While not the only reason for adopting EVs, a prominent reason is that we want to make life better for humans, especially humans of the future. Sea level rise inundating coastal cities is bad for humans. Wildfires that burn into suburban areas kill some humans directly, and sicken or kill others with the smoke. Climate change can also make it tough to grow food, and that’s something humans can’t really go without. All of these long-term benefits are on top of the short term benefits of reducing pollution and smog in cities, which is also quite bad for us. We want to avoid all of these things.
Given the important goal of protecting today’s humans and those of the future, it wouldn’t make sense to adopt EVs at the cost of great human tragedy, though.
This leads us to the real question: where do we draw the line on human rights in the EV industry? If we draw that line too close to the ideal of perfection we’d like to all see, no EVs would get built while the rights abuses tied to oil continue unabated. Draw that line too far in the favor of bad people, and we’re just trading one human problem for another.
I don’t claim to know the answer to this, but it’s something we need to think about, and carefully. In this article, I want to cover some of the issues I’ve seen come up in the EV industry and then try to stimulate more discussion on this topic.
Lucid Motors (Plus Other Companies) & Saudi Arabia
Lucid Motors recently got dogpiled on social media after expressing support for the LGBT community, and the dilemma it faces is mostly what inspired this article. Sure, the usual bigots showed up in the comments to express how much they disapprove of the LGBT community, and that they don’t think Lucid should support Pride Month. That’s to be expected whenever any company posts about that, but there were what seemed like an unusual number of people from Saudi Arabia giving them crap about it, and telling them that they are somehow going to get in trouble for flying the rainbow flag.
What I didn’t expect at all was to see was the company getting savaged in the comments by the LGBT community and its supporters as well. It turns out that Lucid is about 2/3 owned by the Saudi government. While the money from their sovereign wealth fund saved the company and greatly increases its chances of success, it’s also illegal to be LGBT in Saudi Arabia. Punishments vary, with foreigners facing deportation and natives facing anything from a whipping to beheading with a sword.
The choice whether to take Saudi money is a tough one, though. The kingdom is working to modernize and invest outside of oil, and they have a lot of wealth to invest in companies like Lucid and Tesla. Companies often can’t find other investors for these sorts of companies, making it their only choice other than throwing in the towel and closing up shop.
Some companies, like Virgin Galactic, have walked away from deals with Saudi Arabia after journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in a Saudi consulate. They ultimately managed to continue operations, but it was a struggle. Tesla is also rumored to have courted Saudi Arabia when Elon Musk was trying to take the company private, eventually getting into hot water over his “funding secured” tweet.
Whole books and many articles have been written about the issues of Saudi Arabian human rights and the business ethics of taking their money, but it wouldn’t be fair to call this a simple decision that one can quickly settle on moral grounds. Lucid’s founder told The Verge that he thinks Lucid can positively impact Saudi society and government, and great good can also come from the companies like Lucid that help accelerate renewable energy and EVs.
At the same time, the decision to not take their money seems unlikely to change the country’s behavior, so it could be argued that doing business with them doesn’t mean one supports their domestic barbarism.
The Sourcing Of Battery Minerals
This issue is even murkier than the question of Saudi money. It’s easy to do business with a company that seems to be on the up and up (and may legitimately think they are) when it comes to the sources of cobalt, rare earth elements, and other minerals that are needed.
Deeper in the supply chain, things like slavery, child labor, and awful worker safety can be hidden. EV manufacturers like Tesla, Volkswagen, and GM do participate in efforts to try to remove human rights violations from their supply chains, but it’s an ongoing process full of temptation for people at all levels.
With the great profits that can come from cheaper mining operations that don’t respect human rights, it’s tempting to pass those profits along as bribes to people further up the supply chain, inspectors, and others who could just as easily turn a blind eye or carefully launder the ill-gotten gains in with responsibly-sourced minerals. Further up the chain, nobody would know, because ore is ore, and processed minerals and products are basically all the same.
The idealistic thing to do here would be to stop all EV production until we’re 100% sure that every battery cell has no products of human rights violation in it. That would mean we either seriously delay EVs, up their costs to the point where nobody wants to buy them, or only get a trickle of today’s battery cell production.
The decision to keep building EVs while working where they can to combat conflict minerals and other products of violated human rights is a pragmatic one. Some do argue that companies like Tesla are complicit in the human rights violations, but the fact is that even the most stringent efforts would still struggle to control what’s happening continents away in rural areas full of political and social instability.
The decision to do the best we can, while also combating climate change and pollution with EVs, isn’t that simple, is it?
Doing Business With The Chinese Government
Like the first two issues I’ve raised, this one is also not so clear cut.
Ideally, nobody should be doing business with a government that denies many rights to its citizens, and is even harsher to people living in conquered territories like Tibet and East Turkestan. Territorial ambitions for the South China Sea and Taiwan, the violation of the agreement guaranteeing human rights to people living in Hong Kong, and many other issues (both known and alleged) make this seem like a pretty clear cut moral case.
But the Communist Party’s techno-fascism, and their quest for more lebensraum, aren’t the only factor at play here. As I’ve pointed out before, they’re kicking the United States’ ass on EV charging infrastructure, and they’re very aggressively working to electrify the country’s transport. Given that China is the most populous country on the planet, and produces a good share of the emissions, it helps the whole planet to invest in and participate in China’s transport cleanup.
In Tesla’s case, it makes sense to benefit from China’s EV rise and reinvest those profits in furthering electrification in other countries, like the United States, where government isn’t doing nearly as much to support that goal. The same could be argued for any other automaker building EVs in China.
One Surefire Way To Get This Wrong
One common thing I get when I talk about these issues, especially if someone is from the country with the guilty government, is something like “Well, your country does bad stuff, so you’re a hypocrite!” The United States and European countries do have their own human rights problems that we can’t deny exist, but that’s no reason to not work on the human rights abuses of both countries.
Very few places are immune to all human rights criticism, but two wrongs never make a right. When a US cop unjustifiably kills a black man, that doesn’t mean the beheading of a gay man in Saudi Arabia is cool, and vice versa. When China enslaves a Uighur, that doesn’t mean Germany gets off the hook for hosting the hardware for US drone killings (again, vice versa). Nationalism and whataboutism don’t bring us any closer to solving this issue, and only serve to entrench them.
What we can all probably agree on is that every government and corporation engaging in morally bad behavior should be pressured to knock that off, and that such entities should be abolished if they won’t change their ways.
Still No Easy Answers Beyond That
The reality is that there are no easy answers to keeping the EV industry clean of human rights issues. Demand too much purity, and we get nowhere. Demand too little, and evil wins. Finding the right balance isn’t easy, either, because it’s morally wrong to say that a certain number of humans don’t deserve their rights.
I hope that we, as a community, can have this conversation more, and not just when a competitor to our favorite companies is involved (I saw a lot straight Tesla fans dumping on Lucid, for example). People are depending on us to get this right.
Featured image: Blank World Map, public domain.