Opinion

A Facade of Eco-Friendliness has Created Plenty of Skepticism

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Sometimes it’s really easy to turn skeptical.

Take the electric-bikes/electric-scooters stuff. When JUMP first set up its bicycle rack on Ives Street not far from our Providence home, I was optimistic.

Hey, this’ll be great, I thought. People abandoning their gas-guzzling cars for this really, really cheap alternative.

When the electric bikes and scooters arrived, it looked like our hybrid car and our friend’s electric car were about to be upstaged by something a lot less fossil-fuel dependent. A lot more ethical.

But as I found myself stepping around scooters littering some sidewalks and watching small clutches of youth riding pirated electric bikes around town, things took an unexpected turn.

JUMP shut down. So did Lime and Bird.

I’d already become a bit skeptical about the actual environmental impact of these means of transportation. That’s not to say that my friend’s decision to ride a JUMP bike from Pawtucket to his office in Cranston instead of his car wasn’t a good idea, or that his decision to actually buy an electric bike wasn’t an equally good one.

But I wasn’t convinced, when I saw college-age bike-and-scooter riders zipping here and there, that they had actually abandoned anything. It had gradually dawned on me that it was more likely that a lot of the people who rented these vehicles were actually abandoning something more basic: their feet, or maybe a bus. In which case, these would-be eco-travelers weren’t improving things; they were actually making things a little bit worse.

My assumptions were echoed by the French branch of Extinction Rebellion, when its members recently disabled thousands of scooters, arguing that using the scooter still involved the emission of some 25 percent of greenhouse gases that would be emitted if the journey was made by car. The organization also argued that studies have shown that rather than replacing car journeys, people opt for e-scooters rather than going by foot.

Fooling ourselves, and being fooled, about our environmental moral stances is nothing new. Lela Kulkarni makes it pretty clear in a recent Motif article that Rhode Island’s recent decision to “ban plastic bags” involved representatives of the plastics industry pulling the wool over our eyes.

Chris D’Angelo’s close look at fossil-fuel supporters enlisting locals to prevent Brookline, Mass., from banning oil and gas infrastructure in new construction is another example of this, while another Huffington Post article revealed that “as far back as 1991, the Canadian arm of Exxon Mobil Corp.’s empire anticipated that a high tax on carbon emissions would be necessary to maintain a stable climate.”

Spend some time reading Rachel Maddow’s page-turner, Blowout, about the fossil-fuel industry since fracking took off, and you’ll get the full picture; it all reminds me of the deceptions by the tobacco industry decades ago, and, I guess, the vaping industry today.

The most frustrating part of it all is how little we can do about these fraudulent efforts to get us to give our money to people who do not have the planet’s best interests at heart.

Not long after I read that some automobile manufacturers were siding with California in its effort to keep the right to set its own fuel-efficiency standards, I wrote to Toyota to express my concern that they hadn’t joined VW, Honda, Ford, and BMW in this support.

A few days later, this is what I got from Phyllis D. at the Toyota Customer Experience Center:

“Thank you for contacting Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. Toyota is sensitive to the opinions of our customers, and we respect your position on this issue.

“Toyota remains committed to continuous, year-over-year improvements in fuel economy standards that deliver meaningful climate benefits, promote advanced technologies and meet the needs of customers like you. Joining this litigation does not mean we are taking any sides politically. Rather, this is a necessary step to ensure we have a voice in the debate over a complex set of legal and regulatory issues that have significant long-term implications for our industry, our business and affordability for our customers.

“We’re confident we can find a path that brings significant environmental benefits if we work together to develop vehicles and regulations that meet the needs and value proposition of the customer. Thank you for taking the time to provide your feedback. Your email has been documented at our National Headquarters.”

I wonder if she/they even read my email.

Oh, well. I’ll just keep on walking everywhere, watching the scooters (and bikes, if JUMP or somebody else returns) zip by, and bringing reusable bags to the store. For the life of me, I can’t find a good-guy gas company, so we’ll just try to drive even less.

And I guess when our Prius cashes it in, we’ll buy a Honda.

Nicholas Boke is an international educational consultant and freelance writer. He lives in Providence.

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  1. “Fooling ourselves, and being fooled, about our environmental moral stances is nothing new.”

    Indeed, but the fraudulence isn’t just by the fossil-fuel industry and other well known bad actors, but on close inspection can be found in unexpected places, like the conservation community. For the sake of time, let’s take just one of the offending organizations, best known as a leader in land conservation to preserve biodiversity and mitigate climate change impacts, The Nature Conservancy. On staff at TNC’s National office is Joseph Kiesecker, Lead Scientist for the Conservation Lands Team, where “…his main responsibilities include developing new tools, methods, and techniques that improve conservation. He pioneered the Conservancy’s Development by Design strategy, to improve impact mitigation through the incorporation of predictive modeling to provide solutions that benefits (sic) conservation goals and development.”

    DEVELOPMENT BY DESIGN? To assist Joe in this work, the Conservancy has also formed a Business Council to help answer the question:

    “How do you align conservation with business goals? The answer is critical to achieving our mission. The Nature Conservancy recognizes the importance of businesses in creating a sustainable future. Collaboration with unlikely partners is essential to achieve social, economic, and environmental benefits on a global scale. By working with companies, we can unlock financial, human, and natural capital to conserve lands and waters and ensure thriving communities.” (https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/who-we-are/how-we-work/working-with-companies/)

    The Nature Conservancy will strongly defend this statement. But agree with them or not, does it not seem incongruous for a conservation organization to be working with such “unlikely partners” as Bayer, BP America, Cargill, Chevron, Dow, and Duke Energy, companies that have a track record of whitewashing their iniquities with pseudo-conservation projects and mitigations, all to “prove” they actually care about communities and the environment?

    (I would be remiss in not making note that until recently, the Vice-Chairman of TNC’s Global Board of Directors was the former CEO of Duke Energy, and member of the Advisory Board of Invenergy. Just offering this observation for those who were paying attention during the hearings for the Clear River Energy Center, and were wondering why TNC did not put up a stronger case in opposition.)

    At this time of climate crisis, when all are seeking ways to reduce fossil fuel consumption, universities and businesses being asked to divest from the fossil fuel industry, why should we support organizations who are helping the industry find ways to keep doing what they do? TNC is not an isolated example. I would urge everyone to carefully examine how all government agencies and nonprofit organizations are responding to the climate crisis – I guarantee you will find many areas that need improvement, immediately.

  2. Rick has a point, but the Nature Conservancy does too. TNC has does great work in preserving biodiverse habitats, sometimes on corporate property, and it would be stupid not to call attention to biodiversity in the Boardroom. We need all types of environmental advocacy including improving corporate behavior. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticize enviro groups – I for one have concerns TNC largely ignores the underlying cause of biodiversity loss – human population growth – or the Sierra Club’s promotion of more driving with electric vehicles as they get funding from that industry. – I still like and value TNC and Sierra!

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