Environmentalism and Your Ride

Environmentalism and Your Ride

Environmentalism and Your Ride
Reading Time: 5 minutes

It can be hard to be an environmentalist with a car. The modern era of climate change, a shift to renewables from fossil fuels, the high price tag of electric vehicles, and the tendency of manufacturers to obscure the environmental impact of their vehicles and producing them all make for a wretchedly complex web to wind your way through, especially if you want to ensure you’re contributing as little as possible to people who are helping destroy the planet.

This article won’t be able to tell you how to navigate that moral labyrinth. At this point, I’m not sure any one article can. Rather, we hope to do two things: first, to make sure you have as much actionable information as one short article can possibly give you; second, to let you know that you’re not the only one dealing with this moral conflict. It’s one many of us wrestle with. 

First things first, though. Let’s tackle the moral question that lays behind this whole dilemma: ethical consumerism. 

Ethical Consumerism and Responsibility

Ethical consumerism is an idea based on “dollar voting,” the notion that, in a capitalist society, you can force companies to make moral decisions by choosing to spend your money only with those who match your values. For environmentalists, that usually means refusing to buy from companies with high carbon emissions or use unsustainable and unethical practices. There are some obvious criticisms of ethical consumerism as a concept, most notably the fact that it puts the responsibility for being ethical on the consumer instead of holding those who have power accountable to directly change things. After all, if you were a child and your mother had a rage problem, would it be reasonable for someone to demand you and your siblings withhold affection from her until she learns to control her behavior? No, the criticism should fall on her.

This becomes more complicated when you consider car ownership. This is mostly because the environmental effects of car ownership aren’t limited to putting money in the pockets of car manufacturers. The car itself pollutes. Transport accounts for about 25% of global emissions, just under half of which comes from personal vehicles (the kind you and I drive). That means around 12% of global carbon emissions come from cars. On top of that, about 26% of oil used worldwide ends up in cars

But there is a huge caveat here: compared to other sources, this is a miniscule slice of emissions. In fact, we find ourselves winding back to the earlier criticism of ethical consumerism as a whole. While 12% of carbon emissions comes from our cars, that’s dwarfed by the amount created by the rich. The top 10% of earners are responsible for half of the world’s carbon emissions. The top 1% are responsible for 15%. Much of this just comes from the ultra-rich owning so much, from multiple houses and cars to polluting jets. 

When you consider that, it starts to seem ridiculous to put too much blame on individual car owners. The top 1% cutting back on their extravagance could have a greater effect on emissions than all of us switching to electric vehicles, especially once you start considering emissions beyond CO2

So, that’s ethical consumerism, but there is still a question some people may have in the back of their mind: why do you need a car?

The Need For a Car

Western countries—and the United States in particular—are often criticized for a “car culture” that links status with car ownership and views the latter as a necessity… even when it isn’t. Some believe that more investment in public transit would be preferable to individual car ownership and that car ownership isn’t necessary at all. The United States certainly has a car culture, and better public transit would be fantastic, but unfortunately, cars are necessary in many places. 

Take the United States, for example. The U.S. is an incredibly spread-out country. In fact, it actually ranks 174th on the list of global population density. Given that it’s the world’s third-most populous country, that is a wild discrepancy. The result is that, in the United States, there’s simply a lot more space between you and where you want to go than most other places in the world. Consequently, certain modes of transit—like biking or walking—immediately become far less viable, especially in places with rough weather.

Public transit, too, takes a heavy hit. Public transit relies on common areas, places that most people can reach by bus or train, where they can stop and get to their destination in a reasonable time. With everything spread out, the number of locations skyrockets, “common spaces” become far harder to find or reach, and costs increase. This isn’t to say it’s impossible. But, given that the U.S. is notorious for having bad public transit in the first place, this is not the added wrinkle it needed.

One way or the other, people need to go grocery shopping, drive to work, drop the kids off at school, and anything else that requires going from point A to point B. If there’s ten miles between you and the nearest store and no good public transit, then that leaves you with only one option: a car.

Meanwhile, having a car to go outside the city is also a boon. Especially as electric vehicles become more common, it will be a lot more environmentally friendly to drive long distances than to fly. And being able to drive people into nature can benefit the environment by helping people understand its beauty, creating another person who will vote and fight for sustainable policy.

So, in many places, cars can be a necessity, not a luxury. They can also be used for good causes. 

Electric Vehicles

One of the last big factors in the environmentalist’s dilemma over car ownership comes from electric vehicles. A lot has been made about all the other factors that go into creating electric vehicles, with particular emphasis on their batteries. But the fact is that, even with all other factors considered, electric vehicles are still greener than their fossil fuel counterparts. And, as we replace the 60% of energy production that comes from fossil fuels with renewables, that gap is only going to widen.

The problem, at the moment, is cost. In 2019, the average cost of a new car was about $36,600. The low-end average cost of a new electric car on the other hand, was $55,600. That’s nearly 50% more. And with electric cars being so new, that also means that you’re not likely to find a cheap, used option any time soon.

While the 1%-ers that we mentioned above could—and should—buy these electric vehicles, the rest of us are left in the dust. What’s more… we’re usually the people that need them most. People outside cities are going to use their cars the most, but they’re also the least likely to be able to afford them.

So, even if you wanted to purchase an electric vehicle to reduce your carbon footprint, the chances are you can’t actually afford one. Having a more ethical option doesn’t matter if people can’t afford it. 

So What Do I Do?

Well, for starters, you don’t need to fret too much about having a car. The responsibility for cutting down most on emissions should be on those who create more of them. As for what you can do? That’s hard to say. 

Those of us with an environmental bent realize there’s a problem. The world is warming. We’re moving to renewables, but not fast enough. Yet, many of the options to be more environmentally friendly are prohibitively expensive, making ethical behavior a luxury available only to the rich. Major economic reform could help that, but that’s a difficult ask.

Until then? Maybe it’s good just to realize the contradiction is there.


Money-Saving Resources

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Why the Smart Car Failed in North America
Eight of The World’s Spookiest Vehicles
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