Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The electric car and the inconvenient truth

My family is going through a period of reflection and change about lifestyle choices and environmental ethics. We were already getting by with one beat up old Honda Civic for our family of four. Then, our 6-year old son -- probably having heard some conversation between my wife and myself -- suggested that we stop using the car. We haven't sold the car yet, but we have started marking our kitchen calendar in big bold marker with the words "no car" on every day we do without. If we reduce our car miles from 11,000 per year to 7,500 per year, our insurance company will give us a discount. So far, the words "no car" appear on about 10 out of 14 calendar days, and we are still learning rapidly how to get by without it.

You might think this change would be an ordeal, but certainly not so far. We bought new bright bike lights for the kids and reinstalled our own. For travel together by bike path, the six-year-old rides his own new bike and the four-year-old rides the tag-along. For travel that includes roads, the four-year-old gets the old bike trailer and the six-year-old gets the tag-along. We bundle up for the late New England fall, and of course the weather has been mild lately. Every time we make a decision specifically prompted by the discipline of our new calendar record-keeping -- whether walking together in a hard rain or loading up the bikes with a particularly heavy burden -- we get home laughing at the fun we had together.

You might also think we were doing fine on car choices already and must be particularly uptight to be attempting yet more restraint. But, that's not true either. Everybody knows, for example, that per capita energy use or carbon emissions is much higher in the United States than in China, for example. But not everybody may understand the scale of the difference. Aggregate carbon emissions in the United States (population about 300 million) far exceed aggregate emissions for China (population about 1.4 billion). It is almost enough to make a person fear the growing economic justice in the world economy.

The bad news, if you haven't made this kind of change yet, is that at some point in the future you may feel called to deeper lifestyle changes than you now think possible. The good news is that these changes may be carried more lightly than you realize.

How can you get started? Over the last three days, my wife and I watched both Who killed the electric car? and An Inconvenient Truth, recently out on DVD. Both documentaries are entertaining, informative, and moving. I recommend them more strongly today than any other recommendation I have ever made to you. The Al Gore movie ends with an eloquent list of things to do. They are not all about light bulbs. Two of them, which resonated with us after this month's conversation with our kids, have to do with what children can ask their parents, and what parents can promise their kids, about the future of the planet.


Anonymous said...

Don't worry about the carbon, some studies suggest the US isn't a net contributor. Electric cars have always foundered on the limited battery capacity(series hybrids might be the answer). Global warming has not exceeded any past warming (and is driven more by water vapor than CO2). Al Gore is just a politician seeking power.

usfoodpolicy said...

Very funny, anonymous. Surely in jest! Er,... almost surely? The Electric Car movie convicts a whole host of guilty parties, but convincingly acquits the batteries. You're outright mistaken on the global warming (indeed, you overstate even the claim that a very small number of scientific doubters make about the human contribution to the warming). In his lecture, Al Gore seems totally liberated by his lack of political prospects -- he is charming as "formerly the next President of the United States of America."

Hōkan said...

I have not owned a car for several years. I do own a motorcycle but this doesn't help me for the long Minneapolis winters, nor when more than one other in my family need to get someplace. We bicycle, bus, and sometimes, borrow or rent a car.

We do well, don't usually miss the old gas hog.

Anonymous said...

In Japan I walk to the market every single day to shop for our food for the next 24 hours. There are twelve supermarkets, six greengrocers, and a fishmonger within a 30-minute walk, as well as farmers in the neighborhood who sell their vegetable output in honor-system 100-yen stands on the road. But I can only carry so much food, so a day's worth is the limit, forcing me to get exercise the next day.

But my sister in the U.S. lives in a typical "family friendly" subdevelopment where they have to drive quite a distance to escape the residential area.

The upshot for her is she cannot avoid driving to buy food, so she only shops weekly and stocks up, meaning more packaged food, less fresh food, and it really isn't that fresh if you keep it in the fridge for up to a week anyway.

With urban planning the way it is in the U.S., I don't see it being that practical to avoid a car. (And in rural areas of Japan it's just as bad.)

