Last month, I read a newspaper story that called the future of automobiles electric; and it quoted an electric vehicle (EV) owner who worries “only about replacing his tires, wiper blades and air filter.”
I assume that this man (I’ll call him Mr. C.) does not know economist Herman Daly’s principles: “Do not take from the Earth faster than it can replenish. Do not waste faster than the Earth can absorb.”
I assume that Mr. C. does not know that industrial manufacturing of any product—including a solar PV system, an industrial wind turbine, an air conditioner, a refrigerator, a washing machine, a medical implant, a smartphone, a laptop, a desktop, a television, a gas-powered vehicle or an electric vehicle—requires hundreds if not thousands of substances. And each substance has its own energy-intensive, greenhouse gas-emitting, toxic waste-emitting, inter-continental supply chain.
Does Mr. C. know about the water taken from farmers to dope his electric vehicle’s transistors and process his battery’s lithium? Does he know about the children maimed and buried alive while mining for his battery’s cobalt? The 10 million murders over coltan (extracted for batteries) in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Does he know about the pure carbon (such as petroleum coke from the Tar Sands) used to smelt silicon for his EV’s transistors? What about n-hexane, swiped on EVs’ circuit boards, which can give swipers leukemia or neuro-muscular diseases?
Does he know about electric vehicles’ fire hazards? Firefighters typically extinguish a traditional vehicle fire with 300 gallons (113 liters) of water. One fire truck holds 500 gallons (1893 liters). To put out an EV fire, firefighters use 20,000 - 30,000 gallons (76,000 – 113,562 liters) of water; and Tesla advises them to stand watch over it for 24 hours, since, like trick birthday candles, EV batteries can re-ignite. In the U.S., only 10% of firefighters are trained to handle EV fires.
E-buses can catch fire, too. Stuttgart, Germany actually halted using e-buses after a fleet of 25, including two buses with electric drives, was completely destroyed. In Hanover, Germany, nine buses were destroyed by fire in a bus depot. A third fire at the Rheinbahn bus depot in Dusseldorf also caused extensive damage.
The hazards I’ve named here don’t scratch a vehicle’s surface. Electric cars need roads, too—and bridges, and tunnels, and interchanges, and entrance ramps, and multi-story parking garages, and parking lots, and driveways, and charging stations. Each of these needs raw construction materials, including stone, gravel and sand.
Still, if there’s a forum for evaluating and mitigating these issues with due diligence before governments spend yet more toward their manufacturing, before another consumer or business or municipality buys another EV, I don’t know about it.
I’m looking for due diligence. I know we can’t snap our fingers and stop ravaging the Earth. But could we commit to slowing it down?
Rather than buy into a new technology with invisible, unaccounted for eco hazards, could we train mechanics to keep the vehicles we have in good repair? Could we drive less? Could neighbors share cars? Could we redesign communities to support walking and biking?
While marketers greenwash the fossil fuels, extractions, toxic waste, shipping and worker hazards involved in manufacturing EVs—and the roads, chargers and power plants required to operate them—and the shipping and dumpsites required at the end of their usable lives—calling these vehicles “sustainable,” “carbon neutral,” “net-zero emitters” perpetuates the illusion that consumptive living can continue.
Mr. C. might not worry. I sure do.