Published on December 25th, 2013 | by Zachary Shahan


It’s Not “This Or That” — It’s “This And That”

December 25th, 2013 by  

traffic cars

When I started blogging on CleanTechnica several years, I didn’t have a background in solar energy, wind energy, or electric vehicles. In fact, I wasn’t a “tech guy” at all. As I started getting into this space, I remember reading articles from Alex Steffen of Worldchanging and others arguing that a simple swapping out of our technology and energy sources to cleaner alternatives wasn’t going to solve the world’s energy, pollution, and livability crises. The argument made sense to me, but I also felt like the anti-cleantech portion of it got overemphasized a quite bit.

The opposition to that overemphasis wasn’t due to a dislike for the things Alex and others were pushing for — more sustainable and human styles of development, lifestyle change, and culture change. These are all things I had spent about a decade working on. The solutions weren’t anything groundbreaking where I was coming from — they were the norm.

However, coming from communities and professions in which those were the solutions that were most commonly and most strongly pushed for, I also knew how slow and challenging those solutions are. I do think they’re needed. I do think they can greatly improve the quality of our lives. But in order to address the massive global warming crisis and pollution/health crises we are facing, we also need a cleantech revolution, including a very important electric vehicle revolution.

TreeHugger, a great site that I’ve followed for years, recently ran an article essentially arguing that electric cars were just going to make it harder to fix our cities, and that they are essentially counterproductive. With the assumption that we would simply drop the use of cars if we didn’t have electric cars to turn to, that would be a valid argument, but there are various reasons why, in my eyes, attacking the transition to electric cars is actually counterproductive.

I wrote a response to that article and posted it in the comments, and I’ll repost that on the following page. But this is actually a point I’ve been planning to write an article about for a while. The bottom line is that we need people to bike more, we need cities to be developed in a more human and sustainable way, we need solar energy, we need wind energy, we need more energy conservation, we need more sustainable methods of agriculture, we need to waste less, we need electric vehicles, and we need more than that. We need a huge variety of green solutions that appeal to people with different desires and interests. Otherwise, society is going to get hit with a massive climate hammer.

Transformation of cities and transformation of cultural ideals take time, time that we don’t have in order to address this crisis. Much of the United States (as well as other countries) has been built around the automobile. Automobile ownership is an ideal engrained into the minds of people the world over — the US, the UK, Germany, Australia, Poland, China, India, and pretty much everywhere else. The automobile industry is not going out of business in the coming years, but it definitely needs to get a lot cleaner. And it needs to switch to electricity in order to do so.

There are billions of people who are not going to decide that they hate (or at least don’t want) cars. There are many people who are going to come to the conclusion that bicycling is a much more enjoyable way to transport themselves around a city, and that cities which prioritize bicycling and sustainable development are far nicer than cities which don’t. But there are many who simply aren’t going to travel that route. And we really need those people to get out of gasmobiles. The only way you can deny that is by being extremely idealistic.

If you want to read more along these lines, but in a slightly different style, jump on over to the second page of this article to read my comments on the TreeHugger post, which seem to have been caught in the Disqus spam filter or something for some reason.

Image: traffic via TonyV3112 /

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • Senlac

    I live in Boston, don’t own a car, use Zipcar once a year, cycle, walk and use public transportation, and save 250+ per month on insurance and parking alone because of that. Having a car could help my employment prospects since some jobs are offered are outside of the city, so I’m constantly rethinking my situation. But Boston is changing and moving away from a car culture towards a “lesser car culture”, with more cycling and public transportation improvements. The point is if you know Boston, the way it is laid out, the new 15 billion highway project (The Big Dig) built over a decade, you know Boston isn’t going to change all that much. It will still have many cars, so let those cars be EVs. Same of taxis and buses. We may reduce the number of cars over time, but not by a heck of a lot. New York is the same way and so are many of our largest cities. Sure there can be a lot of redesigns to the cities to reduce the automotive footprint, but that is a tall order.