Anonymous said...

I salute your efforts (and how fun and healthy for your kids to get to ride their bikes so much!) I also worry about all the attention now being paid to individuals and what each of us should do to reduce our carbon emissions-- it smacks too much of the "50 things you can do to save the earth" books in the 80s/90s. I'm not saying that we don't have to take personal responsibility, but I think wide societal/political change is necessary, so that we individuals can actually make better choices. Otherwise, I fear the focus on individuals is just a mask to keep government and industry from making any real changes. For example: I'm a strong and active supporter of buying locally grown food. Now that the farmers' market is done for the year, I face an odd choice: I can walk 5 blocks to my neighborhood grocery store to buy apples that traveled at least 2,000 miles (and soon, even further, when they start carrying chilean apples), or I can drive at least 60 miles round trip to buy locally grown apples that will have traveled, well, 60 miles. Which really reduces my carbon footprint? And more importantly, why doesn't my local grocery store carry PA apples? Why is petroleum so subsidized that it's still cheaper for the store to buy apples from Washington or even Chile?

usfoodpolicy said...

Mark, your observations from Japan always make a great contribution to the comments section here. The most common concern I hear in discussing reduced car use is from people who feel it is unrealistic, given their home or work locations. Of course, we do make choices even about where to work and live. A good compromise for a reader who found the post interesting but personally infeasible would be to make smaller changes now, and plan to consider home size and transportation priorities on the occasion of your next relocation.

Stacy, you will surely love these two movies, which both astutely balance interrelated personal and political initiatives. Just for example, a key lie that General Motors told California policy-makers was that consumers were not accepting the tradeoffs involved in using electric cars. I hope the personal decisions of families like "."s influence the broader political debate about what the public wants from transportation policy.

Anonymous said...

The "things to do" list at the end of the Al Gore movie left out "have fewer kids and wait until you're older to have them" (I heard Al Gore has four).

We missed the Electric Car movie when it came to our theater within biking distance. Does the movie mention that the majority of electricity in the USA comes from burning coal (the most greenhouse gas per killowatt-hour because coal has more carbon and less hydrogen than gasoline)? Did the movie explain that solar power for electric cars would mean plugging them in during the day, rather than conveniently charging them at home at night? As hard as it is for us to make a real dent in the energy picture with solar electricity, it is much much harder to store solar energy on a large scale to make electricity available at night.

That said, I would vote for a 10-dollar per gallon gasoline tax with the proceeds going to solar thermal electric plants that do store some of the heat in order to make electricity at night.

I worry that our elected officials, while highly capable with words, might be effectively high school dropouts when it comes to thinking with science, technology, engineering and math.

John W.

Susan (ZenKnit) said...

Excellent post. I applaud your commitment. What is up with anonymous?

Brandy said...

I also applaud your increasing use of bicycles. You are very lucky! Living in Los Angeles, at the top of a 5% hill in a northern suburb, makes bicycling not only difficult, but DANGEROUS! There are STILL drivers who will purposefully aim at a cyclist, or will drive in the bike lane and honk at the bike to get out of the way. My husband's job moved 10 miles further south, increasing his commute from 1 hour to 3. Taking public trasnportation would mean 3-4 hours EACH WAY, 4 transfers, and STILL having to drive about 20 miles home from the MTA station, or adding anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 HOURS of WAITING time for a bus to show up, andthen the additional time to ride, transfer, etc. I am now disabled, and drive only 1 or 2 days a week alone to doctors to whatever. I would love to take a bicycle or even scooter if we could find one that could 'make the grade' and be legal in traffic, i.e., go more than 45 mph! Bicycling up these hills, or even walking up them, is a physical impossibility nowadays, so we may get a scooter. Hubby dreams of and longs for a Prius, but they are priced almost as far over our heads as owning our own house, where we can add solar panels and a wind turbine and plant a larger garden, etc etc. We found the charging machines and paddles for the EV1 at a local junkyard. The last remaining EV1 resides ina local automotive museum.... Makes us cry. We're trying, but LA isn't helping much...