If Electric Cars Won’t Save the Planet, What Will?
by Max Wilbert and Elisabeth Robson
Since January 15th, 2021, we have been fighting to Protect Thacker Pass from a proposed open-pit lithium mine.
For some people, our protest is confusing. Most mainstream environmentalists support lithium mining for producing electric car batteries. Yet here we are, proud environmentalists who have fought the fossil fuel industry for many years, now fighting the electric car industry.
Electric Cars are Not a Solution
We argue that switching to electric cars won’t significantly help solve global warming—a position that is actually backed by evidence (see, for instance, this chart, or read the book Bright Green Lies).
Mining lithium and the other materials used in electric cars destroys sensitive wildlife habitat, releases toxic pollution, bulldozes Native American sacred sites—and pumps out quite a lot of greenhouse gasses.
Electric cars provide the illusion that we’re making progress. And (not coincidentally) they make car manufacturers a LOT of money. Tesla’s Elon Musk is the richest man in the world. Electric car manufacturers and the mining companies providing their raw materials are quite happy for the public to remain ignorant of what’s required to make their products. The idea that buying an electric car will save the planet is called “greenwashing”—false advertising persuasion by eco-propaganda that white washes the true ecological harm caused by a product or process.
The only thing green about EVs is the money being made.
Are Fossil Fuels the Answer?
No. Fossil fuels extraction, processing, and burning causes catastrophic habitat destruction, toxic pollution, and global climate destabilization. Look at the legacy of oil drilling in Nigeria, at the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, at the toxicity caused by the fracking industry, or at the ecocide of mountaintop removal coal mining. Continuing to burn fossil fuels is unacceptable.
As grassroots activists, we’ve spent years fighting oil pipelines and blockading coal trains to stop the destruction caused by drilling and burning fossil fuels. And we’re not funded by the fossil fuel industry. Every dollar we’ve raised comes from donations from regular people who are fed up with the greenwashing lies.
The problem is that mining lithium, cobalt, and silicon and the many other metals and minerals required to build EVs, their batteries, and other “clean” technologies is just as bad for the planet as fossil fuels are.
There isn’t much difference between an open-pit coal mine and open-pit lithium mine. Both destroy habitat. Both poison water. And both release massive quantities of greenhouse gases.
So, What’s the Solution?
One of the most common questions we’re asked is “If electric vehicles aren’t the answer, what is your solution?”
True sustainability is not nearly as simple and easy as buying different products, like electric cars, and putting up solar panels and wind turbines. A truly sustainable life doesn’t mean swapping out gas for lithium-ion batteries.
The state of the planet is dire, from melting ice caps to expanding deserts, from clearcut logging to soil erosion, from the collapse of ocean fish populations to rising temperatures. Our planet is already deep into the 6th mass extinction crisis.
Reversing these trends will mean transforming our entire society, from top to bottom. It will entail changing the foundation of our economy, our communities, our work, our political structures, and beyond. This is daunting, and it is also our only hope.
But this is still vague. What, exactly, does this transformation look like? What is our solution?
What is “Sustainability”?
In the broadest sense, sustainability refers to the ability to maintain or support a process continuously over time. Hopefully it is clear to everyone reading this that the societies we live in are not sustainable in the sense of being able to be maintained continuously over time.
Almost everything we consume, do, and create currently depends on fossil fuels, which are rapidly being drawn down as the world uses over 100 million barrels of oil per day and 24 million tons of coal per day.
Look around you. It’s probably true that every human-made object surrounding you right now was created with the help of fossil fuel energy.
These minerals took hundreds of millions of years to form and, if we continue burning them, they will run out. Burning fossil fuels is causing climate change. This is on top of the harms of extracting fossil fuels—the oil spills, clearcuts, mountaintop removal mining, and so on. Relying on fossil fuels to power our lives is not sustainable.
