The Green Revolution Backfires

What if electric cars made pollution worse, not better? What if they increased greenhouse gas emissions instead of decreasing them? Preposterous you say? Well, consider what’s happened in Sweden.

Through generous subsidies, Sweden aggressively pushed its citizens to trade in their cars for energy efficient replacements (hybrids, clean diesel vehicles, cars that run on ethanol). Sweden has been so successful in this initiative that it leads the world in per capita sales of ‘green cars.’ To everyone’s surprise, however, greenhouse gas emissions from Sweden’s transportation sector are up.

Or perhaps we should not be so surprised after all. What do you expect when you put people in cars they feel good about driving (or at least less guilty), which are also cheap to buy and run? Naturally, they drive them more. So much more, in fact, that they obliterate energy gains made by increased fuel efficiency.

We need to pay attention to this as GM and Nissan roll out their new green cars to great fanfare. The Chevy Volt, a hybrid with a lithium-ion battery, can go 35 miles on electric power alone (after charging over night, for example), and GM brags on its website that if you limit your daily driving to that distance, you can “commute gas-free for an average of $1.50 a day.” The Volt’s price is listed at a very reasonable $33K (if you qualify for the maximum $7500 in tax credits). The fully electric Nissan Leaf is advertized for an even more reasonable $26K (with qualifying tax credits, naturally). What a deal?and it’s good for you, too, the carmakers want you to know. As GM helpfully points out on its website, “Electricity is a cleaner source of power.”

Sweden is a model of sustainability innovation, while the US is the most voracious consumer on the planet. Based on Sweden’s experience with green cars, it’s daunting to imagine their possible impact here. Who can doubt that they’ll likely inspire Americans to make longer commutes to work, live even further out in the exurbs, bringing development, blacktop and increased emissions with them?

In its current state, the green revolution is largely devoted to the effort to provide consumers with the products they have always loved, but now in affordable energy efficient versions. The thinking seems to be that through this gradual exchange, we can reduce our collective carbon footprint. Clearly, however, this approach is doomed if we don’t reform our absurd consumption habits, which are so out-of-whack that they risk undoing any environmental gains we might make. Indeed, we are such ardent, addicted consumers that we take efficiency gains as license to consumer even more!

We need to address consumption fast because?news alert?the current consumer class on earth barely amounts to 1 billion people (if that), but 2 billion and counting eagerly wait in the wings.

American industry hungrily targets the rising Chinese consumer class. For the sake of the planet, we better hope it doesn’t get its way. Consider: China currently has a car ownership rate approximately one-sixth that of the US. If China achieves car ownership rates comparable to the US, that would put an additional 800 million cars on the road. And that’s just China. Even if we somehow succeeded in making China’s fleet super efficient, it would still be more than the planet can handle.

Of course, cars are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Chinese consumer dreams. They will also want more electronics, clothes, meat, processed foods?bigger houses. In short, we can bet that the rising Chinese middle class will want something close to what we have. And why shouldn’t they? We have been showcasing our middle class comfort worldwide for years through our vast media exports. Everyone is betting, hoping?assuming??that technology will eventually help us deliver the American dream worldwide with no environmental impact. But clearly, we may run out of planet by the time that day comes. Even the American dream in an ‘energy efficient format’ is likely too much for the earth to handle.

If this is chilling?and it should be?you might wonder, what are our options? Justice demands that we cannot prevent, much less discourage the growing global consumer class from having the consumer goods we currently enjoy. Real change starts with us then, and I’m afraid to say, radical change is in order. We must figure out a way to consume less, which means driving less, shopping less, eating less meat (which the UN estimates is responsible for a fifth of all greenhouse gases), and conserving food and energy. This means essentially rethinking our suburban-sprawling, fast-food-gorging, shopaholic society. We must model for the world the changes we hope everyone will make to ensure a sustainable future.

It’s time to be courageous and think big about altering our lifestyle, values and future. The powers that be are reluctant to rock the boat with consumers, and have decided that leaving consumption habits intact as much as possible is the preferable option. They’d rather get us into electric cars, rather than out of our cars altogether. Well, we need more than half measures at this point. As Sweden proves, unless other more fundamental changes are made to our engrained consumption habits, half measures only dig us deeper in the hole.

Firmin DeBrabander is Chair of Humanistic Studies at MICA.

Limited Time Special Offer!
Get CounterPunch Print Edition By Email for Only $25 a Year!

More articles by:
March 22, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Italy, Germany and the EU’s Future
David Rosen
The Further Adventures of the President and the Porn Star
Gary Leupp
Trump, the Crown Prince and the Whole Ugly Big Picture
The Hudson Report
Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons and Debt in Antiquity
Steve Martinot
The Properties of Property
Binoy Kampmark
Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Surveillance Capitalism
Jeff Berg
Russian to Judgment
Gregory Barrett
POSSESSED! Europe’s American Demon Must Be Exorcised
Robby Sherwin
What Do We Do About Facebook?
Sam Husseini
Trump Spokesperson Commemorates Invading Iraq by Claiming U.S. Doesn’t Dictate to Other Countries; State Dept. Defends Invasion
Rob Okun
Students: Time is Ripe to Add Gender to Gun Debate
Michael Barker
Tory Profiteering in Russia and Putin’s Debt of Gratitude
March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am a Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us