. Considering Tesla is likely privy to the environmental ramifications of increased coal production (remember that altruistic, entrepreneurial spirit), perhaps the electric car manufacturer is strategically placing itself to further pressure renewable energy alternatives on behalf of its consumers and the planet.
Of course, that’s ridiculous. As a capitalist enterprise predicated on expansion, once Tesla acquires substantial market share it will do what all capitalist businesses do — find ways to acquire more no matter how exploitative, no matter how oppressive.
Personal Change Does Not Equal Social Change
We have been duped into moving capitalism’s problems around instead of resolving them, into the foolish notion that buying green is an act of divergence from capitalist exploitation.
Worried about car emissions? Buy Tesla’s Model S. Want to fight water misuse? Take shorter showers. Concerned for underserved children around the world? Use a credit card that supports a NGO. Interested in bettering working conditions for exploited laborers? Look for the “fair trade” stamp at corporate outlet malls.
But by all means, NEVER stop buying.
Identifying the central issue with this behavior, Derrick Jensen explained, “Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.”
As individuals we should do what we can, but we have to realize that letting corporations frame/limit global issues like environmental responsibility to consumer choice is self-defeating. We need bigger tools than our individual selves. Imagine trying to fill a dump truck using a spoon. That is what we are doing when we decouple the need for organized, community-wide political resistance from our individual ability to partake in generating and sustaining solutions.
The Good News: Change Is Within Our Grasp If We Will but Organize
Some environmentalists would have us scrap the automobile entirely. All cars, especially the electric sort, are produced with toxic compounds used in manufacturing computers, batteries and electronics. Acquiring the metals needed in batteries for cars like Tesla’s, the mining process, the solvents, and the process chemicals required for their manufacturing, releases lethal greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
But civilization will always pollute to some degree, and manufacturing electric automobiles — if coupled with an infrastructure of renewable energy — is a drastic improvement over continuing to emit into the atmosphere billions of tons of CO2 from gasoline engines.
The crux of creating a sustainable, environmentally responsible future where automobiles can exist rests in two key components: 1) An infrastructure of renewable energy capable enough to displace coal and natural gas, and 2) Workers dismantling capitalist ownership of the means of producing automobiles and removing the profit motive to the greatest possible degree.
If these two initiatives are taken in tandem, moving entirely beyond the automobile may neither be possible nor necessary.
The benefits of an infrastructure of renewable energy capable enough to displace fossil fuels are already visible. A passage published in Forbes demonstrates this well:
"The State of Washington is over 80% non-fossil fuel, primarily because of hydro, nuclear and a little wind, so electric vehicles charged in this region are fairly “green”, yielding emission-equivalents similar to gasoline-powered vehicles getting over 70 mpg. But cars charged in Indiana, where coal exceeds 90% of the electricity production, are not much greener than cars with internal combustion engines getting less than half of that.”
Key is making infrastructures of renewable energy ubiquitous. Such is a mammoth task, but something we must vigorously attain.
Workers, on the other hand, acquiring the means to produce electric automobiles presents a host of issues in and of itself, but it too is a necessity — and it is entirely doable.
As an example, earlier this year when aerospace and defense giant Boeing threatened to move production of its 777 airliner elsewhere if the company’s unionized employees did not agree to its contract, workers floated the same idea. Ultimately they did not take over the factory, but elsewhere in the world working class folks have seized factories and been successful in operating them. The nuances of doing it here in America are something we will have to eventually work out among ourselves.
But leaving the task of creating a sustainable, environmentally responsible future in the hands of capitalist industries like Tesla, that would rather shift pollution from one place to another to make a buck, reminds me of something Fred Hampton once said:
“Did you ever see something and pull it, and you take it as far as you can and it almost outstretches itself and it goes into something else? If you take it so far that it is two things? …Did you ever cook something so long that it turns into something else? That’s what we’re talking about with politics. That politics ain’t nothing, but if you stretch it so long that it can’t go no further, then you know what you got on your hands? You got an antagonistic contradiction.”
If we really want to tackle the environmental problems surrounding automobiles, we must fundamentally understand capitalism is a poorly suited vehicle to do it.
(Photo Credit: AutoBlogGreen)