Even if we were able to replace fossil fuel energy with solar and wind power, and fossil fuel plastics with other materials, that would still not be sustainable, since the other materials we use to construct our human “stuff” are also non-renewable. For instance, lithium, a key ingredient in electric car batteries, is concentrated by volcanic eruptions, rock weathering, and water evaporation over millions of years. Just like fossil fuels, once we use up all the lithium we can find, we will never be able to get more from the Earth. This is also true of the other metals and minerals required to build cars, wind turbines, and solar panels, among many other things. And while 100% recycling is a good idea in theory, in practice, 100% recycling is impossible — and industrial recycling is itself an energy-intensive and highly polluting industry.
The Costs of Modernity
True sustainability means meeting two conditions: first, we must use only what the Earth can regenerate on human time-scales. And second, that use must not degrade the natural world (this would reduce the Earth’s carrying capacity over time).
All of us descend from lines of ancestors who lived for thousands of years using the energy of the sun, energy stored in plants through photosynthesis, energy stored in the animals who ate those plants, and the animals who ate other animals. Living sustainably meant ensuring that we gave back as much as we took from the Earth, returning our biodegradable waste to the environment to decompose and provide food for animals, returning the energy we used to the circle of life.
If you find yourself balking, pause for a moment and take a deep breath. Your doubtfulness makes sense. We’ve all been raised to venerate technology, idolize engineers and scientists, and see modernity as progress. And it’s self-evident that modern technology is useful — and at times, lifesaving. There are certainly benefits from industrial modernity, especially for the wealthiest nations and people in the world.
Consider again, however, the costs. We live on the only planet known to support life in the universe, and as the global climate is destabilizing, 200 species a day are being driven extinct, overshoot is accelerating, and planetary life-support systems like forests and oceans are failing. Industrial civilization is undermining its own foundation; and as the historian Arnold Toynbee noted, “Great civilizations are not murdered. They take their own lives.” We are not immune from this historic pattern.
If environmental collapse is coming—or already here, with every indicator of ecological health heading in the wrong direction and accelerating—then returning to a simpler way of life is inevitable. The only question is, will we do so willingly, or will we be forced as modernity crumbles around us?
We face a choice: either we sacrifice the ability of future generations to live so that we can have another decade of smart phones and cars, or we make a change. The moral choice is clear.
The 6 Elements of Sustainability
Sustainability requires a completely different way of thinking and being in the world. It also requires concrete action. In this section, we lay out 6 elements to initiate transition to a truly sustainable society.
- We Must Reduce
- We Must Relocalize
- We Must Ration
- We Must Restore
- We Must Rethink
- We Must Remember
As you read through each element, you’ll see that all the elements are related to one another. We can’t ration if we don’t reduce. We can’t relocalize if we don’t restore the natural environment. And we can’t do any of this if we don’t rethink our way of being in the world, remember our connections to and dependency upon nature, and make revolutionary, not just incremental, change.
These are mutually supporting efforts that entail fundamental shifts in the goals we pursue in our culture and economy. Achieving them will require far-reaching political vision and leadership, some level of global cooperation, and an emergency mobilization of all society.(1)
Element 1: We Must Reduce
Reusing is trendy, recycling is mainstream, but reduction is taboo. We live in societies built on growth, where economic stagnation or negative population growth is considered an emergency. To move towards sustainability, we must dramatically reduce the size of the economy (including the amount we consume) and the size of our population.
Reducing consumption includes reducing and eventually eliminating our consumption of cars. The average household in the United States owns 1.88 cars. This is not sustainable.
Population, contrary to popular belief, can reduced in humane ways. It begins with making culturally-appropriate family planning, sex education, and birth control widely available. It also requires reproductive freedom for women. Such programs have been proven effective to reduce birth rates to below replacement level (2.1 children per woman), which means population will go down.
Reducing our consumption and our population is a key element to enable a rapid weaning off industrial fuels, energy, and materials, along with industrial agriculture (one of the main industries destroying the planet)
Element 2: We Must Relocalize
We live in the most mobile, globalized society to ever exist, depending on fossil-fueled trucks, cars, trains, airplanes, and ships to transport huge quantities of goods and huge numbers of people all over the planet on a daily basis. This is ecologically untenable.
