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Carl Levin’s Idea of Revolution

August 13, 2010

On Friday, August 6, Michigan Senator Carl Levin released a statement entitled “Pursuing a Revolution in Transportation.” In this statement Levin is basing his idea of a transportation revolution on a continuation of car production with one small change – the cars will be powered by electricity, not oil.

The statement by Levin is to be expected considering the Senator’s relationship with the auto industry. During his career three of the top four individual campaign contributions have been from the Big Three automakers. The Michigan Senator would be hard pressed to advocate for anything that would threaten the auto industries stranglehold on transportation in the US.

Just because there is the possibility of a future with cars that do not use fossil fuels to power them does not equate a revolutionary departure from the environmental and social and human health costs of petroleum-powered cars. The idea that using electric batteries to power individual vehicles will revolutionize transportation is flawed on many levels.

First, petroleum and petroleum-based production will still be part of the auto industry even if we switch to electric batteries. Plastics are an integral part of auto production, which will necessitate the use of oil consumption.  Car parts factories and auto assembly plants function on either oil or coal-powered electricity production, neither of which are revolutionary.

Second, the production of batteries comes with its on consequences. Car batteries rely on the extraction of minerals, particularly lithium, which has its own particular environmental and social costs.

Third, will the “transition” to electric battery-powered cars mean that everyone will have to buy a new car? Who would be able to afford such cars and will we see only the economically privileged sectors of society able to drive these vehicles? Will this cause more contempt for the poor and working class who would continue to drive petroleum-powered cars? Either way, the production of more cars means the extraction of more minerals for the metals used in cars, rubber for tires and plastics for auto parts.

Fourth, the continued production of cars will mean the continual construction of roads and park spaces, which have contributed greatly to environmental damage and human suffering. Road construction historically has displaced people and that will only continue as car production continues. Ecosystems have been devastated by road building and according to the World Wildlife Federation an estimated 1 million animals are killed by cars/trucks on US roads every day.

Finally, the continued production of cars, even ones powered by batteries, limits our ability to rethink about what is really necessary to revolutionize transportation. If we want to be revolutionary, we really need to think about the role of transportation in our lives and what is absolutely necessary for a sustainable future.

We cannot expect to find Star Trek-like solutions to our problems, rather a serious evaluation of how we move about. Mass transit systems that will serve entire populations are essential if we are to beat our energy addictions. We also need to evaluate how often we move about and redesign our collective lives that serious reduces the need for transportation that perpetuates the current system.

Some excellent resources that might jar some creative thinking are books like Katie Alvord’s Divorce Your Car! : Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile. An organization that has done important work to challenge road and parking construction is the Alliance for a Moratorium on Paving. Ultimately, we will need to redesign our cities and our lives.  These ideas and more might qualify as a revolution in transportation, unlike the modest adjustment that Senator Levin is advocating for.

One Comment leave one →
  1. xyz permalink
    August 13, 2010 8:37 pm

    In the movie Who killed the Electric Car an arguement is made that when you factor in hydroelectric , nuclear energy, and other non fossil fuel forms of energy that produces electricity in the U.S., an electric car is more environmentally friendly. I have to say I don’t like this arguement . If you live in an area where your electricity comes from coal burning you are polluting more. Also, will a surge in electric car sales result in an increase in nuclear power plants? The arguement that new technology for nuclear power is safe is a lie. In France they have recently had a lot of problems with leaking of radioactive materials.
    Also, hydroelctric energy is bad for the ecology of streams and rivers.

    If one were to buy an electric car, I think someone would have to research were there electricity comes from. If it came from multiple souces how could the average person calculate if it is significantly cleaner than gasoline? I think the best way to go would be to purchase solar panels or a small wind turbine to charge the car. Here in Grand Rapids, or places just as cloudy like Pittsburgh or Seattle, solar panels are not effective.

    Grand Valley has invented a small roof top wind turbine about the size of a bicycle tire that works in winds as low as 2-3 mph.Let me digress for a minute.When it originally was announced by Grand Valley, they estimated the cost of this turbine to be around $2000 dollars. I went to the earthtronics web site and they said honeywell is going to produce them for $6,000. This mark up is a bunch of bull. Taxpayers dollars financed its development at Grand Valley and now the taxpayer is being gouged.

    Originally Grand Valley touted that their invention, whose development was subsidized by Michigan taxpayers, would bring green jobs to Muskegon, an area with high unemployment that really needs jobs. I called eathtronics and asked were the wind turbines are being produced. Surprise, surprise-CANADA. Screwed by NAFTA again.

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