Gaps, Indeed

The United Nations today issued a report on “the emissions gap,” meaning the difference between “where we are likely to be and where we need to be” to meet the probably too-weak 2015 Paris Agreement goals on world greenhouse gas emissions. The gap is big, says the U.N., and the situation “bleak.”

There is, however, a rather glaring gap within the U.N.’s own analysis and reportage: its remarkable softness-of-head when it comes to the technology that is now the leading source of GHG emissions in the society that remains Earth’s clear per-capita leader in GHG emissions.

U.N. Emissions Gap Report 2019

That technology is, of course, the automobile.

Without counting either a) heavy trucks and buses or b) all the secondary activity and material that exists or is swollen because of the automobile’s importance in the United States and elsewhere, cars, according this report itself, “contributed around 14 per cent or 7.5 GtCO2e to global GHG emissions,” as of 2018.

What is to be done, according to the Gap report’s authors, about this major GHG source?

For the United States, on the topic of transportation, it is just this:

Strengthen vehicle and fuel economy standards to be in line with zero emissions for new cars in 2030

Zero-emission automobiles, of course, do not and cannot ever exist.

All automobiles require fuel, and even solar panels, wind turbines, hydro-electric dams, and nuclear power plants produce GHG emissions in their construction and maintenance. The emissions, in these minor examples as well as in the coal and natural gas plants that are the major sources of “EV” power, merely occur at locations other than a tailpipe. But occur they most certainly still do, despite automakers’ labels suggesting otherwise. Shame on the United Nations for missing and obscuring this crucial fact.

Meanwhile, there’s also not a single word in this report about reversing cars’ centrality in transportation and urban design. Nor is there a word about the foolhardiness of relying on automobiles as a primary way of accomplishing everyday locomotion.

There is some major juju behind the continuing taboo against straight talk about cars. If we survive to tell the tale, this sponsored unknowing will likely be judged as one of human history’s greatest ideological blindnesses. First, though, it may be the death of us.

Automobiles and the Drake Equation

Earth as dot in space

As Carl Sagan once explained, the odds for the existence, out there in the cosmos, of intelligent life-forms we might someday meet or talk to can be guesstimated using the so-called Drake Equation.

Ironically, at least in Sagan’s view, the main determinant of whether there are probably millions of existing advanced extraterrestrial civilizations or few-to-none “comes down to economics and politics and what, on Earth, we call human nature.”

On those planets that yielded intelligent life and complex civilizations, did the smart beings we might someday encounter manage to avoid destroying themselves, in the heady and naive early days of their sciences, with their own clever inventions?

Such self-destruction might be, Sagan observed, “the overwhelmingly preponderant fate of galactic civilizations.” And our own collective life-course could certainly not yet be taken as evidence against this thesis:

“And it is hardly out of the question that we might destroy ourselves tomorrow.”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, pp. 318-319

TCT holds that one of the cardinal technologies that seems quite likely to embody the kind of deadly species adolescence that worried Sagan is the supposed freedom machine we call the automobile.

Barring the invention of a truly sustainable technology for turning sunlight into electricity or liquid fuels on the needed scale, the idea that every individual commuter ought to maintain for their own personal use a complex and fragile two-ton machine has certainly always been a rather wild gamble with the universal laws of physics.

And yet, led along by our capitalists, we have — especially in this, the world’s dominant society — watched this wager be built into the very stuff of our social, economic, and geographical affairs. If we are ever to retract this living bet, it will cost us very dearly, as it will require a thorough-going reconstruction of our spaces and places, as well as our social relationships.

As of 2019, it is not looking hopeful for such a sober move. The topic of cars’ centrality in American life still goes, as the would-be radicals dwell on symptoms and the car ads roll merrily on, all but unmentioned.

More Than Half the Story…

Almost invariably, even lefties who worry about cars-first transportation fall into talking about the “love affair with the automobile” that supposedly grips the great American masses.

