The Big Electric Confidence Trick | Pushing the Wave

The Big Electric Confidence Trick

Opinion, 3 March 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Le tricycle electrique de Gustave Trouve
Gustave Trouvé's electric tricycle, the first electric vehicle in history to be displayed to the public. Jacques CATTELIN, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
I had several things I wanted to talk about this week, but while I was musing over what to discuss and how, a friend sent me an article offering a wry look at the petrol-driven car.

Entitled Gasoline Car Review, it assumes that the electric car is the norm, and that, in this case, a Mazda Miata is a novel type of vehicle for personal transportation. He describes with mock puzzlement how to start the car, as it isn’t left in standby like an battery powered equivalent, the procedures for driving it, and how to ‘recharge’ it at a petrol, or gas, station.

It’s kind-of funny, although it’s not exactly clear what point he is trying to make, if any, other than that the two technologies are extremely different from each other. I assume he wants to say that someone who has grown up with electric power would think all of the extra steps need to drive a car fuelled with either petrol or diesel, and the precautions required when dealing with those materials, are archaic in the extreme.

Fair enough, I see that point.

But I have to say I am not convinced by the introduction of electric cars on any level. To me, they are a massive confidence trick pulled by car companies to keep on selling cars and feed the addiction we have to consumption, when it’s obvious that making the existing vehicle fleet more environmentally friendly was the only sane response to the climate crisis.

It is a fascinating aspect of the modern (Western) human psyche that we seem to think we can consume our way out of our problems, when it is our relentless, endless, overwhelming consumption, which has only accelerated in recent decades, that is the very root of the impending environmental disaster that we are staring in the face.

How can having more, with all the implications for resource usage to provide the raw materials, fossil fuel burning to manufacture the products, and energy expenditure for their transportation at the very least, be the answer to anything?

Of course, the selling point of electric cars, aside from the shiny magpie appeal of their novelty, was that they would reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the pumping of harmful particulate matter in to the atmosphere.

But do they, really? It is clear to me that, yes, they don’t have the belching, choking fog of smoke around them when they are being used, like a petrol or especially diesel vehicle. But that does not mean that they are avoiding emissions altogether.

How is the electricity going to be generated to give them all that ‘clean’ power? Typically, it will be at a old-fashioned power station, rarely at a renewable energy plant, at least for now.

And how will the vehicle be manufactured? In a factory, of course, usually in East Asia or perhaps in the US, which will itself likely be dependent on fossil-fuel burning facilities. And what about all that metal and those high-tech oil-based plastics in the car body? Where will they come from? What energy and resources will be required to make them malleable? And what of the rare raw materials from far-away and precarious lands to build the screens and computers that will run the vehicle? And that’s not even to mention the huge, heavy, inefficient batteries.

What we do when we buy a new electric car to replace an old but often perfectly functional petrol or diesel equivalent is not reduce the overall emissions associated with making the car and driving it. We simply export all of that somewhere else, and we salve our conscience by blinding ourselves to the ever-increasing pollution that it entails, and so kid ourselves that we are doing good. But it is all still going on, and we have to face up to that if we are to make any real headway in saving the planet.

Out of sight should not be out of mind, especially in this case.

People in Europe moan that we have reduced our emissions quite significantly, but those naughty Chinese and Americans are carrying on as if nothing happened. Why should we bother, they ask, to help save the planet when they don’t lift a finger.

But the truth of the matter is we have been able to make such a big cut in the environmental damage that we cause around us because we pay the Chinese and Americans to do it on our behalf. We have swept all our rubbish, literally and metaphorically, up from around us, and given it to someone else. And then we call them dirty and irresponsible.

The hypocrisy is staggering.

What we should have done to allow us to continue moving around independently while reducing the environmental impact of our actions was to come up with ways of transforming our existing vehicles, at low cost and high efficiency, into non-polluters. It would have taken some ingenuity, and admittedly some new products, but replacing a still-functioning fleet of vehicles across the world, and a perfectly adequate infrastructure network to support them, with an entirely new system made from scratch it utter madness.

We all have understood the reason why we should be recycling. Introducing that en masse to the car industry could have been a fantastic compromise, but we blew it, because we couldn’t resist the idea of combining a mythical silver bullet for our problems and the chance to carry on with our addiction to consumption.
On a lighter note, I was also reminded this week that Michael Crichton, who wrote so many wonderful books and showed us a new way of thinking about the world and how we live in it, studied medicine at university, as well as anthropology.

The connection here is: so did I. Both medicine and anthropology.

Like him, I realised, with some dismay on my part, that being a doctor was not for me. The problem was that I didn’t really know what else to do. Actually, let me correct that: I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a journalist and author, but I didn’t have the confidence to say it to myself, let alone out loud to someone else.

So I fell into medical publishing, as I knew the subject, and I was sure I could pick up the necessary editing and writing skills as I went along. Indeed I did, and slow but surely I inched my way towards becoming a medical reporter. It took me much longer than I anticipated, but eventually I made it, and I saw that having studied medicine had, in the end, been a gift, even if it wasn’t the one I had expected.

I consider myself very lucky to be able to write on a subject of such depth, and one that renews itself constantly with novel research and ideas, the aim of which is to improve the human condition.

Beyond that, medicine and anthropology opened up a way of considering the world that has enriched my fiction writing. I don’t imagine that I will reach heights of genius attained by Michael Crichton, but I do hope that I bring some insights that both illuminate and stimulate the reader.
This week I added yet another recipe to here: Tenderstem Broccoli and Mushroom Risotto. Again a last-minute dish created to order for hungry mouths, I wanted to make a warming, cosy dish that would be good in winter, but with enough lightness and texture to remind us of happy times in Italy. Enjoy!
Finally, I am off for a couple of weeks, so I won’t get the chance to add any updates or columns until I get back.

In the meantime, stay safe, look after yourselves, and see you soon.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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The Big Electric Confidence Trick | Pushing the Wave