The focus of the piece is on Tesla company, specifically the electric vehicle product series for the daily consumer. Tesla is actually the only existing relevant car manufacturer in the US which was founded on the grounds of envisioning sustainable development for the future of the planet.
While the second half of the piece is devoted to the analyses of the product itself and its impact on the environment in respect of sustainable development, prior to such analysis it is important to critically analyze some assumptions and presuppositions which are so routine that we often forget to consider their impact, and actually there lies the biggest opportunity for drastic shift from current path towards environmental catastrophe on planet earth if we continue with current pollution emissions, to a healthy and life-sustaining planet as the Earth human begins had always known.
Tesla with respect to theoretical analysis
While the question "Can shopping save the planet" is nothing unusual in green and environment-friendly circles especially in capitalist cultures, among individuals acquainted with history the term "shopping" actually raise alarm, even if too quietly. "Market" as a place of conscious exchange of goods and services with free will and general perception of the goods or services traded, is nothing new to human civilization, however, the term "shopping" is not as old and phenomenon we today understand under such term is actually a post-industrialization phenomenon. While the Sustainable Development Goals number 12, do refer to this theme, "ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns", in reality, the consideration that "shopping" could be anything of benefit to the greater good is a by-product of capitalist ideology and at one of its high points, the US economic policy to overcome the great depression, in which it was argued that in order to have continuous growth there need to be constant consumption and hence planned obsolescence was socio-economically justified.
While "planned obsolescence" sounds a far-fetched idea from car manufacturing, after all, these products are used for heavy tasks, in reality, auto manufacturers have not slow to catch up with the trend. There are two aspects relevant to Tesla worth to mention. Firstly, in contrast to all other car manufacturers, Tesla's main selling point is not the hardware of the car but its software, by which I mean, the autopilot technology, and so Tesla's cars are built with hardware that is compatible for future software updates which would allow the full-autonomous driving possibility. In this respect, Tesla cars are similar to Apple laptops1. So by default, it is expected that Tesla cars are designed to last longer while the initial price tag would be higher than the competition. There is also another important aspect, Elon Musk's vision for Tesla wasn't just about a better car, but a fully automatic car factory, where on one end you can input steel and on the other end take out the car. While so far he was forced to adopt this strategy and employ more human beings than he had initially planned, it can be expected that in the future robots would be capable of even much more complex production tasks to the degree that "planned obsolescence" would not benefit any employee because a car manufactory would be employing an extremely very limited number of human beings. In such a future the products that last longer than those with "planned obsolescence" have no impact on the ordinary employees' paychecks, so ... but before giving my personal suggestion, let's review few more generally accepted assumptions.
As said, "markets" require engagements of informed participants, but not shopping. Shopping, by contrast, is understood as a purchase more driven by psychology and emotions than ration, and as such certificates and legal obligations on businesses on their impact on the environment regarding the sustainable development, standards have become the commonplace solution. But these aren't the real solution, as, for example in the infamous Pinto-Ford case, usually, the government agencies responsible for issuing such certificates and the businesses are closely tied to one another, if one does not take into account the fact that most politicians receive heavy funding by successful businessmen and women. So while it sounds all too well and noble, in reality, certificates and other legal requirements are more or less self-imposed restriction and not that of a neutral observer with the sustainability as his or her highest priority. This is also relevant in the case of Tesla, as, for example, one of the many reasons why General Motors dropped its EV initiative many years ago was due to the change in the government plan to subsidize electric vehicles. The team responsible for the development of the product was so touched by the closure that they even performed a funeral for the car concept. Tesla is, in fact, different in this regard, not because we are living in a different socio-political system but because Elon Musk the person, has put sustainable development as his highest priority. Here perhaps two suggestions can be made, first a move away from the capitalist structure, at least the press should never be owned by rich men and women, so politicians could be questioned and the built-in collusion between the politician and economical powers decreases. Also perhaps more rich men and women should become environmentally proactive, to not only try to stop competitors with greenish excuses but to actually materialize innovations which are riskier and not necessarily economically higher rewarding but could be environmentally higher rewarding.
