Most of us don’t want to think about climate change or ecological collapse or any of the other crises facing humans and this world in the 21st century. We just want to live our lives. The problem is that the way we’re living our lives is causing pollution, extinction, loss of life, habitat destruction, and climate change. These crises are unpleasant to think about, so many of us just don’t think about them. If there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s denial.
For those who do think about such things, many are clinging to hope: hope that someone will do something about it. As depicted in the recently released film, Don’t Look Up, that hope seems now to rest in technology; the hope that governments and corporations will figure out how to build the right “clean” technology, technology that will allow those of us who are relatively wealthy to keep on living the way that we do, and allow those who are poorer to be “lifted out of poverty” into better lives with new jobs in “clean” technology.
For most of these people, the focus is climate change: some, relatively few, think about crises like top soil loss, habitat loss, over-development, over-population, pollution, deforestation, and more. All these issues are tied together, but those who believe that technology will save us seem to think that the technology that will solve climate change will solve these other problems, too.
The Biden Administration is counted among those who believe in this “clean” technology; who believe that technology can solve climate change, can provide good jobs, can allow the economy to keep growing (infinitely, it seems) without destroying life on the planet.
To wit: on December 13, 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris gave a speech about electric vehicles in Maryland. In that speech she describes her visit to Mira Loma, California, a city with some of the worst air pollution in the state, and her concern for the people of Mira Loma who are exposed to the fumes of trucks making 15,000 trips a day to and from the shipping facility there.
The VP smiles as she talks about the Biden administration’s solution to the air pollution in Mira Loma, and all around the country: electric cars, trucks, and buses. She paints a picture of a future with cleaner air, saying “the future of transportation…around the world is electric.”
Vice President Harris believes that electric cars are “clean”. The Biden-Harris Electric Vehicle Charging Action Plan says they are “clean” in the very first sentence, and repeats this claim throughout the plan: “the electric car future is cleaner, more equitable, more affordable, and an economic opportunity to support good-paying, union jobs across American supply chains as automakers continue investing in manufacturing clean vehicles and the batteries that power them,” the plan states.
There’s a lot of power in that word “clean”. Throw it in front of “technology” and that technology is now magically transformed in people’s minds from one that damages the climate into one that doesn’t. Throw it in front of “mining” and suddenly people look away from the realities of what mining does to the Earth. Throw it in front of “transportation” and environmentalists cheer lifestyles of uninhibited travel old-school conservationists would abhor.
“Clean cars”. What does that actually mean? Anything? Saying a car is “clean” means only that the car emits no CO2 from the tailpipe when it’s driven. This word is meaningless when it comes to emissions, pollution, and the other impacts incurred in making a car, driving it, and disposing of it.
The problem with using the word “clean” for electric vehicles and the batteries that power them is that it gives the public the impression that these vehicles, and their batteries, appear magically out of thin air, and that they do not pollute at all. If you ask average Americans what “clean car” means, what do you think they’d say?
“Clean” is a deception. Putting the word “clean” in front of the word “car” or the word “vehicle”, like the Biden-Harris Electric Vehicle Charging Action Plan and the Biden-Harris Infrastructure Plan do many times, hides the truth. It is propaganda. It is thought-terminating dogma that allows us to stop thinking about what a “clean car” really is; to ignore the truth about what is required to make so-called “clean” technologies, like cars, and what kind of culture that “clean” technology perpetuates.
Here is the nasty truth about what the word “clean” hides when it’s put in front of the word “cars”.
All cars are built primarily from plastic and steel. Plastic is, of course, made from fossil fuels, and the plastics industry releases many billions of tons of CO2 per year. So that’s not “clean”, and given that we don’t know how to make industrial-grade plastic out of anything but fossil fuels, it never will be. The plastic in car tires and brakes is a major source of micro plastics in the environment; tiny bits of plastic found everywhere—and I mean everywhere—from Antarctica to the Arctic, from the bottom of the deepest ocean to the top of the mountains. Even a “clean” car produces micro plastics as it’s being driven down the road.
