Decoupling From Reality

I recently learned that a fellow I know, whom you might describe as wholly well-meaning but who also never met a form of consumption-as-activism he didn’t like, has jumped aboard the electric car wave and reserved for himself a Model 3–Tesla’s first attempt at an affordable (starting at $35,000) mass-market vehicle.

I had heard previously about the 3, as it is the next phase in Elon Musk’s grand strategy to free the world of petroleum-fueled means of transportation. If you don’t know about the enormous buzz and glitz surrounding Tesla’s every exploit (and to a lesser extent, misstep), you either have the unusual blessing of being immune to press releases of every kind, or, like most people in this country, you live in a world far removed from that in which even a $35,000 car would be called “affordable”.

Until I learned of my friend’s daring move, though, I’d thought the debut of the 3 was a very long way off, mainly due to the difficulties of cutting the costs of the car’s still-enormous battery–which makes up a large part of the sticker price for previous models such as the S. I was partly right; the first consumer-ready versions of the car will not ship out until the end of 2017–and possibly much later, if Tesla’s history of delays holds true.

But, ever-aware of the importance of good press–which becomes all the more pressing for a company that since going public has struggled with soaring losses and, despite its vanguard image, actually lags behind many competitors technologically–Tesla’s unveiling went ahead with full splendor. Alas, being at least partly immune to press releases myself, I had missed the opportunity to experience this supreme happening live (over the internet), as I only came upon the video a few days ago.

Let me sum it up. Musk, in a combination of rock-star mode and tasteful humility, strides onto the stage and suggests to us how Tesla is actually founded and run to address the great moral imperative of stopping climate change. He outlines how this imperative required beginning with an expensive, low-volume car, in order to be able to ramp up eventually to a less-expensive, high-volume car, which then would–through sheer coolness, as it were–be set to tame the recordshattering heating of the planet, by putting a serious dent in transportation emissions. That high-volume car, if all goes well, is none other than the Model 3.

This is all to the good, and there are shouts from the crowd: we love you, Elon. Despite the sternly scientific-technological topic, there is a crazed messianic tone in this space, a strange thronging for salvation on the part of the (I assume meticulously selected) crowd, that is even obvious to me, watching through a small computer window, at a large remove in space and time. Then, without further ado, amid an equally religious awed stillness out rolls the messianic car–and a very pretty car it is. Three of them, in fact.

The future is here–well not quite yet; it’s two years off, remember. But there is already a staggering backlog of people, like my friend, who are eager to buy into that future–180,000 of them in just 24 hours after the unveiling. And now that the 3 has a definite shape, a specific form on which to hang one’s fantasies, it’s fair to expect that that backlog will only grow.

Tesla (and Musk) are definitely a phenomenon, no matter what world you live in. There’s also no doubt Musk’s plan shows a combination of unusual daring, brilliant product placement, and strategic acumen. The cars, as I said, are very pretty, and so far get overwhelmingly rave reviews.

So much for the aesthetics, performance, coolness factor, and general chutzpah. But despite the grand terms in which Musk speaks, these things do not a big picture make–and so far as I can see of that, I’m not hugely impressed.

For one thing, there is the obvious fact, only now coming to be acknowledged, that upon switching to an electric car the former gasoline vehicle’s carbon emissions are not eliminated but merely transferred to a faraway power plant, which then makes the true carbon footprint a matter of what energy mix your corner of the world depends on for electricity. In upstate New York, where most electricity comes from carbon-free hydropower, an electric car creates emissions equivalent to a 135 mpg gasoline car. But in West Virginia, Colorado, or Ohio, where coal is the main part of the mix, that equivalent drops to around 40 mpg–about the same as many gasoline cars being sold now.

For another thing, making electric cars involves every bit as much of an ugly industrial manufacturing process, with its attendant huge energy demands, as does making gasoline cars. In fact, for an electric car, this process is actually dirtier and more energy-intensive than for a comparable gasoline car–up to 9 tons more CO2 per car manufactured, if Lomborg is to be believed. But again, this somehow need not concern us. Shut up, buy the car, keep on driving just like you did before, and be proud you’re an environmentalist.

On the other hand, I was very surprised to find that suddenly powering a huge proportion of our cars through the electrical grid would not require building tons of new power plants. In a recent report, a consortium of electric utilities reported they have enough baseload to power even 75% of the nation’s auto fleet electrically without building more capacity, due mainly to the much higher efficiency of electric vs. ICEs, and to the likelihood they would be charged at night, when electrical demand is very low anyway. (Even if these numbers are solid, I am skeptical of how this would play out in real life, and as soon as you get into constructing more large power plants that itself involves a large CO2 release.)

So, supposing tomorrow we switch all the cars magically to electric, we probably only cut our total vehicle-related emissions (both manufacturing and driving them) by 25% or something. Better than nothing–but the messianic feeling of saving the world with Technology isn’t quite what it was.

I suspect that, insofar as they are currently promoted as a carbon-reducing strategy on the huge scale we actually need to make a difference in our predicament, electric cars remain largely a delusion. Far more than materially improving environmental problems, they serve as a strategy for converting the environmental angst of fair-weather-green professional classes into hard cash-flow, or at least exploding share prices.

