Quite the Conundrum: Why Your Hybrid Is Bad for the Environment. ~ Jennifer Mo

Via elephant journal
on Sep 9, 2012
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Let’s play a quick game of word association! I say green car, you think:

a) Prius
b) Chevy Volt
c) Nissan Leaf
d) Model-T

David Owen, author of  The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, would go with D. His theory is that technological advances, including the ones that increase efficiency, actually tend to increase consumption.

And also, good intentions don’t count for much. Case in point: New York City has a lower per capita impact than Portland because of high density living (shared utilities, no yards, less space = less stuff, really good, highly used public transportation). Your average New York City dweller might not care about vermicomposting, but probably has a lower impact than a treehugger living in suburban California.

Feel-good vibes or not, the bottom line matters.

Let’s go back to the car thing for a minute.

So, we have it on pretty good evidence that two things that effectively reduce driving are fuel prices and inconvenience (traffic, lack of parking). Getting a hybrid actually reduces your fuel price and, if you’re in an area where hybrids can use the carpool lane, makes it more convenient to drive.

Does getting a hybrid encourage you to drive more and offset your saved emissions? Or alternately, does the money you save get spent pursuing some other form of consumption? Same thing for air conditioning, solar power, EnergyStar televisions…If our technology is getting more efficient all the time, why are our emissions not heading satisfactorily south?

It’s a provocative question. David Owen suggests that looking to technology to save us might just be ass-backwards. For example, he thinks that a car that would cut down on emissions far more effectively than a Prius would be the following:

Or maybe mandating inefficient equipment wouldn’t be a terrible idea. During a talk I gave in New York in 2011, I described one possible vision of a green automobile: no air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of twenty-five miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon.

In other words, something kinda like a Model-T. Paired with today’s gas prices. And with most of the lanes on our highways closed and parking lots turned into high density housing.

If this were the only car available, would you drive it? Or would you start looking for ways to live, work, and play closer to home? (This, more than just the emissions, is why cars make such a difference in our lives.)

What if Australia were still a two year journey with 50% mortality away? Would you not cross it (and all other far away locations) off the list for your next holiday?

Neither galloping technological advances nor efficiency provides an incentive to reduce energy useQuite the opposite. Owen suggests that we need, if not mandated energy inefficiency that acts as a deterrent to the whole high-consumption structure of western civilization, then at least energy efficiency combined with enforced caps on how much we can use.

One problem is that the environmental movement emphasizes making small, voluntary changes.

At the same time, technological advance makes it cheaper and easier for us to consume more, so it often comes down to individual willpower. Do I have the willpower to never fly for another holiday? Do I have the willpower to not drive my car, to not hit the button that turns on the AC on a hot day, to not take hot showers, to not use the electricity my condo is wired with, to not upgrade my five year old phone, to not replace my laptop?

Even knowing the high environmental impact of each of these activities, I don’t think I do—at least not all the time.

But a century or less ago, people did without these things and still had fulfilling, interesting lives. The more technology lowers the price of admission for all of these things, the more they start seeming like necessities rather than luxuries, the more the energy we use on them feels like a necessary expenditure.

One other interesting idea in Conundrum is how good intentions aren’t enough. It’s easy for us to point a finger at corporations for the planetary damage they cause, but how willing are we to make the type of big, infrastructure changes in our own lives that would make an effective difference?

I’m not talking about changing a light bulb; I’m talking about the stuff that really matters personally and on a gut level: where we live, what we eat, how many children we have.

Owen argues persuasively that high density living is the lowest impact option, while moving out to the country is essentially extending suburban sprawl. How ready am I to give up my dream of a cabin in the woods for the sake of being greener? I’m not.

Given how huffy people become when anyone suggests adopting a primarily vegan diet or having fewer kids, I’m skeptical that we will voluntarily make these types of changes on a species level.

No one likes to talk about sacrifice, and I don’t think self-sacrifice is going to be effective on the scale we need anyway. But something’s going to give eventually if we don’t want to live on a dead planet: maybe our free market economy, maybe our personal freedom to make unsustainable choices.

I guess my question is: at what point will sustainability become more important than my individual freedom to screw up the planet to the fullest extent of my financial limits? Would you support restrictions that sharply limited the amount of water, electricity, gasoline, and other resources you (and everyone else) could use—all in the name of sustainability?

Jennifer Mo is a concerned global citizen and a long time cat/book/tree person. You can follow her green journey at It’s Not Easy to be Green.




Editor: Lara C.

