• Lesley Joseph

So about electric vehicles....

It seems like everyone wants an electric car. I see them all around me. Teslas. Chevy Volts. Hyundais. Audis. Porsches. I’m even starting to see commercials for electric pickup trucks, which is so interesting to me. I’m trying to picture these blue-collar pickup truck owners, people who pride themselves on powerful engines, towing capacity, and “the smell of a good truck”, going to the dealership and choosing an electric truck. Seems like a hard sell to me. But, as you might imagine, that is not my concern whatsoever.

The biggest problem that I have is that electric cars are being sold to us as the path to finally addressing issues related to climate change. Everyone, from my friends to the President of the United States, is touting electric cars as the way to a greener future. It also seems like environmental groups are getting behind this idea, too. (Just click here, here, and here for a few examples). And I can understand the excitement. Anything that we can do to reduce emissions should be strongly considered. Not to mention the idea that driving an electric car (or truck) is a way that everyday people can participate in the fight against climate change.

However, when we think about electric vehicles, we need to ask ourselves a couple of important questions: 1) How are we (in relation to electric vehicles) thinking about the environment? 2) Are these vehicles ultimately helpful or harmful?

Let’s start with our thoughts about the environment. If you read all of the relevant climate reports and look at the data (The 2022 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a good place to start), you will see that reducing vehicle emissions is something that we all agree on. By extension, this will reduce our impact on the climate and hopefully mitigate the impacts of climate change, which is what we all (should) want. But there is a one fundamental reality about electric vehicles that is not often given the consideration that is needed: We still need energy. Any vehicle that you choose to drive will require some type of fuel. For the engineers and scientists out there, think about the “Law of Conservation of Energy”:

“Energy can neither be created or destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed or transferred from one form to another.”

So where is the energy coming from? The idea is that because it’s electric, no gasoline is being burned to power the car, which means no emissions. However, to “fuel” your electric car, you need to plug it into an outlet to get electricity. You would be using the same energy that your home/apartment/condo uses to power your car. Let's not forget that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from industry and electricity production.

And with electricity becoming the way that we power these vehicles, we are simply shifting vehicle emissions to emissions from electricity production, which comes its own set of issues and brings me to the next question.

Are electric vehicles helpful or harmful? It’s not really a fair question. Helpful to who? Harmful from who? Many people cannot imagine a scenario where electric cars are harmful in any way. “There are no emissions.” “I do not need to go to the gas station.” “I can recharge my car at my house with my own outlet.” “We should all get electric cars so there would be no need to drill for oil or import it from hostile countries.”

I understand the sentiment, and it’s nice to have this level of awareness. But it needs to go deeper. It is at this moment where we all need to have a more holistic view of the world and the people in it, particularly the vulnerable among us. It is at this point where I can clearly see that, instead of being a dream come true for climate advocates, electric vehicles will become an environmental justice nightmare for communities of color.

To be fair, our means of producing electricity have slowly been getting greener over the last 20 years. However, the most polluting, environmentally-harmful forms of energy production are concentrated in black, brown, and indigenous communities. Think coal-fired power plants and everything that goes along with that. The dumping of toxic waste from these facilities also occurs disproportionately in these communities. Keep in mind that race (NOT income) is the factor that is most accurately determines where these facilities will ultimately be located. So what happens when more people start driving electric cars and more electricity is needed? How will the increased demand be accommodated? [Hint: It will not be done using solar panels.]

Ultimately, fenceline black and brown communities will face the impacts of increased electricity production. Those who are able to afford electric vehicles do not typically live in these types of communities and would be completely unaware of the TRUE impact of their electric car use. They see themselves as making the best use of the money to protect the environment and live sustainably. (I can think of a few communities in the South and the Midwest who may disagree.)

Of course, I can hear my environmentalist friends in my ear right now:

“What do you want to do then? Car emission are a huge problem, right?”

“You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, especially when the oil and gas industry is so destructive.”

“So what do you suggest? You are still driving that old, gas-guzzling Honda!”

I hear you. Loud and clear. But here’s the thing that I need you to remember. It’s not about you. It’s about caring about the most vulnerable, impacted members of our society. We need to think about who Jesus of Nazareth calls “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) Here are a couple of ways to do that:

1) Learn about the disadvantaged communities in your city. You cannot be a part of any meaningful change if you are distant and disconnected. Go and see the true conditions. Breathe what they breathe. Eat what they eat. Shop where they shop. Feel what they feel. Meet the people and their families. This will connect you to those who are vulnerable in your city and open your eyes to the realities that people face from day-to-day.

2) Advocate for clean energy policies. These policies truly benefit all of us. There needs to be a push for clean, renewable energy that will reduce the total amount of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, not simply a strategy that shifts the pollution to fenceline communities and "sacrifice zones".

3) Practice energy-efficiency. Reducing your fuel and electricity use is always helpful. It may seem small, but everyone working together can make a big difference. Carpooling. Public transportation. Low-flow fixtures in your home. Energy-efficient appliances and lighting. These are tangible ways of reducing your impact on the environment and serving your community.

4) Support local and national environmental justice organizations. The activists and the organizers know what their communities need and what would be most helpful. Let them lead the way. Donate your money, post and repost their initiatives, and get out of the way. If you can't think of any groups, here is a good place to start.

Just my thoughts. (And I have not even gotten to the impact of the batteries!)

This is not to condemn anyone who (in good conscience) purchased an electric vehicle to help the environment. I'm just saying that you have (much) more work to do. So let's get to it!

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