    I personally think the discussion about EVs making it harder to change our cities is a Red Herring, so enough of this. It is a political, cultural and city planning question, where some reductions will be possible, but those reductions will not be earth shattering. The basic layout of these cities will remain the same.

    New urban areas can be designed in whole new ways, and as they expand, that is where you will make a big difference.

    • Bob_Wallace

      I like to spend time wandering around old cities that were built before cars were invented. Narrow winding streets with almost no room for two cars to pass without crushing a pedestrian against a wall, few places to part except on what sidewalk there is.

      I imagine those places with self-driving EVs. No need to worry about getting hit by an inattentive driver. The cars take themselves out of town to park. The number of cars would probably be a lot less because people would have the option to call up a self-driving taxi when they need a ride.
      The only time one would see a car in those interesting old streets would be when someone was actually (quietly, stink-free) going somewhere.

      • Senlac

        Indeed, Boston is not such a place. There really only a limited number of places which might go pedestrian only or severely limit gasmoblies, since many would argue why not both. What you describe sounds like an old European city.

        • Bob_Wallace

          European, Asian, even some places in Central and South America.

          I think all cities will eliminate gasmobiles over the next 40 years. Because we’ll quit using them.

          It’s not about barring cars. It’s about make them quiet, emission free and incapable of hitting something. And not parking them in the most crowded places, taking up pedestrian/bike space.

  • I don’t see a link to the Treehugger article. I hope your comment makes it past moderator. One of my comments here failed to make it past the moderator, although it was civil. Moderators always have a reason. Grist is pretty bad about that. The temptation to censor opinions we don’t want to hear can get the better of us, especially in blogs.

    I’ve been writing about environmental issues for about a decade now. I see the same old arguments over and over again. I see the same stereotypes in comment fields over and over again.

    People show up thinking they know it all but in reality, they are suffering from a heavy dose of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    I once thought that bicycles might make a dent. Google “Biodiversivist ultimate hybrid electric bicycle.”

    Then I wrote a spreadsheet to see what impact halving U.S. oil consumption for transport would have on global warming. A few percentage points …max.

    Bicycles are dangerous. Anyone who has ridden long enough, myself included, has been hit by a car. A friend of mine recently broke his hip. I once broke my shoulder on an ice patch. I’m glad my children never got into biking in the city.

    I do love riding, but bicycling won’t make a meaningful dent. Do the numbers.

    Electrification of transport will make a dent. Anti-nuclear tribalism is one of the biggest hurdles to accomplishing that, although, it will take much more than just electrification of transport to stop global warming.

  • Omega Centauri

    Thats been pretty much my position. On the now defunct the Oil Drum, the three visions were BAU (Business as usual), BAU-lite, which is an attempt to make solutions, or at least major mitigations of the effects of BAU acceptable to a wide enough circle of people to make a difference, and abandoning our high tech lifestyle totally. You and I belong in the BAU-lite camp. Its tough enough to move most members of our spoiled energy intensive industrial civilizations towards BAU-lite. Serious lifestyle changes are several bridges too far.

    • Yeah. For my part, I aim for a lighter lifestyle, but the masses are either never going to move there willfully or will take a long time to, so a definite proponent of the “lite” solutions that can keep our climate livable.

    • Bob_Wallace

      How about BAU-sustainable? Do the stuff we do now but based on sustainable inputs?

      If we switch our grids to renewable inputs people can keep on using their gadgets. If we make the gadgets more efficient it will be even easier to get switched over to renewables.

      If we power our vehicles with electricity and biofuels we can still travel as much as we like.

      We have the technology in place to make most of our BAU sustainable. We have a few problems left to solve, such as providing people with as meat as they want to eat in a sustainable manner. But we’re even making progress on that one.

