Sunday, May 31, 2009

Electrickery (2008)

From the December 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Catweazle was a television comedy series produced by London Weekend Television in the early 1970's. The series was conceived, and written by Richard Carpenter and ran for two seasons starring Geoffrey Bayldon as the irrepressible Catweazle. If, like me, you grew up in the constant presence of Doctor Who and the Goodies it is very likely you will also have fond memories of this well written and charming series.

Catweazle was a magician, who lived in the eleventh century, but however hard he tried, his spells hardly ever worked. One day was different. When Norman soldiers tried to capture him, in desperation he used magic to escape, and it worked! The only trouble was that instead of flying through space to flee his pursuers, he flew though time. Catweazle finds himself nine centuries into the future. Being a magician, everything he experiences in the twentieth century such as motor cars, telephones ("telling bone"), and electric light ("electrickery"), he believes is the result of magic. This basic premise and Catweazle’s quest to return to his own time, drives much of the humour in the series as Catweazle finds himself in situations that often become, well, hilarious.

Catweazle came to mind following the Socialist Party’s recent showing of the film “Who Killed the Electric Car”, as part of its season of free film evenings exploring issues and problems affecting our daily lives. This documentary covers the history of the battery electric vehicle: its birth, limited commercial development, and subsequent death, focusing mainly on the General Motors EV1 which was made available for lease in Southern California following the 1990 ZEV mandate of the California Air Resources Board. It also explores the role played in limiting the technology’s development and adoption by the US and Californian governments; manufacturers of conventional automobiles, hydrogen vehicles, and batteries; the oil industry; and of consumers, whilst also considering the implications of these events for Middle East politics, environmentalism, air pollution and global warming.

Electric car technology has been around for a long time: the first crude electric carriage was invented by Scotsman Robert Anderson in about 1889 and the electric car subsequently caught on in the US, enjoying success into the roaring 1920s with production peaking in 1912.

Its decline was brought about by several major developments. By the 1920s America had a better system of roads that now connected cities, bringing with it the need for longer-range vehicles. The discovery of Texan crude oil reduced the price of gasoline making it cheap and affordable to the average consumer. The initiation of mass production of the internal combustion engine as developed by Henry Ford (Fordism) made these vehicles widely available. And electric vehicles, by and large, were made with expensive materials the cost of which continued to rise: in 1912 an electric roadster sold for $1.750 while a gasoline car sold for $650.

Human-induced air pollution has been around at least since humans discovered fire; and everyday five hundred million car exhausts blow out some very nasty emissions as well as CO2, in fact roadside emissions are if anything on the increase. Traffic pollution has been blamed for tens of thousands of deaths every year. The Lancet has estimated that 6 percent of all deaths per year are due to air pollution. Half these deaths, it says, were linked to traffic fumes. In Britain researchers estimate that traffic fumes were responsible for more than 25,000 new cases of chronic bronchitis and more than 500,000 asthma attacks. Asthma is a chronic disease, in which sufferers have repeated attacks and difficulty in breathing and coughing, which is becoming common place amongst children. In Britain the cost of treating illness associated with traffic pollution amounts to 1.7 percent of the gross domestic product, exceeding the costs arising from traffic accidents.

California has almost perfect conditions for photochemical smog with the necessary ingredients: the type of pollutants put out by cars, and abundant sunshine. So here at least you would have thought the introduction and development of General Motors EVI would have been rationally embraced.. California already leads in electricity generation from hydroelectric power, that accounts for close to one-fifth of State electricity generation, and non hydroelectric renewable energy sources, such as wind, geothermal, solar energy, fuel wood, and municipal solid waste/landfill gas resources. (Interestingly, due to strict emission laws, only a few small coal-fired power plants operate in California, and the Mojave Desert is said to be one of the best sites in the United States for solar power plants. A facility known as “The Geysers,” located in the Mayacamas Mountains north of San Francisco, is the largest group of geothermal power plants in the world, with more than 750 megawatts of installed capacity.) These resources could have been harnessed to support the EVI, an emissions free vehicle. But we don’t live in a rational or even a remotely reasonable world. Profit and greed of the market are both master and ruler today.

Just ask yourself what short of a world is it where up to one billion people worldwide consume less than the minimum critical daily caloric intake needed to avoid hunger. In Africa in particular, hunger and disease are a vicious cycle. Hunger, along with many other effects causes the immune system to weaken, making the body more susceptible to other diseases. What kind of a world denies millions the medication to fight off illness and disease? What kind of world is it? Rational and Reasonable? Who killed the Electric Car?

The killers of the electric car are roaming the planet freely plundering it of its resources and all for profit – they will destroy a rain forest, pollute a river and poison the sea let alone empty an oil well or kill a car if there is a profit in it. It’s not “Electrickery.”