One problem with this habit is that it ignores all the ways in which popular affection for cars is limited, contradicted, and unevenly distributed.

The other massive problem with the love affair trope is that it — sometimes rather blatantly — diverts attention from what I call the shove affair story.

The corporate economy that dominates our lives exists to serve the interests of its primary beneficiaries, the elite households holding large tranches of claims on corporations’ net cash flows. Both these households and the big business economy that fuels their privilege are literally addicted to the continued existence of cars-first transportation in the United States, come Hell or high water.

As a result of this institutional addiction, at no time in automotive-epoch American history has basic transportation policy been permitted to become a major topic in a national election. Cars-first outcomes are simply too important to TPTB to be put at any risk of discontinuation.

Astoundingly, to date, nobody has ever told the shove affair story in anything approaching a proper form. In his great, flawed, now out-of-print classic, Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader promised, but failed, to do so. American sociology, a natural home to such a thing, has never mentioned the topic, which exists in a different universe than the abstracted empiricist one that, C. Wright Mills notwithstanding, long ago swallowed that discipline. Marxists, meanwhile, have remained too self-stultified to get there, as the overclass automotive shove affair has little to do with falling rates of profit or class boundaries, whatever those are.

Speaking of meanwhile, the time is beyond ripe…

Stay tuned.

Our Chucky Moment

Chucky face on car hood

It figures that the inevitable catastrophic idea has arrived under the fetid banner of the dishonorable Senator Charles E. Schumer. Here it is, as just announced in The New York Times:

I am announcing a new proposal designed to rapidly phase out gas-powered vehicles and replace them with zero-emission, or “clean,” vehicles like electric cars. The goal of the plan, which also aims to spur a transformation in American manufacturing, is that by 2040 all vehicles on the road should be clean.

Given that the United States is the flagship and proving ground of corporate capitalism — the veritable paradise for aspiring rentiers — cars-first transportation has always been imposed by fiat here. That has always been because nothing else can or could have sustained the Big Business system, which is institutionally addicted to massive and unending socio-economic waste.

More importantly for us now, nothing other than cars-first transportation can be discussed here in this money-makers’ Nirvana, because the waste must go on, come Hell or high water, if the cash is to continue to flow uphill.

Schumer explains, backhandedly, the continuity he and his sponsors seek, despite the times:

Critics have long said that bold action on climate change would cost America money and jobs. This is not true. My plan is estimated to create tens of thousands of new, good-paying jobs in this country and should re-establish the United States as the world leader in auto manufacturing. Much as America experienced a revolution in auto manufacturing at the outset of the 20th century, America under this plan should experience a revolution in clean auto manufacturing at the beginning of this century.

See? The 21st century will be just like the 20th! Only it will be “electric.”

The unmentionable problem, of course, is that relying on a quarter-billion personally-owned, independently steered 3,000-pound machines as the main way of accomplishing everyday intra- and inter-urban locomotion is, whatever the fuel source, a patently suicidal idea.

Oh, and by the way, Schumer is proposing to spend $45 billion a year to subsidize the sale of new EVs, in order to get something like 1/4 of the total US vehicle fleet (“63 million fewer gas-powered cars on the road by 2030”) to be “electric.” Total US spending on all public transportation everywhere is now barely more that this sum.

Such is the way Carmageddon arrives…

Mickey Mousing the GND

mickey in car cartoon

Most likely, the Democratic Party’s ruling elite (meaning its big donors, office holders, and back-officers) will again succeed in staving off Bernie Sanders (meaning the actual preferences of the majority of its voters).

Here’s a prediction about what will take place in that process: The Green New Deal will not disappear, but merely get repackaged and used as a DP marketing tool.

It isn’t hard to see coming, if you look. Consider, for example, the contrast between these two items:

ghg in CA graphic

The Green New Deal leads with bold action to zero out Los Angeles’ main sources of harmful emissions: buildings, transportation, electricity, and trash. Our accelerated goals and new targets include:


Building a zero carbon electricity grid — reaching an accelerated goal of 80% renewable energy supply by 2036 as we lead California toward 100% renewables by 2045.

