My comments on electric vehicles, or EVs, and why we should drive less provoked some deliciously combative and insulting responses. Mike said, "Gee, what a great idea. Everybody ride bicycles. I wonder what an 18-wheel semitruck bicycle looks like? The Sierra Club at its best."
Kerry commented, "I have to laugh listening to the nonsensical claim that automobiles are destroying the environment. I suggest that Mr. Green, who obviously objects to the only clean energy source we have (nuclear), is instead responsible for global warming by blocking nuclear power development, leading to coal fired plants that have placed our planet in such peril. The solution is to provide clean energy, not to simply use less of the dirty variety. There is no possible way that enforced conservation can provide any kind of a solution--doing without is neither acceptable nor necessary nor logical. Mr. Sierra is simply an authoritarian-minded fellow with very muddled ideas that seem more at home in a more technologically primitive era."
Hold on, guys. First, I love fossil fuels. This may sound heretical coming from an environmentalist, but fossil fuels are among nature's greatest gifts and humanity's most important discoveries. They have liberated billions of people from backbreaking, monotonous, soul-destroying toil and made the Industrial Revolution possible. They have freed up vast tracts of land that were once dedicated to raising food for draft animals. You could even argue that fossil fuels made slavery obsolete. This is precisely why I object to the senseless waste of fossil fuels burned in inefficient cars and overheated, overcooled, overlit, and over-gadgetized houses and offices.
I don't call for bikes to pull 18-wheelers, nor have I "blocked" nuclear power. In my book, Hey Mr. Green, I call for a moratorium on nuclear plants until it can be plausibly shown, in plain language to laypeople, that nuclear plants will be safe and economically feasible in the long term. I have yet to encounter such a document. Please, anybody, send it here if you have it. Nor do I claim that there is an "either/or" solution to global warming and energy use. I clearly advocate a "both/and" position, where we drastically cut energy use while developing alternative sources. In my book I explain how, by cutting home energy use by 65 percent and spending roughly $1.2 trillion on solar panels, we could provide enough electricity to meet all U.S. residential needs.
Contrary to libertarian arguments, enforced conservation does indeed provide at least a partial solution, just as it does in all environmental areas, e.g., regulations on hunting, fishing, forest protection, water pollution, etc. As I indicated, the compulsory doubling of automobile fuel economy has saved hundreds of billions of gallons of oil. Unfortunately, rampant unregulated consumption offset these gains. Laws may not work perfectly, but the lawlessness of free-market libertarianism doesn't work at all.
Another reason to drive less and reduce energy use is that there are some serious environmental issues besides global warming. We have been so focused on finding alternatives to fossil fuels that we're ignoring the problems with the alternatives. If we continue to add to the U.S. vehicle fleet of 241 million and drive each vehicle farther each year, we'll have to build more and more roads, bridges, parking lots, and garages, which will have a huge environmental impact. Cars, SUVs, vans, and pickups now log around 2.7 trillion miles a year. If they were electric, these vehicles alone would require at least 600 or 700 billion kilowatt-hours a year—and that's an optimistic estimate. This amount is equal to 16 to 19 percent of our total annual electricity use! This almost equals our present total nuclear power production from some 100 plants in the United States. While John McCain and others talk blithely about having bright, clean, green EVs powered by nuclear plants, they don't tell us in whose backyard those 100 new nuclear plants would be built, nor what the environmental impacts of such a massive construction effort would be.
Other alternatives? To get that much juice from solar energy would require at least 40 billion square feet of solar panels, or around 1,400 square miles of solar panels. Whose backyard are they going to be installed in, assuming anybody has a backyard after we've paved the country to hell and gone to accommodate our ever-expanding fleet of cars?
Clearly, the easiest and cheapest way to find power for EVs is simply to use less of it in the first place. There is a limit to how much we can build and how many cars or roads or power plants or any other things we can make and operate, and there is a limit to what technology can achieve, and the sooner we recognize our finitude the better. As Ed Abbey famously said, "Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell." The idea that we have to use so much power, and that using less would an intolerable sacrifice demanded by technological primitives and muddled thinkers, is just plain wrong. Italy, for example, consumes half as much electricity per capita as we do. Is Italy's quality of life only half that of ours? Doubtful. Ditto for the European Union, which despite having a 60 percent larger population, uses only about three-quarters of the energy overall that we do. Some may call this more prudent use of power muddled, but I call it good old-fashioned American common sense. As for my authoritarianism, I only wish I were better at it. Couldn't even get my kids to recycle, and I can't keep squirrels from stealing figs off the tree and coons from stealing the sweet corn.