A study published in September of 2021 states people below the age of 40 will see natural disasters of unprecedented intensity and frequency. If you aren’t scared, you should be. Look around at life in the US and understand this is not normal, not sustainable, and needs to change if we want to minimize destruction and suffering in the present — let alone the future.
At the center of the conversation of “going green” has been switching over to fully electric vehicles. Through a certain lense, this makes sense. Electric cars appear to be the most seamless transition for the day-to-day transportation needs of most Americans. Part of this perception are the marketing campaigns which make electric cars seem like a no-brainer environmental win. After all, they don’t burn gas.
Nevertheless, being environmentally sustainable is so much more than not burning gas. For this, electric cars are not the solution. They will continue to pollute the air, destroy ecosystems and do a great deal of harm — especially to those most vulnerable.
While electric vehicles get rid of gasoline emissions, much of the damage to air quality isn’t from the fumes. It’s from tires. Yes, carbon dioxide is no longer released when the car no longer burns gas, but electric cars still contain treads and brake pads that, when worn down, break into tiny particles harming air quality.
But we’re only scratching the surface.
Lithium, nickel and cobalt are the three major components in rechargeable batteries that are, by definition, nonrenewable resources. But at least they’re not oil, right?
You may recall the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 or the fire in the middle of the ocean in July of last year. Since just 2011, Shell has reported over 1000 oil spills in the Niger Delta alone. These spills add up to around 4.6 million gallons of oil which have poisoned their waters, killed their crops and livestock and demolished the ecosystem. All of these are great reasons to move away from oil reliance — but is lithium mining used for electric cars any better?
Lithium mining is done by pumping lithium-rich brine from underground deposits to fill large pools to evaporate the water off. Today’s demand for lithium has already created around 30 square miles of these mines and pools in northern Chile where ecosystems used to be. While a cellphone needs around a quarter of an ounce of what is called “lithium carbonate equivalent,” the battery of an electric car such as a higher-end Tesla requires as much as 180 pounds.
Sit with those numbers for a second. Imagine how much more lithium will be needed to create enough electric cars for everyone to switch. Estimates for the next 20 years have the lithium demand multiplying by around 40 times. If 40 times the demand means mining expands by 40 times, those 30 square miles become 1,200 square miles. This is an area larger than Rhode Island that would be entirely devoted to mining lithium.
Furthermore, over half of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where an estimated 40,000 children as young as seven work in mines for a mere $1-2 per day. These kids are not given gloves or masks despite direct cobalt contact — which can be fatal. A 2019 lawsuit brought against numerous corporations including the electric car icon of Tesla alleges companies knowingly acquiring resources from areas with such inhumane child labor conditions. Again, imagine what will happen to these communities as demand for cobalt only increases.
In addition, while Shell may no longer be spilling oil in the Niger Delta, lithium and the byproducts of its mining are dangerous if leaked in drinking water or agriculture irrigation.
Ultimately, switching from gas to electric cars — which means switching from oil to lithium and cobalt — does not alter international power imbalance. Nothing will be different for vulnerable people in developing nations whose homes and lives will continue to be destroyed for the benefit of US businesses.
Even though some claim electric cars may be the future, they do not prevent preventable car crashes. Over 38,000 people in the US die in car crashes each year. That’s over 100 people every day. No, self-driving cars aren’t the solution to this devastating truth.
Humans can barely drive safely as it is. How can we expect electric cars to operate safely on prewritten code? Currently, Tesla’s “autopilot mode” — which intends to center the car in its lane and keep itself a safe distance from the car in front of it — “[has] had difficulty identifying emergency vehicles with flashing lights, flares, illuminated arrow boards, or traffic cones near them.” An 18 minute video of a Tesla owner testing the ‘Full Self Driving’ feature exhibits the many faults in this feature that Elon Musk has promised would be complete within a year for 9 years in a row.
And what happens if the car hits someone? Lines of code cannot be held accountable in the event of a mistake that ends in death. This should not be the future we build towards.
So what is the solution? We’ve learned about how harmful electric vehicles will be if that is our future, but what else can be done?
The U.S. is unique in its reliance on personal vehicles. In most places, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to get anywhere without your own car. There are 816 cars in the US for every 1000 people. For comparison, Canada has 685, Japan has 590, France has 482, the UK has 473 and China has 214. If China had car ownership at the rate of the US, there would be over 840 million more cars in existence. Our reality of everyone owning their own car is ridiculous when you think about it.
In truth, personal car ownership is unsustainable whether they run on gasoline or batteries. What we need is investments in public transportation as well as reshape our cities and towns to be based on people, not cars.
In Madison we are lucky to be able to walk to the grocery store, to class, and to our various sources of recreation. But that isn’t the reality for most Americans. Most cities create sprawling suburbs in which you have to drive to get anywhere, and public transportation is not only underfunded but difficult to use.
A study from the Department of Housing and Urban Development found, “Our urban areas are expanding at about twice the rate that the population is growing.” Designing cities around cars means making urban design choices that sacrifice density, walkability, bikeability, public transportation efficiency and, quite frankly, aesthetic.
As things stand today, if you live in the suburbs and work in the city as many do, it is impractical to take most public transportation.
Then what’s the solution?
It’ll take time and investment but it’s simple: we need to be investing in trains, bikes, and public transportation as soon and as broadly as possible. These are the only transportation options that are a) real and b) will help prevent the oncoming disaster of climate change as well as the vast collateral damage of a world with personal cars.
This means demolishing single family housing and the ill-conceived notion of suburbs. Before the car, the US was home to beautiful, walkable towns built around train stations that connected them to the world. These designs are commonplace across Europe and Asia.
Living in Madison is great. We have the luxury of being able to walk, bike or bus anywhere we need. Yet, outside of cities like Madison complications remain.
Public transportation, not electric cars, is the future we should be imagining. It is time we forget the electric car delusion and build solutions grounded in reality.
Jeffrey Brown is a Senior studying Sociology. Do you agree that electric cars serving as an environmentally sustainable solution to climate change is a facade? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeffrey Brown is a former Arts Editor for the Daily Cardinal. He writes for The Beet occasionally and does some drawing and photography too. He is a senior majoring in Sociology. Do not feed him after midnight.