Creating a Jobs Cabinet to bring city, labor, educational, and business leaders together to support our effort to create 300,000 green jobs by 2035 and 400,000 by 2050.

Mandating that all new municipally owned buildings and major renovations be all-electric, effective immediately, and that every building in Los Angeles — from skyscrapers to single family homes — become emissions free by 2050.

Achieving a zero waste future by phasing out styrofoam by 2021, ending the use of plastic straws and single-use takeout containers by 2028, and no longer sending any trash to landfills by 2050.

Recycling 100% of our wastewater by 2035; sourcing 70% of our water locally — a significant increase from our existing pathway; and nearly tripling the maximum amount of stormwater captured.

Planting and maintaining at least 90,000 trees — which will provide 61 million square feet of shade — citywide by 2021 and increasing tree canopy in low-income, severely heat impacted areas by at least 50% by 2028.

That second item is a synopsis of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s recently unveiled “LA’s Green New Deal” policy.

Garcetti, whose pappy’s O.J Trial fame allowed him to grow his very own big wig, is clearly positioning himself for a future run at being Babysitter-in-Chief in the Clintonian, big money, BAU D-brand manner.

So, let’s ask: Can you spot the rather obvious omission in The Mayor’s “bold” new policy?

The intro does mention “transportation” — in second, not first, place, of course — but then…crickets.

Meanwhile, it’s really quite clever for history’s single greatest municipal emitter of automotive pollution to select now and 50 percent as its baselines, isn’t it?

Tilting at Fossil Fuels

quixote and sancho panza

Saint McKibben continues with his efforts to portray “the fossil-fuel industry” as a mere bad apple that could somehow be killed off through divestment.

In truth, fossil fuels are far more integral to corporate capitalism than McKibben acknowledges, not least because corporate capitalism is utterly dependent not on fossil fuels, but on automobiles and economic waste. If we don’t move to minimize automobile use, oil (and other fossil fuels) will continue to get produced and burnt.

McKibben wants to have his cake and eat it, too, on this topic. In his latest self-explanation, he says that “fossil-fuel financing accounts for only about seven per cent of Chase’s lending and underwriting.” This not only begs the question of the internal profitability of fossil fuel businesses, but also implies that fossil fuels are really only 7 percent of the overall corporate capitalist economy.

The elementary facts, meanwhile, are these:

ExxonMobil reported a net income of $20 billion dollars in 2018.

Meanwhile, just the U.S. automobile sector alone is several times larger in its overall economic impact than McKibben’s silly 7 percent number.

It also happens to now be our #1 source of GHG emissions in the good ol’ US of A.

Somehow, though, cars never make it into McKibben’s diagnosis:

It’s all but impossible for most of us to stop using fossil fuels immediately, especially since, in many places, the fossil-fuel and utility industries have made it difficult and expensive to install solar panels on your roof. But it’s both simple and powerful to switch your bank account.

Solar panels and credit unions? Seriously? This movement is in deep trouble, folks. We aren’t going to sweet-talk our way around the huge problems we’re facing in this make-or-break century. We must speak the truth about power, and Bill McKibben doesn’t do that.

Pushing the Message

Here is a hallway snapshot I took on my visit to the local car dealership this morning. Fascinating that car dealerships still get away with such shameless things. Also amusing to see that, in the “high tech”status-monitoring graphic here, there are no automobiles parked in the dealership’s lot! Paging Dr. Freud…

greenwashing at car dealership

More on Killing for Money

Cigarette filters were invented in the 1920s. When the public began to contemplate the true nature of cigarettes, filters went, in corporate endeavors, from experimental oddity to mandatory product part.

