Shayne Hughes

Movie: “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and a Reflection on Change in our Society

Date July 13, 2007

If you haven’t seen this movie, it is a must. I consider myself relatively well-informed, and I had no idea that electric vehicles had been so effectively and broadly produced. When I sat down to watch the movie, I expected to hear about a prototype that had been muzzled before it hit the street, not discover that in fact fully functional electric cars (as big as Ford Rangers and Toyota Ravs) were overjoying their owners. The cars were competitively priced, fun to drive, very economical, convenient to charge and required a fraction of the maintenance of internal combustion engines.

I found the film enlightening, inspiring and frustrating. I don’t want to review it here (other than to reiterate the importance of seeing it for yourself) but reflect on what brought up in me. Like all documentary, news and other publications (like this blog), it is presented thru the eyes of the director and reflect his views on the topic. I would imagine that certain facts are highlighted, others minimized, in order for us to fully buy his story. Wikipedia lists a few of these critiques.

The film details how the auto companies shut down the production of the electric vehicles (EV), and provides its conclusion of who are the perpetrators of the crime. There are the usual suspects (oil companies, auto companies, the Bush Administration…), but then a few that I appreciated being exposed (namely, you and me, the “consumer”). It’s true, the vast majority of us meander along in our self-absorbed way, buying what is sold to us, and lamenting the lack of choices (Hummer or Expedition? Hmmm). We listen to Washington back down yet again from setting mileage standards, and we don’t scream in protest.

I suppose already the difficulty is that we are not a homogenous ‘we’. Many do scream in protest, others scream the contrary, and then there is the we that isn’t paying attention. Perhaps when (not if) we reach a moment of crisis that is acute enough, the percentages of our current mix will evolve.

In the meantime, the big decisions are made by large corporations (or the government they fund). It is at this point that those of the liberal ilk leap to conspiracy theories: the rich, the right wing, the powerful, they are all in cohorts, working together to get rich and oppress the powerless. This is quickly followed by conclusive opinions about their integrity (they have none), intentions (selfish greed and power) and humanity (ignorant and evil).
It would be wonderful if it were that simple.

The People
My work brings me in contact in a fairly personal way with people from all sides of the political spectrum, many many Republicans, a large portion of which are in the oil industry. They are very wonderful people, very caring, warm, and committed to life and people. [In a confession that should be taken with a grain of salt due to its general nature, I have consistently found the right wing Republican business people in the South far more genuine, thoughtful, caring (and sane) than their more liberal (and 'evolved') Democratic counterparts in California. The fact that I find this surprising reveals something about which direction I lean politically.] The cold hard fact is that these people are like us, no worse and no better. The people in the oil industry, for the most part, care about the environment, global warming, the future. They also, like us, care about their financial security and career aspirations.

If you look around you in your own work place, and acknowledge how often decisions get made because no one took the time to really think it thru, or no one dared voice certain concerns for fear of being judged/criticized, or the loudest voice won the argument, or this is the way we always do it so why change, or … Need I list more ways in which we all make small and large decisions for the wrong reasons? Do you think it is any different in the oil or auto industry? Why would they be any less dysfunctional than us?

I think we hold onto conspiracy theories because they are actually less frightening than the reality. And they allow us to hold a righteous, powerless position from which we don’t have to challenge our own thinking.

The Corporate Structure
Who Killed the Electric Car brought me careening back to a film I saw several years ago, The Corporation. They explore in this film how the actual legal structure of corporations in America encourages them to act in a socially irresponsible way (and they do).

The fuel of the universe is goals. People, animals, plants, corporations: we behave in accordance with our most fervently held goals (which is why, if you are not behaving in a way that you think you should to achieve your goals (e.g., over-eating, not exercising, getting angry, not doing your work, whatever) you actually have a more dearly held goal that you are not aware of that is in there directing things). Corporations have one clear goal: create profit. There is nothing built in there about taking care of natural resources, employees, the community, etc. So when a corporation does it, it is because the leaders of that company actually directed it to do so in spite of the corporate structure. Think of the inertia, in a multi-billion dollar company, that must be overcome to act in a socially or environmentally responsible way! Even the CEO can’t make that happen unless s/he is superhuman. There is no reason nor reward for them to do so. See the section in Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat” in which he discusses Wal-Mart vs. Costco. Nobody on Wall Street cares that Costco takes better care of their employees; the management of that company does it to the detriment of its stock price. We have set up a system that is structurally at odds with the values that we hold dearest.

And so it goes for the auto and oil industries. They need to make money or they will be out on the street (or gobbled up by a bigger competitor). I can have compassion for them — even as I rue their impact on the world — because they are not evil. They are just caught in the system like everyone else. For instance, I couldn’t understand why GM wasn’t making money on these cars; you make them for a cost and you price them at a profit. I realized that it isn’t necessarily at the point of sale that it is a problem: there is little to no maintenance to do on an EV. There is only one moving part! The oil, oil filters, turbo chargers, pistons, etc — all these pieces of metal in constant friction, destined to break at some point… Gone. A whole industry of products and service was threatened, and one upon which the dealers depended for most of their profit. Of course they panicked.

Why do I bring up The Corporation in the context of the Electric Car? Because in fact significant change will continue to be incredibly difficult until we change the system. When someone makes a film like “Who Killed the Electric Car” or “Why We Fight” or “Sicko” they are often driven by a sense of outrage at the actions and results that they see. I understand the outrage, and yet the behavior is normal, in light of the system that we have created.

Do we have the courage and the skills and the collective leadership to effect a change at the level of the corporate structural system? A change that could legally embed principles in business that ensure the longevity of natural resources or protect the interests of mankind, a community? So many of us would react to that, decry the negative financial impact that it would have. Yet, in a generation, or even in 5-10 years, it would become the new “normal” frame of reference. We would have forgotten the system that we were so miserably addicted to.

Nothing is written in stone. It must be possible. Perhaps we need to suffer a bit more as a people before we seriously contemplate it.


Shayne Hughes


9 Responses to “Movie: “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and a Reflection on Change in our Society”

  1. rdf said:

    I agree with your assessment that some hold to conspiracy theories b/c they are less frightening than the reality. In fact, I agree with everything you said. I too am of Liberal persuasion and have been dumfounded by the close-mindedness of some of my cohorts (not excluding my own close-mindedness). Where I get stuck personally, is with the last paragraph. How does one bridge the two worlds, that of individual intention to do good and the current reality-in this case the corporate structural system….without becoming a zealot or cynic? For me it boils down to a very simple practice, but even this is not satisfying. To keep my actions in both work and personal matters heart centered. But there must be more? I am interested to hear others perspective on this challenge?

  2. Curtis said:

    The truism here is that behavior follows structure. But that’s not all behavior all the time. It’s just harder to engage in behavior that is counterstructure. The less-noted truism is that structure eventually follows behavior–that is, enough behavioral pressure on the system changes the structure. We like to think of “pressure on the system” as protesting, boycotting, criticizing, and opting out. Generally the structure is quite robust against such stuff, just as our acquaintances are robust against our snubs, our head-on attacks, and our talking behind their backs. Effective pressure, like being a good friend, is much harder and usually involves earning the trust of the people/structure you want to change and finding a very sympathetic way to convey your ideas and concerns. We are rarely so clear, committed and unselfish, and the structure rarely changes.

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