What Does Elon Musk Know That the Green Movement Doesn't?

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credit: TreeHugger

Lloyd Alter, design editor of TreeHugger, was invited to speak at the Passive House Northwest conference in Olympia, Washington. Part of his speech looked at the problems we have selling the green movement, and compared it to the success of Elon Musk of Tesla.

TreeHugger was founded by Graham Hill to help move the green movement from the purview of poncho-clad hippies and help make it mainstream, apolitical, and sexy for everyone, not just self-described environmentalists; hence the ironic posters and our attempt at an ironic name. Graham understood that sustainability was not about guilt, but had to be aspirational.

credit: Posters about doing with less

In many ways, we failed, delivering a negative message about doing with less, don't do this and don't do that, think about the planet, think about the generations yet to come. It was, frankly, the opposite of aspirational. We revelled in propaganda posters from wars that were designed to make people do their duty rather than enjoy a bit more coffee or buy something nice, or even frivolous. And are we into posters!

credit: Shelton Group

It's really no wonder that interest in environmental issues has declined since 2010. People had a lot on their minds after the Great Recession and were pretty stressed with worries about basic needs; nobody needed more stress and worry about changing habits. And so, they didn't.

credit: Shelton Group

When people think about environmental issues at all, according to the Shelton Group's recent survey, apparently they think about the cost of energy. But fuel prices crashed along with everything else after the recession and have been pretty low ever since. People have also learned that the window salesmen are liars, and that the payback for energy efficiency can take decades, particularly when energy prices are so low. And as for whether anyone thinks about the world they are leaving for their grandchildren, according to the survey, that is the last thing anyone worries about.

credit: Gunter Lang/ Uttendorfgasse

Yet in the TreeHugger design section we are big fans of Passivhaus, a very tough European energy efficiency standard (modified for North America by PHIUS, but both standards are used in the USA). It requires investment in high quality windows and insulation. It saves a LOT of energy. But energy has always been more expensive in Europe, and the base standard for building has always been higher, so the incremental cost of going Passivhaus is much lower than it is in North America, where they sell cheap vinyl windows by the square mile.

But you can't SEE passivhaus, unless you look in the mechanical room at the fancy heat recovery ventilator. Also, a much higher proportion of the population lives in multiple family housing in Europe as well, thanks to serious restrictions on land use that make it much more expensive to sprawl. And we do go on about how much more efficient apartment living is.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Bike culture in Copenhagen

Then, I go on about bikes and walkable cities, how everyone should live like they do in Copenhagen, ride bikes everywhere no matter what the weather. We talk about how energy efficient it is, how much fun it is, how safe it is, how healthy it makes you look and feel, how bikes solve just about everything. But in America it is a rounding error in the transportation numbers. Many people do not feel safe, many places are not bicycle friendly. It is increasing in numbers but it is still really, really small. And I realize that here I am, a downtown dwelling, machiatto swilling Canadian in Toronto telling Americans that they should live like they do in Berlin and get around like they do in Copenhagen. No wonder I am not getting anywhere. The data clearly show that bikes and passivhaus save energy....

credit: Seth Godin

But as marketing guru Seth Godin notes, people really do not care about data. They care about emotional connection. They buy what they want.

credit: Elon Musk announcing solar shingles

And apparently, nobody knows what we want more than Mr. Elon Musk of Tesla. I will say up front that for years I have complained about electric cars, that they do not solve the problems of our cities. As Alex Steffen noted years ago, "the answer to the problem of the American car is not under the hood, and we're not going to find a bright green future by looking there." I always said: get a bike.

credit: Tesla

I was never much of a fan of his solar roofs either, thinking that solar roofs disproportionately favor those who have roofs, which is mostly sprawlish houses on big lots in the sunbelt. But then he introduced his fancy solar shingles on this beautiful house with serious battery storage and two Tesla cars in the garages and people just melted. I got how people love Tesla’s cars, they are certainly aspirational. I get how they love the gorgeous solar roof tiles, and how they might well change the game for rooftop solar.