Wikipedia explains:

[Filters were] considered a specialty item until 1954, when manufacturers introduced the machine more broadly, following a spate of speculative announcements from doctors and researchers concerning a possible link between lung diseases and smoking. Since filtered cigarettes were considered “safer”, by the 1960s, they dominated the market. Production of filter cigarettes rose from 0.5 percent in 1950 to 87.7 percent by 1975

The purpose of the cigarette filter was never, of course, to make cigarettes safe, since such a thing is an oxymoron — as every corporate seller of the things surely knew by 1954. The real purpose was to extend the salability of cigarettes in spite of the undeniable fact that they are deeply defective and dangerous things.

I mention all this because, despite Bill McKibben’s continuing insistence that they are part of the solution to looming ecological disasters, electric automobiles are cigarette filters writ large. They are a technology that our mass murdering corporate overlords are foisting upon us in order to keep selling automobiles, which, like cigarettes, are an inherently defective way of accomplishing everyday intra-urban locomotion.

If you want evidence of this, consider what Automotive Age reports about EVs:

[A]utomakers…invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new technologies that don’t yet pay for themselves — “profit deserts” is what Mark Wakefield, co-leader of the global automotive and industrial practice at AlixPartners, called them.

Electrification isn’t the only major r&d initiative. Investments in automated-driving technology are on pace to reach $85 billion through 2025. Combined, those investments won’t do anything to boost bottom lines in the near term, Wakefield said.

Electric vehicle sales volume, Wakefield says, will remain low, averaging just 14,000 units sold per EV model through 2022. That’s a far cry from what automakers expect from traditional vehicles.

Automotive Age, July 1, 2019

The only logical explanation for this “profit desert” phenomenon is the same one that explained the corporate move to filter cigarettes back in the 1950s.

The Mary Barras of the world certainly know they are selling a product that is ruining the planet’s living conditions. But these executives need a way to make their efforts look innocent, so they can keep doing what they do for the big money. Inside the industry, EVs are made and sold at a loss so that cars in general can continue to be sold.

Meanwhile, as Mary Barra also certainly knows, in the United States, automobiles are now the nation’s single largest source of GHG emissions — bigger now even than electricity generation.

Should we say it? Death by Car…

The Chutzpah of the Age

At Nuremberg, they at least set out the standards for deciding who was a public-sector mass murderer.

No such standards, of course, exist for our glorious entrepreneurial killers. Because, you know, “free market.”

Consider the breathtaking temerity of this recent statement from Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:

We’re very much looking forward to rolling out this technology because we do believe it will save lives.

quoted in Automotive News, June 30, 2019

The technology in question is the haloware/vaporware known as robotic (“self-driving”) cars, a product which — lo and behold — “everybody in the industry underestimated how hard a problem this was going to be.” [industry observer quoted in same source as Barra quote above]

But the deeper story here is Barra’s shamelessness about the actual relationship between her organization/product and public health.

death rate chart

In the United States, you see, automobile collisions alone (cars-first transportation also kills in quantity in less immediate ways) have, since their epochal triumph over sane transportation technologies, killed almost four million people.

Despite sponsored and faux-critical hoopla about safety improvements that have reduced the physical danger of individual automobile collisions, the present rate of annual car crash deaths remains about 40,000, which just happens to be exactly the average for the years since 1945.

Oh, and, by the way, more than 8,000 of our current annual dose of 40,000 car-cullings befall individuals aged 0 to 24, a.k.a. children. Children. 8,000. Killed. Every year. By automobile collisions.

Meanwhile, over the top of it all, Ms. Barra speaks of “saving lives.”

Orwell couldn’t have dreamt up this true, and continuing, story.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Two questions about automated automobiles. Look at the “self-driving” van below, then think about these issues:

  1. How many ways are there for external physical events to interfere with the operation of the various doohickeys on this thing?
  2. How expensive will the operations performed by these doohickeys be, if and when they ever get miniaturized and sufficiently shielded from external shocks to be truly salable on an industrial scale?

It’s not very mysterious why these massively hyped things aren’t arriving a whole lot faster than the hoary old — yet still frequently promised — flying car.