The Green Revolution Backfires

Sweden's lesson for real sustainability

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

Thanks to generous government subsidies, Sweden aggressively pushed
its citizens to trade in their cars for energy efficient replacements
(hybrids, clean diesel vehicles, and cars that run on ethanol). Sweden was so successful in this initiative that it leads the world in per capita sales of ‘green cars.’ But to everyone’s surprise—and the government’s deep dismay—greenhouse gases from the country’s transportation sector are up!

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

We should keep this in mind 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 advertised 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 so long as we ignore the elephant in the room: consumption. Our consumption habits are so absurd, so out-of-whack, that they risk undoing any environmental gains we might make. We are such ardent, addicted consumers that we will take efficiency gains as license to consumer even more.

If we hope to preserve the environment and accommodate the burgeoning consumer demands of billions in the developing world, we have to face facts and work to reform our crazed consumer habits; we must establish a new norm for consumption, one that is far more modest than the current status quo. Sweden’s example suggests that some basic policy changes are in order.

For one thing, we need to make energy more expensive, not less—no
matter its source. If the cost of energy were raised, through significant gas tax increases comparable to Europe, for example, it would force us to become accustomed to depending on less of it, in all aspects of our daily lives. It would dispose us to conserving energy, using as little of it as possible, which was once our default position. This measure would spell other changes in turn, such as in our shopping habits: we would, for example, be less inclined to load up on appliances and electronics, and stuff that requires more storage space and larger homes—all of which demands energy.

We must also work to discourage driving, as much as possible. This
entails more condensed development—suburban and urban infill—and increased public transit. I suspect that ever-worsening congestion on our roads will force us in this direction sooner or later. As traffic engineers have learned, building more roads does not ease congestion, but actually increases it, largely because it invites more drivers onto the roads. Public transit is the best solution for congestion and pollution, but most municipalities in this country don’t offer residents real public transit options that are cheap, clean and efficient. If they did, I’m convinced Americans could be converted. For decades now, we have devoted all our energy to thinking of ways to make driving easier, cheaper and more convenient, but if we applied the same focus to public transit, surely we’d make similar strides there.

This is the conversation that we ought to be having, instead of how to make current consumer preferences green and cheap. Don’t get me wrong, electric cars are a wonderful and welcome innovation, but they are only a very partial solution to the problem at hand and must be accompanied by other, far more expansive lifestyle changes. The powers that be are reluctant to rock the boat with consumers, and have decided that leaving consumption habits intact is the preferable option. This is not good enough. We need more than half measures to achieve sustainability. As Sweden proves, unless other more fundamental changes are made in our consumer society, half measures only dig us deeper in the hole.

Firmin DeBrabander is a professor of Philosophy at Maryland Institute College of Art. Read other articles by Firmin, or visit Firmin's website.