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Electric Cars

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Tuesday, Jul 11, 2006

The new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? prompted this contemptuous response from TCS Daily, an online business journal sponsored in part by GM. It’s hard to argue with the facts here—batteries don’t allow cars to travel the range Americans expect or carry the load Americans occasionally carry, and the recharging time is prohibitive to a generation weaned on convenience. The writer, Ralph Kinney Bennett, explains, “I can drive my wife’s big Lexus 55 miles on two gallons (about 16 pounds) of gasoline that cost me six bucks. An electric car like the one featured here could travel the same distance by exhausting its 1000-pound battery pack (lead-acid, costing $2000) which would then have to be recharged. The recharging would take about four hours. I could replace the two gallons of gasoline in about 30 seconds, but I wouldn’t have to because my wife’s car can easily go another 450 highway cruising miles on a tank of gas.” But I don’t understand why he feels more threatened by organic grocery stores and people who don’t want to drive SUVs than he does by climate-driven catastrophe. His attitude is right out of the red-blue culture war handbook; it’s as though David Brooks was looking over his shoulder. He uses the classic libertarian argument that conservation inhibits personal freedom, and then he throws in the populist angle that no real Americans—the ones raising kids and building additions on their houses, and tailgating at NASCAR races, etc.—would regret a single carbon-spewing moment of their lives. He casts anyone who can’t relate to this as an effete snob and secret totalitarian zealot who resents other people’s ability to enjoy life.


These votaries of the EV religion get real heartburn when they see people barreling around in SUVs and pick up trucks that appear to be empty most of the time. They don’t seem to grasp the fact that millions of motorists do not see their cars as spare and ascetic tools to get them from point A to point B. Like it or not, American motorists see their cars as full of potentialities and possibilities, some of which may seldom or never be fulfilled.
Yes, some of them may only make short trips from their townhouse to the organic food store or that global warming seminar at the university. But many, many more of them will more likely pick up a load of drywall at Home Depot or take the guys to a football game with all the impedimenta for a tailgate party piled in the back. They will drive 300 or so miles searching for an antique or a quaint place to eat. They will revel in the freedom of the road and the ineffable ‘feel’ of a big sedan or a rugged truck.


I guess what sums the blinkered short-sightedness up for me is this statement: “Like it or not, American motorists see their cars as full of potentialities and possibilities, some of which may seldom or never be fulfilled.” Because some Americans need to consume their cars as dreams, as fantasies of the life they will never live, because they are so acclimated to living by proxy through inanimate objects and their ephemeral connotations, their grandchildren will likely get to enjoy a new ice age and half of Florida will be underwater. To the babies being born today, the Hummer driver says, “Screw you, my fantasy of being a quasi-militaristic macho man who is bigger than everyone else is far more important than your reality. I don’t care how many species die out forever. I want my big-car ‘feel’ ” The outside chance one might want to drive to Alaska and carry enough lumber to build a survival shack of one’s own, or the flimsy pretense that a big tanklike Escalade is somehow safer to drive, is far more important than social virtues like consideration, moderation and conservation. Social virtues? Who needs them when we can dream bigger, dream harder, dream more wastefully, trapped in the solitary pretend world of our own ad-driven imagination. Far better to live in puerile fantasy, and for that let’s thank the corporations who make our infantilism possible and plausible and justifiable to ourselves.


John Kenneth Galbraith, defending his much-derided theory of the producer’s sovereignty in the economy in “Economics as a System of Belief,” has some insight into what Bennett is up to here: “By emphasizing consumer sovereignty, economics makes itself a shield for the exercise of producer sovereignty by the automobile industry. For by making questions about too many automobiles an elitist and undemocratic interference with consumer choice, it effectively excludes questions about the power of the automobile industry to impose its preference. It gives scientific and moral sanction to social indifference.”


Billmon, mulling over Al Gore’s film about global warming, also explains Bennett’s cretinism well: “But if extinction, or a return to the dark ages, is indeed our fate – or our grandchildren’s fate, anyway – I think it will be a Hobson’s choice as to which cultural tendency will bear the largest share of the blame: the arrogant empiricism that has made human society into an instrument of technological progress instead of the other way around, the ignorant prejudices of the masses, who are happy to consume the material benefits of the Enlightenment but unwilling to assume intellectual responsibility for them, or the cynical nihilism of corporate and political elites who are willing to play upon the latter in order to perpetuate the former, which is, after all is said and done, their ultimate claim to power.”


Bennett is quick to protect the ignoble selfish dreams the SUV represents to its drivers, but he refuses to recognize the dreams and potentialities the electric car embodies for its devotees. Because that dream doesn’t line the pockets of his journal’s sponsors, apparently, it doesn’t really count. The only sanctioned dreams for consumer goods are the ones that further individual isolation and status competition—you can only dream about being better than someone else and rubbing their nose in your freedom.


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