The fact that many of us enjoy rapid, convenient travel is not important compared to life on this planet. Reversing ecological collapse isn’t about what we want and desire. It’s about what the planet can sustain.
A sustainable future is a local future, in which people live, work, and get the basic necessities of life close to home, and rarely travel long distances. The “locavore” movement has proposed the idea of a 100-mile diet to combat an unsustainable food system. The same concept should be adapted to travel.
Producing and powering automobiles is incredibly destructive to nature, and so a sustainable world means we must retire all cars and stop producing new ones. Reducing and eliminating car production and use means almost everything about our lifestyles has to change. If we try to completely replace cars with public transportation—attempting to allow the kind of freedom of travel we currently enjoy—we’re just going to create new problems to replace the old problems. Some public transportation will help in the transition to a world in which we all travel less, but the reality is, we’re all going to have to learn how to travel less.
This will be incredibly disruptive, but not as disruptive as ecological collapse. And there are benefits. In the future, we’ll walk and bike more, which means we’ll work close to where we live. We’ll need to depend more on our local communities. To carpool, or share a car with a neighborhood during a transition period, we’ll need to get to know the people we live next to a whole lot better. We won’t move as often, and we’ll probably live closer to our friends and families so we don’t have to travel so far to see them.
Relocalizing also means relocalizing what we consume, including food, clothes, what we use to build our homes and the stuff we put in them, medical care, and more. Currently, our society relies on global shipping networks of ships, trains, and trucks to deliver the things we use. This global shipping network cannot exist in a truly sustainable society. Therefore, we must learn how to live using only what we can get from our local areas. Initially that local area may be the entire country, then perhaps the state we live in, and then, finally, our local community.
We must be careful in the process of relocalizing because without simultaneously reducing population and consumption, this process could quickly destroy the environments around our local communities. It is critical that we prioritize what is most important—food, water, shelter, basic medical care—as we relocalize our communities and minimize our use of all material goods that are not absolutely essential.
Element 3: We Must Ration
Confronting ecological reality means confronting scarcity. When we stop making new cars, and begin gradually eliminating fossil fuels, the wealthy and powerful may seek to hoard resources (let’s be real: they’re already doing it). This results in violence and suffering, and will exacerbate shortages already occurring due to overshoot and ecological collapse.
Faced with this predicament, the moral approach is to ration what is left. Rationing must of course be accompanied by a dramatic reduction in the consumption of energy as well as material goods. A reasonable starting goal here (depending on the level of consumption in a given region) would be to rapidly reduce energy and material consumption by half, then aim for 90 percent or more.
Rationing should be implemented in fair ways and will require guardrails and procedures. For example, food, medical care, and other basic needs should be prioritized over shopping malls, consumer goods, entertainment, and so on (people should continue having fun, of course—but not in ways that are wasteful of energy and materials).
This rationing should also be implemented fairly and equitably on an international level. People in the U.S. and Europe, for example, should not be “rationed” an allotment of cobalt mined by slave labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nor should Congolese people be “rationed” an allotment of salmon exported from the Pacific Rim. Rationing will feel more dramatic in the wealthiest nations, because we use way, way too much. In poorer countries, rationing will not be as dramatic. We don’t subscribe to the colonial assertion that all countries should aim for a “Low-energy European lifestyle,” as is a common refrain in some degrowth communities. A low energy European lifestyle is grossly unsustainable when compared to land-based peoples, the only sustainable societies on Earth.
Element 4: We Must Restore
As we implement reduction, relocalizing, and rationing, we must simultaneously take action to protect forests, rivers, prairies, and other wild lands from development, logging, mining, and other destructive activities. As much as possible must be preserved.
To be effective, this will require a dramatic shift in economic structures. For example, jobs in extractive industries must be temporarily replaced with jobs in restoration (removing dams, tearing up concrete, dismantling malls and vast parking lots, earthworks to reduce erosion and build soil, waterworks to increase soil health and restore aquifers, and so on)—beginning with the least materially important/most frivolous sectors, and rapidly expanding to other areas of the economy.