What about the steel? Steel, which is made from iron, is currently the industrial material with the biggest impact to climate, and steelmaking annually releases many billions of tons of CO2. Steelmaking requires the use of coke, which is made by heating coal or oil at extremely high temperatures for long periods of time. The iron and steel industry is responsible for 11% of global CO2 emissions, and that doesn’t even include the emissions from mining the iron and the coal. So that’s definitely not “clean”.
Most “clean” cars are electric vehicles, meaning they run on battery power. Batteries require many metals and minerals including lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, aluminum, and copper. The electrical systems in cars require many of the same metals. These metals must all be mined from the ground. This mining requires huge amounts of fossil fuels, and pollutes the land, air, and water. Metals mining is responsible for almost 50% of all pollution that goes into the environment annually in the United States, and the United States is not a particularly heavy mining country. It is also the country with many of the strictest rules about mining pollution. Imagine the pollution going into the environment from mining in a country like China or Indonesia, both countries with extremely lax environmental laws, countries that currently supply most of the materials that go into our so-called “clean” technologies. So batteries aren’t “clean” either.
All the materials that we use to build technology of any kind—whether it’s a car, bus, truck, train, computer, phone, x-ray scanner,… the list goes on—come from the Earth. Unless something is made from wood or plants, all of the materials to make a technology come from the ground (some are diluted in water, but many are tied up in rock).
What does it mean to mine materials out of the ground? Most people reading this won’t have seen a mine, and so most of us don’t really have much idea of what a mine is like. The following description from a recent New York Times article about a proposed gold and antimony mine in Idaho can perhaps help us better understand what a mine is, and what it does to the land and the water where it is dug:
Perpetua [the mining company] would vastly increase the footprint of the mine, digging three pits hundreds of feet deep. It would divert creeks and a river, potentially harming more than 20 percent of the area’s salmon and trout habitat, according to analyses by environmental critics. … The Environmental Protection Agency has said the mine could produce mercury pollution and long-lasting contamination in the streams and groundwater.
Mining machinery on site will crush millions of tons of ore, then use cyanide to extract the gold. The waste, a contaminated sludge of 100 million tons of earth and water, will be stored in a mountain valley behind a 450-foot rock dam. Perpetua says it is a secure design, fortified by liners and a huge rock buttress, but a spill or leak could harm fragile fish populations and do long-term environmental damage.
To transport thousands of construction workers, miners and support crews to a remote site up twisting, rutted dirt roads, Perpetua plans to carve a new road on the fringes of pristine wilderness. Heavy trucks will make dozens of trips every day for years. Some residents who have watched drivers lose control and tumble down the mountains, their trucks landing in the streams, say they are terrified about the environmental consequences of a roadside spill.
I hope that description terrifies you. It terrifies me.
Once dug out of the ground, the materials must be refined. They must be separated from the rock or water or other materials in which they are found, a process that is energy intensive and extremely polluting. The waste rock, which contains toxic materials like arsenic and heavy metals, is piled into mounds, or dumped into rivers, lakes, or the ocean. Either way, the waste rock contaminates the land and water where it is accumulated. The desired metals and minerals must then be further refined and purified, again using processes that usually require intense heat and often, more toxic chemicals. Then, the refined and purified materials must be shipped to where they will be used in manufacturing products.
The supply chain for a given product, like a battery or a car, is hugely complex. The materials are sourced from around the world, and many of the parts are not made where the final product is put together. All of this means that a global shipping network is required to build any technology product. That global shipping network is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and the massive ships that transport goods around the world use the most destructive kind of fuel: bunker fuel. Bunker fuel is heavy, contains high amounts of pollutants, particularly sulfur, and when burned emits sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter along with CO2. The fact that it’s so polluting means burning bunker fuel is banned in most countries, which means that it’s cheap. That is why the shipping industry uses it.
