Electric car faces ideology, market issuesWill Americans ever embrace automobiles that run on electricity rather than gasoline?
By: John Crisp, The Dickinson Press
Will Americans ever embrace automobiles that run on electricity rather than gasoline?
The Chevrolet Volt, an all-electric car supplemented by a range-extending gasoline engine, is on the market, but its $41,000 price tag puts it well beyond the means of most Americans. In fact, Jonah Goldberg, of the American Enterprise Institute, contends in a recent column that the target market for the Volt is trendy, young professionals who have given in to a guilty conscience over the harm that the internal combustion engine has done to the environment.
Or who at least want to appear as if they care about pollution and global warming. The Volt, Goldberg says, is an expensive gadget that will help “affluent hipsters ... preen the plumage of their political sanctimony.”
His smug condescension toward people who want to do the right thing diverts attention from the haunting backdrop of life in the modern world: The great majority of scientists continue to agree that the global climate is warming and that the internal combustion engine plays a significant and growing role in the creation of gases that unbalance the natural atmosphere.
No single weather event can prove or disprove global warming but more than one scientist has pointed out that the current headlines are entirely consistent with a quickly warming world: torrential rains in China and Pakistan, drought and wildfires in Russia, unusual congregations of jellyfish along beaches in Australia and Japan and in the Mediterranean, rising ocean levels and, particularly disconcerting, the collapse of a huge ice island, four times the size of Manhattan, into the sea below a Greenland glacier. Of course, there’s much, much more.
Generally, our response to these ominous portents has been denial. And arguments like Goldberg’s about the unfeasibility of solutions like the electric car fall on the receptive ears of Americans who are deeply satisfied with the status quo: cheap, abundant gasoline and big, comfortable, powerful, and long-range cars, pickups, and SUVs.
Furthermore, Goldberg and others have argued that electric cars may do more harm than good. A great deal of our electrical energy comes from carbon-intensive sources, especially coal and natural gas. He refers to unnamed studies that confirm that China would produce many more greenhouse emissions if it switched entirely to electric cars.
Again, our deep commitment to the internal combustion engine inclines us to accept this line of argument, as well, making the electric car a very hard sell.
However, the real problem — and Goldberg offers this notion as though it were a revelation — is that the electric car is a response to an ideological imperative, rather than an economic one. This means that the market hasn’t found a demand for electric cars or, as yet, a way to price them to compete against the internal combustion market.
But this line of reasoning implies an essential error: few industries have been more subject to control and manipulation than petroleum, and our current situation is hardly the result of an entirely unfettered free market. The choice for private ownership of vehicles powered by gasoline, as well as the subsidization of our extensive highway and bridge infrastructures that support it, reflects ideology as much as it reflects the market.
Unfortunately, the market is never going to be able to save us from global warming. The market depends on balancing what we desire with its availability, and it doesn’t have much capacity for dealing with long-term consequences.
It will take ideology — without its negative connotations — to confront the realities of global warming. In our pursuit of a system of principles that will enable us to deal with a very serious dilemma, we will have to favor rational thought, discussion, and ideas over the way we wish things were.
And that is why we probably shouldn’t expect to see a flood of electric cars on our highways anytime soon.
Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at email@example.com.