Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ethical food choices...for cars

Each fall the Major League Baseball postseason reintroduces me to alcohol and automobile advertising. Advertising is our most popular art form and, as a result, every American is comfortable critiquing commercials (even those who remain reluctant to discuss paintings, novels, or films). As a stubborn idealist, I'd rather opt out of the conversation altogether, but I'm compelled to comment on Chevrolet's recent alternative fuel vehicles television spots.

Like the other major motor companies, Chevy is ramping up alternative fuel advertising in an effort to earn "green" stripes, but (no surprise here) they fudge the facts. For example, in the commercial for Chevy's e85 ethanol line, a user-friendly spokesman tells a group of children that the biofuel vehicle is "vegetarian." That label is disingenuous. No matter what the captains of industry claim, biofuel is not an environmentally sensitive option. George Monbiot, a vigilant activist and journalist, has been crying foul on this front for years, even when most environmental groups were still touting biofuel as a promising alternative.

But, among environmentalists, consensus is slow in coming and, having been reached, even slower to result in an about-face. Because Americans and Europeans are at last embracing gasoline alternatives, environmental activists are nervous about backtracking, even as news from the lands of palm and sugarcane grows more dire. Consider this recent piece from the Manchester Guardian.
"Until now palm oil - of which 83% is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia - was produced for food. But the European Union's aim of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020, partly by demanding that 10% of vehicles be fuelled by biofuels, will see a fresh surge in palm oil demand that could doom the rainforests.

That is likely to kill off the 'flagship species' of wildlife such as the Asian elephant, the Sumatran tiger and the orang-utan of Borneo which are already under enormous pressure from habitat loss. Plantation owners regard the orang-utan as pests because it eats the young palm oil plants and hunt them down ruthlessly."
I stopped eating meat - i.e., became a vegetarian - because of the wasteful, unethical way meat comes to the plate in our time. Given the equally destructive reality of biofuel production, I wince as I watch the Chevy commercials, worried that most well-meaning people associate the vehicles with positive change rather than, among other sins, the slaughter of orangutans by hungry have-nots.

Sure, the car is vegetarian. Industrialized capitalism, however, is anything but.

Photo credit: ripped from ABC Australia


Anonymous said...

The connection between petroleum companies and Biofuel companies (those that are not one-and-the-same) seems obvious and self-explanatory... but I have often wondered why it is that the automobile industry seems so beholden to petrol orgs.
Why should they care what makes their cars run, so long as people buy them?
Why, in other words, is it beneficial for them to concentrate on a dead-end technology like biofuel (which only serves to advance the interests of petroleum concerns) when they could work on their own more efficient and more appreciably advanced and advancable energy initiatives (ie GM's 300 mile hydrogen automobile)?

andiscandis said...

To answer anon's question "Why should they care what makes their cars run, so long as people buy them?":

The simple answer is "money." As eco-friendly as they'd like to seem, we're still talking about major corporations. As such, they are legally required (Dodge v. Ford, 1919) to prioritize turning a profit for shareholders.

R&M on alternative fuel vehicles is extremely capital-intensive. This in itself cuts profits but also increases car prices which then drives down sales. Thus, we're left with very little profit for the shareholders.

On the other hand, a standard model vehicle can be changed into a flex-fuel auto for about $100 per car. It can then be marked up and sold with a positive return on that $100. Similar story with biofuel vehicles. Obviously, this option is much more pleasing to Mr. Shareholder.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thanks, girl.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the answer to my question... but I suppose I have to ask a follow-up.
It would seem that the impact of sticking to fuel (and biofuel) as a source of go-juice is having a negative impact on the sale of cars (Old Big 3 vs. New Big 3).
The further auto-manufacturers distance themselves from gas guzzling, the better... Just ask Toyota.
Even big proponents of E85 must recognize the continued reliance on fossil fuels as well as the rampant destruction of habitat, over subsidizing of inefficient sources (corn, etc.) and resultant underproduction of actual fuel... That will only lead them back to the same place they find themselves today (financially, I mean, I'd not suggest that they actually care about their environmental impact).
As for the cost of the research... GM has already produced a drive-by-wire vehicle that will go 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen and another that will run off of "the grid." I imagine that Toyota and Honda have already managed better tech than that (it just seems to be their way these days).
So, the big auto companies have already recognized that the long-term returns on this technology are seriously endangered. Yet they persist in producing it while muting the, seemingly, more saleable work that they have payed so much (in R&D, at least) to put together.
I guess the question is this: Sure, it costs a lot to put together tech, but that part's already been done... so, why the delay and lack of emphasis on implementation? Are the automobile companies merely offering a crutch to the energy companies? If so, why?

andiscandis said...

Why the delay? Because it's too hard.

Ideally, US auto manufacturers could simply switch gears (pun fully intended) and ride the hybrid wave. I'm sure that's what they'd prefer to do if it would help sales. But a corporation the size of, let's say, GM is essentially crippled by its pool of stakeholders (shareholders, unionized employees, retirees, etc.). And now that sales are floundering, large-scale changes are that much more difficult.

Yes, US auto manufacturers *should* be working toward better energy usage. They *should* have started on it YEARS ago when Japan did. But, they didn't and now they're in the hole and it's a lot easier to say, "why don't you just climb out of that hole?" than it is to actually do it.

BTW, I'd trade my Prius for one of those hydrogen cars in a heartbeat... IF there were an available hydrogen fueling station within 400 miles.

So which US employers do we ask to lose money first? Do we ask energy companies to supply hydrogen before there is a demand? Or do we ask auto companies to build hydrogen cars before they are useable?

I think all of this will work itself out eventually. There are a few steps between recognizing a problem and solving it, however.

Anonymous said...

Aren't we obliged to ask the energy companies to lose money? I mean, we subsidize their existence with massive tax credits (among other things)...
In the "free market" (or, at least, in the market meritocracy that we purport to have) that these corporations seem to love so dearly, those subsidies (if they should exist at all) should go to the business that is the most deserving of them.
So, the answer should be as simple as saying "We'll give this money to any organization that solves these problems x,y,z ." And, if the petro companies won't rise to that challenge... some new group will.
Then, perhaps we could enact a tax on carbon providers as well as carbon producers to further fund the growth of the new energy paradigm... If you want less of something, tax it... and the inverse also holds.
Of course, that requires that we have a willing legislature and executive branch...
Without a fundamental change on our government's part, the necessary changes can never take place.

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting new idea to stem the use of petro and biofeuls...


Think this'll fly?

Anonymous said...

Also, if you're still there... here's a good one on the feasibility of increasing energy efficiency in gas guzzling vehicles.
I find it troubling that the guy in this article does what he does using 90% GM stock parts...