      • Omega Centauri

        I least the things we can do short/medium terms for BAU-lite may not be longterm sustainable, even it they do decrease our rate of unsustainable consumption. I don’t have the illusion that my present lifestyle is sustainable, at least not if it were repliacted for 7 going on 9-10 billion. But it burns a fraction of the resources of those around me. Its going to take continuing evolution of technology and lifestyles to reach fully sustainable.

        Getting people to select low consuming gadgets is still an issue. Initial price, and stylistic concerns like color usually trump efficiency. And there are organized political enemies slowing progress.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Both the US government and the California state government have been setting efficiency standards for appliances and stuff. I believe that Japan does the same. Other countries likely have efficiency standards as well.

          It doesn’t cost much more to make an efficient appliance than to make an inefficient one. It’s probably cheaper for manufacturers to make all their models efficient rather than manufacture for different companies.

          When people buy a new whatever they are going to get something more efficient than the model they might have purchased a few years earlier. Those will simply be what’s on the shelf.

          “Thanks in part to a series of refrigerator standards researched by Berkeley Lab, the average energy consumption of a U.S. refrigerator dropped 74% between 1974 and 2001.”

          One of the changes that made a huge difference in refrigerator efficiency was to put a loop in the auto-defrost drain tube. That creates a low spot in the line that stays full of water. Without the loop cold air spilled down the tube 24/365.

          As long as the whatever works fine people are going to be happy.

          I’m not sure there is any real organized opposition to efficiency.

          • Omega Centauri

            Bob, Look up ALEC. They are there fellow travelors oppose practically any tightening of efficiency standards. Ideologically it is a simple anti-regulatoy libertarian stance, (or sometimes a populist stance -but the new regulation will make X cost more). but in reality it is based upon fossil fuel interests. Efficiency is just as much of a threat as renewables. Demand destruction is not their friend. Also some manufacturers are better able to respond to a tightened standard than others, the others will likely spend lavishly on anti-regulatory lobbying.

            I agree, we’ve made good strides. But in many cases the standards have been weakened and/or delayed by political opposition. This opposition is not going away.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’m aware of ALEC and how they write sample legislation for state and local governments to adopt. I wasn’t aware they were concerning themselves with efficiency, so I googled.

            I found this interesting legislation boiler plate…

            “This act shall be known as the Energy Efficiency and Savings Act of ____. An act relating to exemptions from state and local sales and use tax, so as to provide for an exemption for certain appliances and products that meet or exceed the applicable energy efficiency requirements of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Energy and that have received the ENERGY STAR rating.

            SECTION 1.

            The tax imposed by section () shall not apply to the following:

            “() The sale of energy efficient products. The exemption provided by this paragraph shall apply only to sales occurring during a period commencing at 12:01 A.M. on October 1, ____ and concluding at 12:00 Midnight on October 31, ____.”

            () As used in this paragraph, the term “energy efficient product” shall mean:

            Any air conditioner, ceiling fan, ceiling fan light kit, clothes dryer, clothes washer, dehumidifier, dishwasher, freezer, furnace, hot water heater, light bulb, light fixture, programmable thermostat or refrigerator, which has been designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Energy as meeting or exceeding the energy efficiency requirements under the agencies “ENERGY STAR” program”

            Now, I’ve read that through a few times and what I continue to see is a piece of legislation, if put into place, would lower the cost of buying Energy Star and better appliances.

            Perhaps I’m missing something, but this would seem to aid efficiency. Less efficient appliances would continue to be taxed, more efficient ones not.

          • Omega Centauri

            They fought -successfully last I’d heard, efficiency standards for ceiling fans (the incumbent vendor thought they would be at a disadvantage). Don’t let the boilerplate fool you.

          • Bob_Wallace

            That’s what I found on line.

            I find nothing on line about ALEC and ceiling fans.

