Thursday, September 25, 2008

After Watching "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

I watched a movie last night, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” This is a documentary that made me amazed and angry by turns.
In 1990 the California State Legislature enacted a law requiring that the state have zero emissions vehicles on the road, phasing in larger percentages of such vehicles over time. Now, I just wrote a column satirizing such a law, so the subject is close to my heart, but what I was truly satirizing was “more politically correct than thou” attitudes, not electric cars.
The car companies and the oil companies did not want to give up the existing market. They sued the state of California, which then rescinded the zero emissions vehicle law. It reminded me of the time back in the 70s when ASARCO applied for a variance so it could keep smelting copper down in Ruston, putting arsenic and heaven knows what else into the air and the ground.
People who live in Gold Beach here on Vashon, by the way, are advised not to allow their children to play in the dirt in their yards. The reason? Back when the smelter was first built, early in the 20th century, it smelted ores with heavy metals, which went up the smelter’s stack, and blew over to Maury Island and settled in the soil there. That’s why.
I attended, and spoke at, that ASARCO hearing. The upshot of the hearing was that the Puget Sound Air Quality Control Board (or whatever their name was) rubber-stamped a variance that the smelter’s lawyers had written. The smelter ran for a few more years, and then ASARCO closed it down, putting out of work all the people who had begged to keep their jobs at the variance hearing. I wrote a song about it at the time; all I can remember is the last two lines: “If you want to change things, get power and money, and then you can write your own laws.”
Getting back to the movie: before the law was tossed out, General Motors responded to the zero emissions vehicle law by building an electric car, and then, as soon as the law was nullified, taking it off the road and crushing or shredding every single vehicle.
General Motors, by the way, is now advertising the 2010 Chevrolet Volt, an (are you ready for this?) ELECTRIC car! Woo hoo! Our corporate saviors!
There is nothing new in this story. Human beings are comfortable with the familiar, and we’re all familiar with gasoline-powered cars. It is only now, when gas prices have gone up far enough to really hurt, that we think maybe we should be looking at other, cheaper, power sources, which makes an electric car a viable source of income to the car companies.
So it all got me thinking (again, always dangerous), and here’s what I think: nothing changes until and unless the people who already have power and money have seen a way to make change pay.
We are coming up on a presidential election. We have a choice of electing the white guy who is guaranteed to maintain the status quo – a status quo which is not so hot for a lot of people at the moment – or electing the black guy, who might be able to do some good.
Or not. The power and money crowd are pretty entrenched and not about to let go of one red cent before they are forced to. I always imagine that new presidents find themselves stuck in “the way things are” and “the way things work” when they take office. This is why I don’t listen to election promises.
A president can’t make universal health care possible for all citizens, for example. A president can drag the entire country into a war that most citizens are not so sure is necessary. He might have to lie to do it, but up until now I have not seen anyone willing to lie to make sure that every citizen has medical care, or enough to eat, or a safe place to sleep, including the citizens who put their lives on the line in war when they come home.
So what can I do? My power is extremely limited: I can only write, and sing songs. I decided this morning that the electric car movie inspired a country song, a song of unrequited love and loss. I’ve only written four lines, and that’s as far as I’m going to take it:
“Gasoline – you made me love you
Gasoline – I am your slave
Gasoline – I have to have you
Gasoline – Now I must pay”
That’s it. A real tear jerker all right.
There is more thinking to be done. Stay tuned.

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