credit: Tesla kills the duck

I did not get why people wanted batteries; they are expensive and do not do that much that most people would actually notice. The things that they do for people are rather esoteric, and get into talking about duck curves and peak demand shifting that are utility scale, not personal. And then I wrote the post Tesla kills the duck with big batteries and it got more page views than any post I have written in the last five years. People do care about batteries. And ducks.

credit: Fox News

And now Tesla, still running on promises with the solar roof and the cheaper, affordable Model 3, is a more valuable company than Ford and is creeping up on General motors. What makes it so valuable? because people want to believe. People want to live this dream.

credit: Abraham Maslow, slightly updated

Abraham Maslow was right when he described his hierarchy of needs; housing and bikes are in many ways, down at the Physiological level, the first things first that people need to survive. Passive house, in a lot of ways, gives one security and stability, at least when it comes to temperature and comfort. But the Tesla package really talks to self esteem, to recognition and respect. It is what people in America appear to want, what they aspire to, what they want to show off to their neighbours.

credit: solar shingle launch

The people who crowded on to the Wisteria Lane set for Desperate Housewives for the launch of the solar shingle oohed and aahhhed because it wasn’t just a shingle, or a battery, or a car but a way of life. And it so happens that this way of life could conceivably get us off carbon and fossil fuels, have us living in electric houses, driving electric cars with big batteries, in our houses or shared, that kill the duck by delivering power at those peak evening times. It is quite a picture, quite a vision.

credit: Planetizen

But everything that I have said is wrong with this picture over the years is still is true. It doesn’t scale; we cannot have everyone living in big bungalows with the big roofs that they need to generate the power. It almost requires urban sprawl to work.

credit: Miami rush hour/ wikipedia

We cannot have the roads full of electric cars, anymore than we can have them full of gasoline cars; there is not enough highway now. Yes, the air will be cleaner but the roads will still be clogged.

credit: Tesla aluminum body

The embodied energy of making all those cars and battery packs is still huge; there is not enough recycled aluminum in the world to make all those light cars, and solar panels are not without their footprint either. As Carl Zimring noted in his book Aluminum Upcycled: sustainable design in historical perspective.

As designers create attractive goods from aluminum, bauxite mines across the planet intensify their extraction of ore at lasting cost to the people, plants, animals, air, land and water of the local areas. Upcycling, absent a cap on primary material extraction, does not close industrial loops so much as it fuels environmental exploitation.
credit: Universal Studios/ Wisteria Lane

It’s not surprising that the solar shingle and battery package was launched on Wisteria Lane, the set of Desperate Housewives; it is all expensive and really, accessible only to the one percent. This is not a solution that works for the other 99 percent. In fact, it doesn't work for many people at all. If you get down to reality, to the number of people who can afford this, you have to ask why we are even bothering.

credit: Tesla/ Model 3 launch

However there is no question that it is brilliant. That Elon Musk totally gets how people think. The people who can afford to buy into this vision will be living a very impressive low carbon lifestyle. And it might well trickle down, as electric cars and solar panels keep dropping in price. For the slightly less rich, perhaps shared electric self-driving cars. For the great majority of us: lots of electric transit and really good affordable electric assisted bikes on good infrastructure. Paint this picture and we might actually see a rapid and widespread decarbonization of our society.

credit: Batteries are less controversial

Another keynote at the Passive House NorthWest conference, Dylan Heerema of the Pembina Institute, also painted an optimistic picture. While the USA seems to be going backwards on coal and climate, the rest of the world is telling a different story. China and India are cleaning up their act quickly, in response to citizens who are complaining loudly about about air quality. Solar and wind are now cheaper to install than conventional power sources. Giant batteries of batteries may still cost more than natural gas peaker plants, but they are a lot less controversial when placed close to communities. They really are a no-brainer and will get exponentially cheaper.

credit: the future we want

But Elon Musk has so many lessons for TreeHuggers everywhere; electrification changed America before, and is likely about to do it again. Ultimately it will be cleaner and cheaper than the current fossil fuel paradigm. We will have better air quality, healthier citizens, quieter cities, and it need not cost the earth. We still have to promote the radical building efficiency that comes from Passive House. We still need walkable and cycleable cities and the Goldilocks Density and everything else that we have droned on about on TreeHugger for years. That is still the future we need. But there is no question that Elon Musk has, for many people, nailed the future we want.