Joke’s on us

I read a seemingly bright piece of news the other day.  Norway has reported that sales of electric vehicles has overtaken those of its petrol-fuel sibling.  At least, it seems a good step in the right direction of sustainability, right? I was thinking about this while riding and figured I’d do a little digging.

I discovered in 2018, car sales reached nearly 150,000 vehicles.  This is roughly double the amount of car sales compared to the 1990s. It’s not just Norway. This is a global trend.  Average vehicle sales around the world averaged 39 million through the 1990s, but have since doubled and the past 3 years saw car sales reaching up to 79 million.  Sure. Emerging economies in South and East Asia have certainly added to this precipitous growth, but the trend is consistent within developed economies as well.  Furthermore, we’re only looking at the beginning of a vehicle’s life cycle.

The average vehicle has a lifespan of about eight years.  So where do all these cars go?  Some go to recycling.  It’s just a dent a dimpled fender, though. Across the globe last year only 27 million cars were recovered for recycling.  In the chassis of a new vehicle you will find just 25% of the steel was recovered from a scrap yard.  I know straight comparisons make a rough go of statistics, but I hoped the ratio for recovered vehicles and new vehicles would float a little closer to 1.

Moving to electric vehicles seems like a great thing. I mean, what’s worse than the big bad petroleum industry?  Its cousin, the automobile industry, comes to mind.  Personally, I think creating a consumptive growth cycle out of private cars is insane.  Cars are a huge, resource-heavy piece of equipment.  They require a lot to manufactur, distribute, maintain and drive.  This is probably why the economy loves them, because the industry directly supports hundreds of thousands of people.  Then tack on the connected industries that cater to automobiles and motorists.  Millions of people make a living from cars. 

To commoditize car ownership is to assume that the need to drive for mobility is an innate right, that it’s not a luxury.  Ok. You can own whatever you want and no one can tell you otherwise.  Sadly, this is an ethically shaky argument.  Consumer choices are an aggregate.  Treat yourself is a pretty weak excuse to write off humanity’s need to think and plan sustainably. Cue present attempts to re-examine addressing the crisis that is the carbonization of our atmosphere.  It’s an easy patch to scapegoat oil, to push for “cleaner” alternatives.  Pointing fingers then pivoting in another direction doesn’t address the elephant in the room.

Increased electric vehicle sales are on the surface more of the same: More cars than we need.  The electric car industry is the same nightmare as your standard petroleum variety.  Worse yet, the dark side of the automobile industry, dependence on petroleum, is supplanted by the even sketchier rare minerals market.  Gone will be the days of sucking black crude from beneath our feet.  Come are the days of ripping open the earth and stripping her for all the cobalt she has to bear, people and environment be damned.

So before you start flipping through that glossy new Tesla catalog, maybe you should consider exercising another consumer choice.  Move close to work.  Take public transit.  Or, my personal favorite, ride a bike.

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