Life cycle analysis while provides the possibility of comparing alternative products and solution to the same problem respecting their environmental impact, there is an important factor left out of the picture, which is how the whole production till the full recycling of the waste plays in relation to our whole consumption and production system. Because as the human population and the density increases, our consumption and production plays a far bigger role than the nature's forces to recycle our impacts and bring back the environment to a state where we first found it, and the answers to challenges we are facing are not going to be found in decreasing the negative environmental impact of a single product respecting few pollutive materials in a single focused analysis, rather design a functioning system that is capable of performing in full cycle. Singling out a single product and analyzing its impact is never going to enable us to redesign that product in such a way that it could be a part of a system, designed to be cyclical.
Life cycle assessment is one of the tools in sustainable development thinking, it is easy to guess that the same critique can be extended to the foundational assumption of it. While there are many in part mildly contradictory definitions of Sustainable Development, its meaning, purpose, and criteria available, almost all of them has a certain world-view in common, all popular definitions presuppose that "progress" is a somewhat a linear phenomenon and that it is positive and always a desired state, while I do not disagree with such sentiments in general, when one observes the earth and our impacts on it, the idea of whether development and sustainability are mutually exclusive or not becomes an interesting question, however the problem with "development" focused thinking or its other infamous alternative "happiness" focused thinking, is that both ideologies are based on what criteria for success could benefit the longevity of the ruling class's authority and prosperity while providing a sense of satisfaction for the general population. In capitalist democracies increase in GDP and other indices of development are being considered as the signifier of success because such increases often correlate with the increase in the gap between rich and poor while at the same time the idea that society has as a whole advanced encourages the poor to be happier than the past, and similarly in monarchies various alternatives of happiness indices are being considered as the ultimate signifier of success, because while the rich get richer and poor poorer, there is no necessity for the poor to be less happy, as human emotional responses are highly adaptive to habits and conditions one is used to. However both these criteria could be existing while the lot of the great majority of people won't be improving compared to the lot of the respective minority in favor of each perspective who will be benefiting drastically compared to any other alternative, and when if one extends the "great majority of the people" to all living beings and the future generations, the relationship could become totally non-existing. In conditions like that professional often resort to cost and profit analysis of sustainability versus development, however, I believe, the possibility for a really satisfactory solution lies in looking beyond the current approaches and for third criteria on evaluating success.
Some Native American cultures have this world-view regarding the relationship between man and his environment which consist of believing one is not aught to take more than one need and one is aught to give back what one has taken, while exaggerated version of such morals could be found among monks and Buddhist, I think there is a certain quality in this world-view which we are in dire need of, the idea that we are in trade relationship with nature and not that of an inexhaustible servant and an insatiably demanding master. The "shopping" culture has made us blind to the reality that most of our lives and our consumption and production endeavors are devoted to what has little benefit to us individually, even for the most self-interested among us. I started this piece with the difference between market and shopping because I don't believe in order to preserve the quality of life for the future generations we need a reproach to socialist ideologists, but that markets are the necessary components of human societies however shopping isn't. and in this distinction also fits the Tesla's mission statement "Tesla is accelerating the world's transition to sustainable energy, offering the safest, quickest electric cars on the road and integrated energy solutions." So the product is a tool and just a tool, while in shopping philosophy, a product is something that influences how a consumer is valued and while being a consumer is a temporary role, shopping philosophy means reducing oneself to a consumer at all times.
Just as many other innovative solutions the inspiration behind my alternative third approach view of evaluating the success or failure of a society is inspired by nature, more precise by the how living itself is sustained and progressed on the Earth. The ultimate goal in nature, as the natural selection theory suggests is not getting bigger, or stronger or etc, but survival, and not only survival in the abstract sense but survival relative to other species and to the species itself. Life on the Earth has transformed from its primitive stage to its current stage, and we consider it overall a progress, not because of an increase in GDP or Happiness, but because the living being themselves are more complex and diverse. So instead of "development", the focal point of any environmentally concerned individual should be with "advancement" of our products and services, advancement is in a way the human-made alternative for evolutionary development. Regardless of your rank on social hierarchy, electricity and lamps are an advancement compared to candlelight and such were advancement compared to burning woods. However nothing on the Earth has changed, it is only how we mix things that have become more complex. So, the ultimate solution is instead of aiming at sustainable development, aiming at life-sustaining increased in advancement, and advancement is a non-linear increase in complexity meant. I don't believe we could find the solution to the environmental challenges, or to be blatant, catastrophes that lie ahead us are going to be possible if we don't adopt such perspective, and Tesla is actually an example of that. Tesla's factory is an extremely complex building compared to other car factories due to increased use of robots, decreased density and increased efficiency, similarly the cars are more complex and the complexity is not only the visible metal parts common to all cars but the fact that Tesla is actually selling a computer and software technology and not merely a car. If it was otherwise, of course, Elon Musk's vision would have sooner or later turned out to be a lie. So while development and happiness often do not accompany sustainability, advancement in the sense of increased complexity, if done with such aims, actually does. For example, battery EVs have zero-emission during driving, compared to conventional cars. Sure, the battery itself is an environmental challenge, however solutions that come from increased complexity, actually cause the whole certificate, life-cycle analysis and reporting standards totally useless, as the new technology does to outdated legal requirements.