          • Omega Centauri

            I don’t remember the details, but conservatives did defeat an efficieny standard last year. I think we just may be seeing a sea change on this on the issue of efficiency however. Until recently nearly any attempt at efficiency was attacked on libertarian grounds. Remember all the screaming about the ban on incandescents: that has stopped. The outfits that construct conservative talking points must have seen it polling badly in thir focus groups., Now we don’t hear a peep on the issue anymore. It is possible that Leopard has changed its spots on this issue. Maybe we now have a chance to advance efficiency standards?

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’ve read, more than one place, reports that many of the Republican legislators who publicly deny climate change do not actually believe that. They feel that they have to talk the party line in order to keep the most extreme part of their party from going at them.

            Privately many are concerned about climate change.

            I think that means that they will let things like efficiency improvement legislation slip through. Lots of stuff is routinely hidden in big legislative packages. The main part of the bill gets the attention and the other stuff rides along.

            The light bulb thing seems to have largely played itself out. With LEDs dropping below $10 each it’s pretty easy to shoot down resistance. One year payback with 15+ years of savings (wise investments). No mercury. No foreign-looking shape. Business and cities are converting to LEDs and saving millions.

            Plus we’re going into an election year. Republicans are changing their game and trying to sell themselves as responsible adults rather than whackos who are trying to shut down the government. I think things are going to run smoothly. At least for a while.

            And we’ve built up enough momentum that it would be hard to turn things around. The whole world is getting into renewables and efficiency.

          • Omega Centauri

            I wonder if the turning point was when tea partiers (of all people) forced Georgia conservatives to back down on their anti-PV stance last year. Maybe they saw the writing on the wall at that time. We still have holdouts, contrast Iowa versus Wisconsin. Both are Republican strongholds, but Iowa has embraced renwables wind -now solar as economic growth opportunities, in Wisconsin they are doing their best to hold them back.

            Sometimes a stance on an issue becomes part of a group identity, anti=green, and anti-climate-science became so for Republicans. Maybe they can just quietly abandon those stances?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Just saw something yesterday about Georgia utilities contracting for a big hunk of solar. That dam has burst.

            Renewables are creating jobs. That has an impact. Especially in states where their young people have been leaving to find jobs elsewhere.

  • Having written the original post on TreeHugger, I want to apologize for the fact that the comment did not appear there. I am going to put it up it as a separate post tomorrow on TreeHugger. It makes great sense.

    I live in Toronto, where much of the City is without electricity right now. After our power came back on two days ago I had to go rescue my sick old mother in law across town, where she was freezing in the dark. I could not have done that without my trusty old Subaru; even though I live right near a streetcar line and am in walking distance of the subway, (and bike everywhere year round) there is no question that cars are very much an essential part of our lives.

    However I remain convinced that once the self-driving electric car becomes the norm (and I do not think that it is that far away) it will be a licence to sprawl.

    • Matt

      I think the “license to sprawl” came out in at least the 50s so we are more than a bit late to stop that. The only way not having EVs would help with that is is gas went to say $20-50/gallon, but you still could not rebuild cities fast enough to support the required clustered life style.

      • Bob_Wallace

        A pox on your city life.


        A lot of us simply do not want to live like that. I wouldn’t trade my mountain retreat for the poshest penthouse in Manhattan.

      • Yeah, I think we would work harder to transform our cities if we had only gas cars… due to the push to tackle global warming and pollution, and due to high gas prices.

        • driveby

          “Yeah, I think we would actually work harder to transform our cities if we had only gas cars…”
          You’re ecology/nature/technology aware as are most of the people coming here and posting.. you always post about how the majority of the populace doesn’t even know electric cars.. and you really believe your above sentence is anywhere close to the truth?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Many of us have lived through multiple technological revolutions. We’ve seen how things start and how they generally take off after a short time.

            We don’t have affordable EVs that are good for long distance driving. Yet. Many of us believe that we will in a short number of years. By the time one can buy a 200 mile range EV for about $25k people will be well aware of EVs. And many will have been holding out for an EV with enough range for them to feel comfortable.

            Once a new technology reaches a point at which it has a clear advantage over the old technology the changeover can be fairly quick. And often is very quick.