How is it possible for people who care about the environment to believe that any technology, including cars, can be “clean”, or will save us from climate change? Because they don’t think about what is hidden by the word “clean”. Their thinking about that technology is immediately terminated when the word “clean” appears… like magic! But “clean” is only an illusion.
In the case of electric vehicles, the illusion is that while “clean cars” might help reduce air pollution in Mira Loma, that air pollution, along with land pollution and water pollution, isn’t gone; it’s simply moved. It’s moved to the additional mines required to supply materials to build the “clean” cars and their batteries (EVs require 4-6 times the material as gas cars to make, primarily because of the batteries); it’s moved to the smelters and refineries required to refine and purify those materials; it’s moved to the ships required to bring parts to the “clean car” manufacturing plants; it’s moved to the additional batteries and grid lines required to supply power to the charging stations; it’s moved to the mining, smelting, refining, and manufacturing required to build the “clean” technologies to generate the power for the charging stations so we don’t simply replace gasoline with coal-powered electricity. The pollution isn’t gone. It’s just in different places, places that people like Vice President Harris don’t seem willing to see.
The Biden administration is pushing electric vehicles hard: through their Infrastructure Plan, passed December 2, 2021; the Build Back Better Plan, not yet passed; through their Electric Vehicle Charging Action Plan; and through various promotional events such as President Biden’s F-150 truck promotion and Vice President Harris’ speech on infrastructure and electric vehicles in Maryland.
In these various laws, bills, documents, and promotions, the administration talks about “clean cars”, an “electric future”, developing “domestic supply chains”, and building “a convenient and equitable network of 500,000 chargers and make EVs accessible to all Americas for both local and long-distance trips”, an infrastructure that will “provide a reliable, affordable, convenient, seamless user experience that is equitable and accessible for all Americans.”
In other words, the Biden Administration wants to replace thousands of gas stations across the US with thousands of charging stations, and the nation’s 300 million cars and light trucks with 300 million electric vehicles, under the illusion that all of this will be “clean”.
They’ve been deceived by that word “clean”. In the case of President Biden and Vice President Harris, one might wonder if perhaps they want to be deceived, if they are happy their thinking terminates when they see the word “clean”. They are politicians; they will be voted out of office if they don’t perpetuate an infinitely growing economy. They know that; we know that.
But what about the environmentalists who champion these plans? Surely they will not be deceived by one little word, “clean”? It appears, unfortunately, that most have. Some of those environmentalists even use the words “responsible mining” for the mining required to supply the long list of materials to replace the country’s 300 million cars, the world’s 1.4 billion cars. When used in front of “mining”, “responsible” is more thought-terminating dogma.
“Clean”. “Responsible”. “Green”. “Sustainable”. All of these words are used to stop our thinking too much about whatever words they are used next to. Whether it’s “clean cars”, “responsible mining”, “green technology”, or “sustainable development”, using these words in this way is pure propaganda. Those of us who care about the natural world know full well that cars, mining, technology, and development do more harm than good to the living planet, at a time when conserving and restoring the living planet is more important than ever.
Resist these words. Don’t let them stop your thinking. Don’t let them hide the truth about what those who use them to increase their wealth don’t want you to see.
Image: Tipsy: Labyrinth, by Jean Arnold
CREDITS AND LINKS:
“What is the Future of Electric Car” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPL_milId04
Minnesota Iron Process – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7foK-wVNSMw
Royalty Free Factory Smoke Stacks –
DroneShots – “World record, 746 electric vehicles from the sky!”
Phantom 3 Professional Drona Footage – “Shocking drought in Freestate, South Africa 2015”
James Quilty – “Thailands worst flood in a generation – South of Khon Kaen”
SETEM Catalunya – “The extraction of lithium in the Chilean desert, essential for electronics, causes serious impacts.”
Music: “Hello” by Crowander, https://freemusicarchive.org/music/crowander
Original footage of Thacker Pass by Max Wilbert.