Psychologically, the rapture over electric cars strikes me as mostly a form of bargaining, a way to pretend that our accustomed luxuries can be continued indefinitely without change, sacrifice, or consequence. Much though fans of Musk may overtly despise Dick Cheney or George Bush, they are nonetheless implicitly very much in the same corner when it comes to the belief that “the American way of life is not negotiable”.

The problem I have with these kinds of efforts, in sum, is not the goal to eliminate fossil fuel use–nothing could be better for the world–but that no one is able or willing to take seriously the notion that such things as drastically cutting the CO2 emissions of a still-overwhelmingly (almost 80%) carbon-powered world economy might involve even the slightest amount of unpleasantness, or might demand anything like, say, abandoning the idea of growth. Instead, we are urged not to look behind the curtain, nor think more than one or two steps into the consequences of our choices.

What is being raved about at events such as the Model 3 unveiling, is not so much a technological solution commensurate to the enormous problem of climate change, nor a new way of thinking similarly commensurate, nor a brave confronting of ugly truths–but another way to “pretend to act“, as George Monbiot once put it.

Hence, even if the environmental benefits of switching to electric cars prove to be only modest, and far from enough to justify continuing our lifestyle expectations in “non-negotiable” style, we can expect that the switch will still be trumpeted as the true solution. What is truly unbearable to us, if anything, is that the emissions attendant to our lifestyle be produced close to us–which suggests an obvious culpability–rather than at a distance, out of sight and out of mind. Though it falls short of achieving drastic (>80%) emissions cuts, the deceptively tailpipe-less electric car satisfies this other, unspoken standard completely.

Of course, that a plan does not really break with previous habits of thought is no proof of its ultimate futility. Yet the story of the electric car is disappointing in that it shows, despite its self-promotion as the vanguard of innovation, imagination and revolutionary change, that we are in fact rock-firm in the same view of life that got us here: technological, exploitative, objectifying, materialistic, and dedicated to the endless expansion and intensification of all of the above.

Similar inner contradictions and inadequacies can be seen in the much-celebrated recent reports of “decoupling” of carbon emissions from economic growth–another example of pretending at radical re-envisioning while bear-hugging the status quo. In particular, it was just reported that we’ve had 2 years with no growth in global energy-related CO2 emissions, while the economy grew 3%.

Of course that assessment too has a number of major problems. First, yes, the absolute amount of CO2 emissions stagnated in 2014 and 2015, but at an all-time high–an odd thing to celebrate. Second, most of that stagnation in emissions owed to the US converting coal power plants over to natural gas produced by fracking, which is hardly a renewables revolution or proof of “decoupling”.

Third, the same graph of emissions by year that is so proudly displayed by so many green free-marketers reveals many other periods with no emissions growth occurred, like the early ’90s. Celebrating 2 years with no increase in emissions as clear evidence of decoupling is then oddly redolent of denialists’ shoddy claims, from a few years ago, that a single warming “hiatus” disproved anthropogenic global warming.

Finally, at almost the exact same time as these celebrations began, there was another report (also mentioned by Musk at the Model 3 unveiling, by the way) that atmospheric CO2 has just logged the largest year-on-year increase ever recorded–3.05 ppm. It is hard enough to compile such a complex and surely noisy indicator as GDP or global CO2 emissions as it is; but to then compare them to each other, assuming a 3% change to be outside the margin of error, while at the same time ignoring that CO2 levels have actually risen unprecedentedly, takes the kind of wishful thinking that only a deep terror of green capitalism’s patent inadequacy could evoke.

Like the story of the electric car as the clear-cut solution to the ills of transportation-based carbon emissions, then, the story of “decoupling” is based merely on the unthinkability of more uncomfortable alternatives. Eleven years after Al Gore’s eponymous movie supposedly cut into our consciousness and brought climate change firmly into mainstream view, we still are unable to come to grips with the notion that climate change may truly prove “inconvenient”.

And so the decadent yet guilt-ridden masses of consumerist Moderns flock to Musk and other green capitalists for absolution, shouting out their love not only for delivering that absolution, but for the calm tacit promise that things can remain pretty much the way they are–just cleaner, sleeker, and of course, with excellent 0-60 acceleration. Commend yourself to Elon’s wisdom and all shall be set right; he shall show you not only that the very essence of technology and individual greed are no way to blame for what is happening to the planet, but that they are the only things that can save it.

The real genius at work here is marketing–and as much of a carefully curated heroic image of ourselves as buyers, as of the electric cars. But while a passionate desire to believe a story is important to that story’s success, it is simply not sufficient. Like Tesla with its massive debts and product debuts that telescope ever further out into the future, or the dream that pollution that happens far enough from your own car somehow isn’t your fault, or the fevered hope that a two-year stall in carbon emissions proves our standard market-based model is rising to the challenge of warming, the “no sacrifices” story passes trippingly from quarter to fiscal quarter on its way to an imagined future. By the time its utter insufficiency becomes undeniable, it will be too late even for the harshest sacrifices, or the most dogged acts of denial and displacement, to make up for the chances that were missed.

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