FAQ: The “Electric Car Question”

I get various versions of a question that boils down to: Will electric cars fix everything and give us a clean green future? Short answer: No. A switch from gas-powered to electric might help reduce carbon emissions but it’ll also bring a host of environmental issues, while retaining the social problems associated with a car-dependent society.

It’s not that I’m totally anti electric car; just that they are not a magic fix.

The materials used to make the batteries come with serious environmental consequences.

Also, switching from gas-powered to electric cars doesn’t fix the deeper problems caused by our society’s excessive automobile-dependence. (Obesity and other health problems; social problems such as lack of neighborhood cohesion; traffic congestion; injuries and fatalities from car crashes.)

We still need to diversify our transportation options; make it easier for people to get around without having to own a car. Being stuck with a car payment is still being stuck with a car payment, whether the car is powered by electricity or gas.

Also, it’ll be no more safe for kids to play outside if the traffic speeding down their street is electric-powered than if it’s gas-powered.

And for grownups, sitting in traffic is still sitting in traffic, regardless of how the cars are powered.

Roads and parking infrastructure themselves have a high eco footprint as well as making places hotter and less pleasant. Think about the places in the world that you dream of visiting or retiring to. I bet the places most of us dream about have lots of natural beauty, and charming narrow streets with cute little pubs and shops, and not a lot of roaring traffic and big-box sprawl as we have here in Everytown, USA. What if we could make our own streetscapes more charming and inviting, and our everyday lives less hectic with long-distance commutes and sitting in traffic. Then maybe we wouldn’t feel so much need to “escape” our everyday lives. (I’m lucky; I already live in a beautiful place where I love to be. We still do have a lot of issues related to car-dependency here too though, and I’m trying to promote a shift to make our area more walkable, bikeable, and served by buses and maybe a cute little trolley.)

The easiest and cheapest way to make a car instantly more green is to put more people in it! In other words: carpool, get by with one car for the whole household if you can, and so on.

Further Reading:

• “Developing countries pay environmental cost of electric car batteries” (unctad.org): “Growth in electric car sales is great news for the fight against climate change, but the mining of the minerals used in their batteries poses serious risks for the environment.”

• “The curse of ‘white oil’: Electric vehicles’ dirty secret” (theguardian.com): “The race is on to find a steady source of lithium, a key component in rechargeable electric car batteries. But while the EU focuses on emissions, the lithium gold rush threatens environmental damage on an industrial scale.” But, as they describe in the article, not only the mining companies but also some everyday people are benefiting economically from the boom, so fixing this is not going to be simple. The article mentions a livestock farmer in a mountainous area of northern Portugal, who’s now making good money from mining lithium on his land. People have struggled to live off the land and in fact all of his friends have gone overseas in search of better-paying work. Echoes of the former coal boom in another poor mountainous region, Appalachia, which blew off mountaintops and destroyed rivers but people are still fighting for coal jobs because they put food on the table.

• Some cities are actually looking at reducing large areas of asphalt. For example, Minneapolis is looking at shrinking its segment of interstate to a boulevard.