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8 Responses to “Quite the Conundrum: Why Your Hybrid Is Bad for the Environment. ~ Jennifer Mo”

  1. elephantjournal says:

    Great article! Thoughtful. I would argue, of course, that Priuses—and the various equal or better cars, mpg and overall-impact-wise, are far better than conventional alternatives. But I know that's obvious…just hate to see those trying to make a better choice get discouraged. I bike 365 (well, I fly a few days in there), so I'm doing my best, too—but obviously we all need help minimizing our negative impact. Having recently seen the new electric Ford and going to see Toyota's new vehicles in a few weeks, I'm psyched that, along with this most of all http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/09/another-ob… , industry is beginning to truly see the green in green.

  2. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Another in a series of excellent articles by Jennifer! Here and now I’m going to start a new organization, EL4JM (Ele Libertarians For Jennifer Mo). Ok, Jennifer herself might not be enthusiastic about this project. Libertarian!!?? But she puts me in mind of Jane Jacobs, the godmother of modern urban planning, adopted by the libertarian movement for her ideas on Spontaneous Order. (Check her out at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Jacobs). Jane J always denied she was a libertarian but her ideas said otherwise.

    Progressives a century ago had their hearts in the right place (as they usually do) when they latched onto “free” infrastructure for the automobile to release us from the evil clutches of railroad capitalism. But their solutions (as they usually are) have been a disaster.

    The low density lifestyle necessary for cars to run freely has wreaked havoc on human scale communities, on wildlands and farmlands, on the climate (if it turns out that carbon consumption is a major factor in global warming), on the oceans (where carbon consumption is more clearly a major factor in rising levels of acidity), and on peace (since we are compelled to fight wars to protect “our” oil).

    Govt. support for Carworld destroyed the “interurban” system (what we now call light rail) and with it Downtown and Main Street. America, with its interurbans, once had the best mass transit system in history. Not the best at that time, the best that has ever existed. Better than anything that Europe or Japan has even now. It was mostly privately built. It was mostly destroyed by a progressive good idea.

  3. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Forcing car companies to go electric means we will need a huge amount of additional electricity, doesn't it? Where is it all supposed to come from? More dams?

    As many here certainly know, there are two Yosemites in California, the one we call Yosemite and the one called Hetch Hetchy. If contemporary reports are to be believed, the two valleys were equally grand. But the Hetch Hetchy was damed in the 1920s to provide electricity for northern California against stiff opposition by John Muir and the Sierra Club. The movement to remove the dam and free once more the Tuolumne River has been picking up steam recently. One of my desires before I die is to see the Hetch Hetchy Valley. But if we are to make our cars electric, not only is that hope dead, but so is the future of other wild rivers, I would assume. I mean, we can't burn coal or oil to make electricity, right? That would defeat the purpose. And you don't want to frack, or go nuclear, do you? Solar and wind will come no where near powering all those cars. So what's it going to be? More dams?

    Instead of trying so hard to save Carworld, how about just simply get government out of the transportation business? Take cars off welfare? Let drivers pay ALL costs of driving and let the free market then respond to their inevitable choice to drive less by rebuilding the interurbans and human scale neighborhoods that America once had? With rational driving, not only would oil consumption by cars be a fraction of what it is now, but we could free our damed rivers.

  4. holly troy says:

    All i know is that just existing stretches me to the fullest of my financial limits. Yes, certain things were a hell of a lot easier when I lived in NYC – not needing a car was great – better than I even imagined now that I live in Arizona and need a car. It was amazing when I could walk to the post office, to get food, to get to work. Now, I just about have to drive everywhere. I tried living without a car in Tucson last year and was a practical shut in half the time (I rode my bicycle a lot – but still – not the friendliest town for cycling AND it's freakin' hot). Poor urban planning.

    A lot has to change – especially in cities. People need to be able to get around, better public transportation is a start – and better pathways for cyclists. I bought a Prius last year. It's the only thing I actually own (well, the bank still owns it) – but, it's one of the best investments I ever made. We have to make change on just about every level of our existence. Currently, I live in a place where I have to drive.

    I have made many choices based on sustainability – including tubal ligation (zero population growth). However, I am in a relationship with a man who has a child. The child in my life has split custody – there is no leaving AZ for now – and there is a lot of driving to and from school, to and from therapies (special needs kid), to and from work, to and from parents. It's just the way it is.

    In the meantime, many of us are doing the best we can. If people who aren't completely aware are buying Priuses and driving the shit out of them, it's better than doing nothing.

  5. korumaze says:

    Great article – a good look under the skin of green marketing! Loved the clear examples of the difference between our green dreams and the reality of sustainability. Thank you, Jennifer

  6. shaydewey says:

    Urban Planner?

  7. […] I remember when the show started in 2000 how bizarre it was that this billionaire would drive around in a Prius. Even though it’s a relatively inexpensive car, it has gained popularity because we believe (incorrectly) that it’s better for the environment. […]