As we reduce consumption—of everything—the economy as we know it will no longer exist. Going to the grocery store to get food that arrives there from all over the country and the world will no longer be an option. The food we eat will need to come from local sources, which means restoring habitat, soils, and watersheds. Surviving as part of nature rather than by dominating nature will not be an option without healthy, flourishing natural communities. Restoring these natural communities (“ecosystems”) and our relationships with the natural world should become everyone’s top priority. Restoring our local environments is also what will enable us to find enough food, clean water, and materials to build shelter without degrading the natural communities we depend on: we cannot relocalize without also restoring.
Focusing on restoration rather than a growing consumption-based economy will require global, widespread education programs and job retraining programs that can educate people in ecosystem restoration, watershed health, subsistence food production, biology, ecology, and permaculture.
This education should begin with young children, and as many people as possible should be put to work tearing down destructive infrastructure and replacing it with restored natural communities. Small-scale, place-based, ecologically embedded methods for survival and flourishing should be developed simultaneously. Shifting government subsidies from extractive, military, and other ecologically destructive activities would provide funding for these programs.
Element 5: We Must Rethink
Shifting from a lifestyle of consumption, immediate gratification, and a worldview that we are separate from the world and that the world is ours to consume will require completely changing how we think and the stories we tell. We must change from stories of domination to stories of cooperation, respect and gratitude for our place in the natural world.
Our entire media landscape is focused on selling us things, most of which we don’t really need. This is what keeps the growth economy growing. These stories perpetuate and expand unsustainable lifestyles of consumption, and they do so all around the world.
Instead, we need stories that help us understand how to live in a world of ecological collapse, a world in which our society, our population, and our consumption must scale down, rather than scaling forever up. We need stories that are local, that teach us how to live well in the place we are now, and how to deal with the challenges we all will face as we shift in our way of being in the world. And we need culture, education, music, poetry, and other traditions that support that shift.
Element 6: We Must Remember
Karl Benz was the first person to sell cars. Between 1888 and 1893, he sold 25 Benz gas-powered vehicles, or “horseless carriages,” to customers. The Motorwagen, as it was called, had a 1 liter single-cylinder engine with 2/3 of one horsepower. By 1899, Benz was the largest car company in the world, selling 572 cars.
Many of you probably have great grandparents, or great-great grandparents, who were born before 1899. It’s likely none of them owned a car. And yet it is unthinkable for most people in the United States to imagine life without a car, or without being able to get on a plane, or a train, or a bus. In little more than 130 years we’ve completely transformed our society from one in which most people walked everywhere to one in which most people own a car and drive whenever they want. Three generations—a blink of the eye in compared to the 300,000 or so years humans have been on this Earth—is all it took to forget what it’s like to get around without a motor.
We can remember. If your grandparents or great grandparents are still alive, ask them what it was like before most people owned a car. Ask them what it was like before we had plastic, when most things people purchased were made to last a lifetime.
This is just the beginning of the remembering required to change our stories. We must remember that before industrial civilization, before we forgot that we aren’t at the top of some imagined hierarchy allowed to take whatever we want from the world without giving anything back, humans lived in cooperation with the rest of the natural world, and the stories our ancestors told each other reflected that. These are the stories we must remember.
If all of this sounds like a fantasy to you, we feel the same way. The massive transformation we’ve outlined in these elements is incredibly unlikely to happen at the speed and scale necessary to halt the ongoing ecological crisis. There is simply too much inertia and power behind endless growth.
This makes it likely we are facing the collapse of civilization in coming years and decades. In fact, the gradual unraveling has begun.
Everything is heading in the wrong direction: population growth and consumption goes up, so economic growth goes up, so development goes up, so extraction goes up, so pollution goes up, and so habitat and species loss goes up. These trends have been described by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP) as the Great Acceleration, and you may be familiar with the graphic the IGBP published in 2015 illustrating skyrocketing trends across 24 socioeconomic and earth system categories:
In 2015, there were 7.3 billion people on the planet. There are now 8 billion. Governments encourage population growth with child tax credits and, in some countries, by paying people to have more children.