            Digital photography pushed film aside in a decade.

            Calculators did in slide rules in about two years.

          • i think you may have missed that my article above and comment on the next page are all about making your point. i think i just didn’t qualify this last point and it came across wrong — i think we would actually work (a little) harder to transform our cities. The imperative to stop using gas cars would still be there. However, as I argued in the article, that wouldn’t even be close to adequate for the scale of the problem. There’s a reason why i started a site all about electric vehicles and why i write about them probably more than half the time now. I think they are an essential solution to our global warming and pollution crises, and need to become super popular very fast. I assumed that was clear from my article above, but I guess if you saw this last comment out of context it wouldn’t be.

          • driveby

            I should have quoted more than the first part..
            Anyhow, I don’t think people would give up personal transportation ever.

            Sure, everywhere where other means of transportation is superior to cars you get a part of the populace to use it. Some examples.. New York the subway is faster, Amsterdam the bike is more convenient, some XY German town have got tramways that are pretty popular, London the private car in the CBD is expensive I think.

            May I ask if you’ve ever used a public transportation system while the weather outside was miserable?
            Try to wait 10-15 minutes at a bus stop while it’s -5 degree and wind going. Or try to get to work dry and not sweaty with a bike. I never got that done on those 9 kms. Either you got wet from above, or from inside by sweating (or underneath, depending on the water on the bike path).

            For most there is no facility at work to take a shower nor would you have the time..

            And I’ve used public transportation when I had to. Other people don’t treat them as their own personal stuff (well I hope they don’t treat their own personal stuff in that way anyway). It’s always dirty and scratched. And people put their shoes onto seats (the same shoes they walked through dog poop just an hour earlier). It’s disgusting.

            In a nutshell – many are willing to pay a premium for their personal transportation and will keep doing so, no matter what.

          • Yep, I’ve walked 45 minutes regularly to a bus stop in -10 to -20 or so in Ithaca, NY. and have done much more. by choice. but i understand that i’m not in the majority, and never will be, in that regard. i definitely agree with you. i’m just talking about a hypothetical world (which we don’t live in) where people come to realize that they need to stop burning oil but there is no clean car solution. probably should have just left that comment off the table. 😀

    • Hello, Lloyd. Thanks for chiming in. I figured it got caught in the spam filter somehow, due to length or catchwords or something.

      I genuinely have the same concerns about sprawl continuing. As I explain to everyone I can, cars ruin cities. It’s as simple as that. And cities are the most obvious and efficient option we have for the large population we have today. Massive efforts need to be put into working for transformation of our cities and development style. All you have to do is spend a few months in a city like Groningen to realize how horrible the quality of life is when cities are built around cars… if you didn’t realize it already. 😀 If I hadn’t ended up with a Polish lady and been pulled over to Europe, I most likely would have spent my career fighting for sustainable/human development and bicycling.

      I definitely think that push needs to be much stronger and broader. It’s just that I think the EV push needs to be much stronger and broader as well. Meanwhile, I’ve seen posts on some of my favorite sites — Streetsblog, Copenhagenize — go against the, sometimes even spreading long-debunked misinformation. It’s just makes me a bit sad, but it also makes me feel like it’s a duty of mine to chime in as someone who hates how cities are planned around cars, have loved living without one for nearly a decade, and yet feels passionate about the need for EV growth. Time is of the essence…

      Since I went ahead and commented on your piece, it just finally gave me a jumping off point to finally write this piece. TreeHugger has excellent balance in promoting the various solutions we need. Been following your stuff for years and love it. Happy that you guys are actually able to promote both solutions with your audience and have useful discussions about such matters. I think they really are useful with the right audiences, just don’t want it getting out of hand. 😀

      • Bob_Wallace

        I don’t find a post from Lloyd in either the Spam or Deleted folders.

        Looks like Disqus must have lost it in shipping.

        • no, no, my comment on TreeHugger didn’t go through.

