GM’s Electric Pod Car

Get a Closer Look at GM’s Electric Pod Car: “No one’s talking about taking away your SUV or sportscar. But Borroni-Bird says the little electric runabout addresses six issues facing urban mobility in increasingly dense cities: energy use, environmental concerns, safety, congestion, parking and affordability…”

(via Autopia | Wired.com.)

First impressions: Cool! The future finally arrives! I want one!

But… on reflection, I have to raise a few issues.

For starters, why aren’t we talking about “taking away your SUV or sportscar”?

I suppose Wired meant this to be funny, but in fact they are deploying, subtly, a notion that is fairly problematic for efforts to address climate change – this notion that the green movement is going to take away your toys. There are two aspects to this. One is that of losing your toys, of having to do without, and the other concerns heavy-handed greenshirts forcing change on people – taking those toys (by force).

The problem with the first of these – of “losing your toys” – was raised very intelligently a couple of years back in a critique of “Earth Hour” – of getting everyone to turn off all lights for an hour. This critique raised two related problems for this widely popular event: it focuses on environmental change, or change to prevent environmental disaster, as requiring hardship and sacrifice; and with the darkness, it puts people into a situation that has associations with fear and danger and death.

I think that critique was spot on, and much more relevant than another criticism of the same event, which points out that switching off all those lights actually doesn’t reduce power consumption at all, because the power is still generated, has to be generated because of the way our electrical grid works – it is just not used. This is absolutely true, but misses the point of the event – which is to raise awareness, create solidarity and empower (no pun intended) people to see (again, no pun intended) that they can work for change in their daily lives.

But the point I want to make is simply this: we are indeed going to have to give up some of our toys, and more generally alter our attitudes towards consumption, if we are going to find a way out of this mess, and into a just and sustainable future for everyone on this planet.

(Regarding attitudes, consider the psychological factors that are behind the purchase of an SUV or sportscar – including the connotations of the word “sport” – as opposed to a more “sensible,” “family” or “compact” car. And consider how cool they make this Pod Car look – but maybe that is just the sci fi geek in me.)

We need to find events and publicity stunts that focus on positives rather than negatives – as that critique of Earth Hour suggests is the problem with that event. And we also need to think about rhetoric like that of this Wired piece, that likewise paint a negative picture of change.

But the rhetoric of that first sentence is a fairly trivial matter – there are much more serious problems here that I want to raise.

This Pod Car looks awesome. I’m a geek and a gear nut, I read science fiction, I lust after cool future tech – so of course I want one. But…

But the answers for a just and sustainable future will not come from such bandaid responses to the problems we face. The Electric Pod Car tries to finesse the problems of over-use of oil, of pollution and crowding by coming up with a smaller, cleaner private vehicle. It is, to use a phrase that I deploy quite often, business-almost-as-usual, when what is needed are more fundamental changes

Planners everywhere and cities throughout Europe have already addressed the problems of “energy use, environmental concerns, safety, congestion, parking and affordability” in much more sensible, sound, sustainable ways – through, for example, public transit, bicycles and sensible urban design (often the result of history as much as any conscious planning).

GM’s Pod Car and the other (mostly less sci fi) electric cars that are starting to come out seem to me fallback positions that try to preserve the power and profits of the automotive industry and its ancillaries by continuing the emphasis on the private car – a disastrous addiction that has been a major factor in getting us into the mess in which we find ourselves. And the Pod Car looks to be intensely privatized – not just a private automobile, but an automobile for one, and for one without any (or much) space for luggage, groceries, etc. And it is precisely when you need to shift goods, and kids, that a private car starts to see like a real need; on your own, it is relatively easy to get around in big cities by walking, riding the bus or biking. So even with a Pod Car, you are likely to want a second vehicle – maybe that SUV that they are not talking about taking away from you.

And it’s not just suburbs that have resulted from our addiction to the private automobile, though they are a huge part of the resulting dysfunction.

Even after the energy crisis of the 1970s, and the long lines at the petrol pumps, we continued to make changes that increased our dependence on the private automobile. Consider the changes in San Francisco in the last few decades. The City used to be dotted with corner grocery stores – every few blocks, in every neighborhood. Some still remain, but most have disappeared – turned into flats or offices. Of those that remain, too many have degenerated into little more than outlets for booze, cigarettes and junk food. Likewise, the neighborhood pharmacies and hardware stores are mostly gone – wiped out by big corporate chains and the real estate boom.

They’ve been replaced by supermarkets, big box stores and large corporate chain outlets – with easy parking, which they need because you pretty much have to drive there.

Like the suburbs, which shift people far from the places they work and shop, this move to big shopping outlets, mostly located on the fringes where land is cheaper, increases our dependence on private cars.

There are other impacts as well. A shift from family businesses that are an organic part of their communities to large corporate entities. An increased reliance on packaged, processes and frozen foods – which are less healthy and require more chemicals and packaging. With a corner store, you can pick up small amounts of fresh food every couple of days on your way home. If you are making the trip to the supermarket, you buy for the week – so packages, preservatives, frozen, etc.

At the end of the day, perhaps, there is something like a “clash of civilizations” emerging here. On one side, you have a world of suburbs and office towers, of multinational chains, shopping malls and “big box” stores, and the private car. On the other, neighborhoods with corner stores, medium to high-density living mixed in with local businesses, where you can walk most places, ride the bike or take public transit.

To a very real extent, the push for electric cars – along with a number of other “green consumer” developments – seems to me deluded, head-in-the-sad, desperate – a case of trying to have your cake and eat it to – of trying to hang on as much and as long as possible to the old ways – to GM and the private car – while making a few concessions to the crisis that is emerging. But too few, I think. Because to make more would begin to affect the power and wealth of the people who, right now, we are letting run the show.

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