In 2015, there were 1.2 billion cars and commercial vehicles in use around the world. Now there is almost 1.5 billion. Governments encourage electric car purchases with tax credits, and encourage car corporations by lowering corporate tax rates, and by making sure these companies stay in business with bailouts and fiscal incentives.
In 2015, global average CO2 concentration was 399 ppm. In 2022, it’s up to 421 ppm. Governments work hard to ensure steady economic growth through central bank fiscal policies, laws friendly to corporations, and aid packages during recessions. Economic growth is tied to CO2 concentrations because economic growth is tied to fossil fuel use and materials use.
Each year, industrial culture grows. Each year, we get further away from sustainability.
It is anathema in our society to suggest that growth might not be desirable. Imagine a politician running for congress or the presidency in the United States, saying: “We need to cut back, reverse economic growth, tighten our belts, curb population growth, stop being consumeristic, and spend less money.” Do you think that politician would be successful in getting elected? No, we don’t either. (Nonetheless, we expect this to become a pillar of independent political parties in the future, and gradually become more mainstream).
Instead of understanding ourselves as animals completely dependent on habitat for our lives, modern society teaches us to see ourselves as consumers. The stories we are told by corporations and the stories we tell each other are that growth is good, and we get there by consuming more. And so, we are encouraged every day by our governments, by corporations, even by our peer groups, to believe that we can buy our way out of the crises we face. If we just buy an electric vehicle, or buy our electricity from a community solar project, or buy a pair of jeans from a company that has pledged to build a “sustainable supply chain,” then everything will be okay.
But we all know this is wrong. Once we begin to understand the scale and scope of the impacts of industrial culture, it quickly becomes obvious that we can’t buy our way out of this predicament, and that incremental change will never be enough. We must face that reality.
The Revolutionary Moment
Ecological collapse is already well underway and social collapse is not far behind. So what do we do?
Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We need completely different ways of thinking, completely different ways of living in the world, and completely different stories. And we need concrete change to the institutions and political structures of our world. In short, we need revolutionary change.
“Revolutionary” means “involving or causing a complete or dramatic change.” When you hear the word “revolutionary” you might immediately wonder, “Does that mean I need to help overthrow the government, because maybe I’m not up for that.” Revolutionary change means changing everything, from where we get our food, to how we build our homes, to how we get around, to—yes—creating different kinds of government. In these revolutionary times, revolutionary responses are justified—especially since many powerful people and institutions are prepared to lie, cheat, and fight to defend the old status quo.
Radical changes are coming, whether we want them or not. We are entering a revolutionary moment, where the contradiction — the fundamental conflict — between civilization and ecology is coming to a head. We are already seeing increased environmental radicalism and an associated authoritarian backlash. We believe in observing these truths and acting upon them, rather than trying to deny reality. In this moment, we believe that means acting to steer the future towards the most just, humane outcomes.
It’s time to gather our courage. We are not alone. We are not alone in facing the ecological crisis, and we will not be alone if we work together on the solution. To reiterate what we said earlier, it will take all of us: all our different passions and skills, and whatever each individual has to offer. We will each play a part, and do what we can, together.
Top 15 Actions To Begin Moving Towards A Truly Sustainable Society
- Governments must stop subsidizing all environmentally and socially destructive activities and shift those subsidies to activities that restore biotic communities and that promote local self-sufficiency.
- Governments must ensure reproductive freedom and full political, economic, and sexual liberty for women around the world.
- Immediately and permanently halt all extractive and destructive activities: mining, fracking, mountaintop removal, tar sands production, nuclear power, and offshore drilling chief among them. This includes halting manufacture and production of all cars.
- Immediately and completely protect all remaining native forests, prairies, and wetlands.
- Restore all damaged lands and restore soil. Confiscate land from those who do not do this.