Increased complexity, however, comes with its own unique challenges, perhaps not only for the environment but also for human beings as member of the environment, for example self-driving cars have the capacity to render the whole driving sector of jobs out of business, and providing employment opportunity, designing a transition policy or reduction of such work-force is going to be challenge for policymakers. and unlike conventional solutions, that for example if a company causes damage, even indirect damage to a group in the society, that group could seek legal remedy, increased complexity renders such actions out of meaning.
Tesla's products in practice
Elon Musk's approach to achieving his vision is the closest living example to the real-life implementation of the suggestive third approach to a fundamental rethinking of how to achieve sustainability. Otherwise, auto manufacturers have in the past deliberately crushed initiatives within their firm for EV production or in cases like Volkswagen knowingly manipulated environmental testings of their products.
However, considering performing EV life cycle assessment as in real-life conditions, BEV won't exceptionally outperform conventional vehicles in conditions where the electricity is produced in conventional ways and the car and battery as well. Tesla has addressed some aspects of such problems, for example, starting from the production, Tesla produces cars in Giga factories powered fully solar, similarly in since accusation of Solar City, another Elon Musk venture, by Tesla, Tesla is actually installing home and office solar systems, with the ultimate vision being to transition the whole energy consumption of the US consumer market to solar. However, since the reduction of subsidy by local government is has been challenging to produce solar panels that would economically outperform the transition cost compared to staying with the current grid system with electricity produced in conventional ways.
As said, the Environmental Footprints of EV depends on many factors, especially how the electricity is delivered to the car, however, there are studies that show Battery Electric Vehicles outperform LPG, Hybrid, and Gasoline for family cars, the range of Tesla's products so far, is in favor of BEV.
Of course, while the environmental challenges facing us seem wild, so are the possible opportunities, for example:
- Car Sharing: autonomous driving technology coupled with cloud-based car-sharing functionality could drastically redefine the consumer view vehicles, use and are ready to pay for its services ...
- Re-usability: an area not covered in this paper, is the idea that complex living being gets deconstructed and consumed by simpler living beings and our product's life cycle usually lack this capacity. Sure, computer chips that can't be used in computers are used in microwaves nowadays but had we created those chips with longevity in the sight, those chips in older computers instead of ending in China could have been used directly in newer products that need simple chips, we have to implement this design thinking in our products so that deconstruction and reusability of parts be a viable alternative before hard-recycling to raw materials.
- Urban, T., 2015. How Tesla Will Change The World; Wait but why, [https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/06/how-tesla-will-change-your-life.html]
- Marques, P., and Freire, F., 2011. Comparative life-cycle assessment of electric and conventional vehicles in Portugal, [http://www.lcaforum.ch/portals/0/df43/DF43-11%20Fausto%20Freire.pdf]
- Aguirre, K., and Eisenhardt, L, and Lim, C., and Nelson, B., and Norring, A., and Slowik, P., and Tu, N., 2012. Lifecycle Analysis Comparison of a Battery Electric Vehicle and a Conventional Gasoline Vehicle, [https://www.ioes.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/ev-vs-gasoline-cars-practicum-final-report.pdf]
- Boureima, F., S., and Messagie, M., and Matheys, J., and Wynen, V., and Sergeant, N., and Mierlo, J. V., and Vos, M., D., and Caevel, B., 2009. Comparative LCA of electric, hybrid, LPG and gasoline cars in Belgian context; World Electric Vehicle Journal Vol. 3 - ISSN 2032-6653 - AVERE
- Messagie, M., Vrije, Life Cycle Analysis of the Climate Impact of Electric Vehicles [https://www.transportenvironment.org/sites/te/files/publications/TE%20-%20draft%20report%20v04.pdf]
which often last longer than their Microsoft backed counterparts, upgrading hardware is double or triple expensive as in other laptops and the operating system updates are free, unlike Microsoft. ↩︎