    • TedKidd

      Lloyd, I see a different shift. While I agree that cars are here to stay for our lifetimes, I think carshare may change the structure of ownership. I was in Georgetown recently and chatted with some folks who were using Car2Go. For them it’s cheaper than a taxi, and more convenient.

      Historically access to an automobile in the city was a very expensive/onerous endeavour. Now you can have access to a car on nearly every block, without all the cost of ownership. This seems chips on the plus side of urban living rather than sprawl. I don’t think Self Driving will make sprawl more appealing either, but maybe.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Self-driving cars will make it possible to get around in cars without owning one.

        Like a taxi without a driver.

        Self-driving EVs are likely to allow more people to live outside the crowded city. If one can work or do something productive going to and from work and do the drive for only a fraction of the current price I suspect a lot of people are going to find that attractive.

        With a cooperative employer people might be able to reduce their away from home time close to eight hours. If they could work during the commune they should be able to count that against hours in office. Commute cars could be office pods.

  • Benjamin Nead

    Very well put, Zach (Merry Christmas, by the way.)

    Your observations regarding cities and how hard it is to instantly change them – especially out here in the western U.S., where I live – is spot on. Those who disparage EVs, such as Ozzie Zehner, will tell you how dirty it is to manufacture such a vehicle. Perhaps there’s some truth to that, as any consumer product as complex as an electric car is going to have some sort of negative environmental impact simply by having it built. But such pundits also fail to address how it hard, time consuming and expensive it’s going to be to transition cities that were built in the immediate post-WWII years and the decades that followed, when energy was cheap and the environmental consequences were not yet fully appreciated. One might replace their car every 7 to 12 years. But streets, houses and related infrastructure might stick around for multiple generations.

    Simply replacing ICE cars with EVs is not going to be enough to address problems of pollution, climate change and urban gridlock. But simply telling people who live within today’s sprawling cities with spotty public transportation to forgo any sort of personal motorized transportation is naive at best. Yes, a significantly large number who live in these places can structure their lives accordingly. But it’s more realistic to expect most to supplement rather than totally restructure.

    My wife, son – who will be off to college next year – and I are a 2 car family. The oldest (nominally my primary) vehicle, a mid 90s Saturn – is destined to be replaced
    with an EV within the next couple of years. But even while I’m saving up money to make this happen, I’ve transitioned to using a bicycle for my short work commute most days. I couldn’t be happier as to how well this has worked out. Even after a small city-oriented EV shows up (I’m eying an i-MiEV with interest,) I’ll still be cycling. Yet a small car – a 2nd vehicle, if you will – is not going to be easily replaced by my bicycle.

    The other vehicle (my wife’s nominal ride,) is a slightly newer minivan, but with rather high mileage and it’s somewhat of a gas hog. We used it extensively for carpooling while our son was growing up, getting him and his friends to school, as well as to-and-from all their other extracurricular activities, with other parents pitching in to do the same thing with their similarly sized vehicles. The minivan also does a yeoman’s job of occasionally hauling lumber, cinder blocks and bags of gardening soil. It simply would have been impossible to have done all that over the past decade+ with bicycles or public transportation where we live.

    Finding a replacement for the aging van is a bit more problematic, as an affordable alternative in the EV realm isn’t yet available. A plug-in EV with an ICE range extender (think Chevy Volt) would seem like a natural drive train choice for a largish people mover that you might want to take out of town occasionally, But auto manufacturers have been clueless when it has come to grafting these two concepts together into a single vehicle. Millionaire bachelors now have battery powered alternatives for their Ferraris and Lamborghinis – and compact 4 door EV sedans are already here – but where are the PHEV minivans?

    • Thanks for the extensive comment, and Merry Christmas to you, too! I think it won’t be long before some EV vans come out. Renault & Nissan each have options aimed more at the commercial market, but think we’ll have a more consumer option within a few years. We’ll see. 😀

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