- Immediately halt all activities that draw down acquifers.
- Restore all polluted and compromised rivers, including halting all dam construction and removing all existing dams.
- Immediately begin phasing-out mono-crop agriculture.
- Charge government with increasing the number and range of threatened and endangered wildlife and the habitat they require.
- Governments stop funding for new, large infrastructure and development projects, including new highways, dams, power projects, mines, etc.
- Reduce carbon emissions by 20% per year, over the next five years to prevent catastrophic climate change.
- Begin to contract global economies while ensuring all have basic needs met.
- Significantly reduce consumption of all but strictly necessary goods and services.
- Punish environmental crimes commensurate with the harm caused to the public and to the planet.
- Close all U.S. military bases on foreign soil, and bring home all military personnel within two years. Reduce the military budget by 20% per year until it reaches 20% of its current size. Replace the Department of Defense with the Department of Peace.
Despite the magnitude of change that’s required, local and regional efforts to begin the work described above will pay dividends regardless, mitigating some of the worst outcomes.
One Possible Future
There’s a lot to describe about a long term vision—we could write a book about such a vision. So we highlight just some of the ways we see our solution unfolding if humanity could come together to make it happen.
- Birth rates have fallen significantly and the great decline in population has begun, reducing pressure on Earth’s ecosystems.
- The most wasteful, least-useful, most polluting industries (e.g. cruise ships, shopping malls, golf courses, chemical manufacturers) have been shut down for decades.
- All new fossil fuel extraction has ended and a rationing program is in place. Fossil fuel use from the remaining stored reserves is prioritized for the most important uses: food, water, and emergency medical use, and total burn is less than 2% of peak levels.
- Material extraction has plummeted. Populations have migrated from suburbs, isolated rural homes, and urban centers alike to cluster in small, widely spaced villages, where they repurpose materials from buildings torn down in areas that are being restored and engage in small scale food production and craft industry.
- The foundation for new governmental structures based on direct democracy and representative assemblies has been laid. Militaries have been dramatically scaled down and restructured to focus on land restoration.
- Human population is nearing 2 billion and steadily falling.
- As population has declined, most people have migrated from areas of extreme cold and heat to more temperate zones where less energy is required to stay warm and grow food. We all live hyper-local lives, living near relatives and friends for our entire lives, and spend most of the day restoring ecosystems, hunting and growing food, relaxing, and building community.
- No fossil fuels are being burned. All mining and chemical manufacturing has been terminated. All nuclear power plants have been shut down and all nuclear waste has been stored as safely as possible. All large dams have been removed.
- Small electrical systems are maintained in a few regional locations for medical procedures. People rely on simple, time-tested technologies such as passive solar, perennial polycultures, and animal husbandry for basic needs.
- Government is becoming more local, but regional confederations and even global trade networks are maintained for diplomacy, a small amount of trade, and information sharing.
- Human population is less than 100 million.
- Each year there are more salmon that return to rivers than the previous year; each year there are more songbirds than the previous year. Forests are beginning to grow old again, creating thriving habitat for plants and animals, and humans have begun to relearn how to exist as human mammals in the great web of life.
- Natural communities are well on their way to recovery, so food and cleaner water are once again abundant. Forever chemicals still pollute every square inch of the world, and continue impacting our health, but over the coming millennia will gradually pose less of a problem for humans and the rest of the natural world as they become sequestered under layers of soil and rock.
- Children are no longer raised learning the names of corporations, but instead learn stories about the names of plants and animals, how to hunt and fish, which plants are edible and which are not, how to build shelters, and how to stay warm. The stories told around the fire at night describe the great rehumanizing of our species, our recovered relationships with the natural world, and the sacredness of all life on Planet Earth.
Want to get involved?
As a movement for the health of our earth, the people that live here, and the health of the ecosystems necessary for life of any kind on this planet, we are always expanding, growing, learning, and resisting. If you feel called to help Thacker Pass and/or help with related actions, we would love to hear from you!