Sustainability and the Prius

Canadian Parliament at night

One way or another, the Toyota Prius. is a symbolic vehicle. For some, it symbolizes how saving the planet can be relatively painless, enjoyable, and hip. You still get the same basic thing (the ability to zip around in a car) but without the guilt and with the important ability to lord it over the less environmentally responsible. Alternatively, the Prius is a symbol for the superficiality of the environmental commitments most people are willing to make. Seen in this way, it reveals how environmentalism is mere tokenism in many cases.

There are two arguments here which frequently become confounded. One is a first-order question about the ultimate sustainability of different energy systems. Is it sustainable to run internal combustion cars using cellulistic ethanol? What about plug-in hybrids charged using big nuclear fission plants? The answers to these questions are ultimately knowable to a high degree of specificity. For any given level of technology, answering them is simply a matter of applying chemistry and physics. The uncertainty therefore lies in estimations about what will be technologically possible at X or Y time.

The second-level argument is much more heuristic and intractable. There is the fundamentally liberal belief that environmental problems can be tackled fairly painlessly through a bit of cleverness and some new hardware. This is a view that takes the Prius as a positive symbol. At the other extreme is the conviction that only massive sacrifice can generate sustainability. The vision in Fight Club of people in rags pounding strips of leather on an abandoned superhighway captures this, and adherents would surely dismiss the Prius as a pathetic fig-leaf.

The latter argument seems to generate a lot more heated discussion, largely because the real meat of analysis on the former question lies in territory where most people cannot hold their own (who reading this could really calculate the efficiency of an energy grid based on photovoltaics, or of an industrial process for ethanol production from cellulose?). The latter debate requires only a will to participate, though it may not do much to leave us with an understanding of which view of the Prius is justified.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

20 thoughts on “Sustainability and the Prius”

  1. “Imagine,” Tyler said, “stalking elk past department store windows and stinking racks of beautiful rotting dresses and tuxedos on hangers; you’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life, and you’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. Jack and the beanstalk, you’ll climb up through the dripping forest canopy and the air will be so clean you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway stretching eight-lanes-wide and August-hot for a thousand miles.” ~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, Chapter 16


  2. What about the view that the Prius is more environmentally unfortunate than the Yaris, or even than the Hummer, if the real environmental cost of producing and relacing the battery are taken into account?

  3. I don’t think the two issues you identify are anything like as separable as you claim. Judgements about sustainability are going to involve futurology of various sorts, since what will count as sustainable will depend on what else is being done: patterns of demand and supply for various commodities, levels and locations of population growth, investment in infrastructure, and so on. To take an example from recent events in Britain, any one of the various flooded towns and bits of infrastructure on the floodplains of the Severn and Avon could perhaps have been protected, but not all of them, and not just because there aren’t enough resources but also because protecting one increases the risk to others.

    Also, I see little evidence that belief in the capacity of technological innovation alone to save us is distinctively liberal; in fact, most of those who I’m aware of having that belief do not seem to be liberal at all – you’re much more likely to see a Guardian article arguing for sacrifice than a Washington Post one for example. The belief, which may be more identifiable as a distinctively liberal trope, that individuals can prevent climate change by altering aspects of their lives, is not quite the same, since it does allow that sacrifice will be neccessary – no more holidays abroad, less exotic fruit and vegetables, and so on. The difference between the view you attribute to Palahuik and that one is partly the agent of sacrifice – individuals as individuals, and individuals together as some kind of community – although clearly also the levels of sacrifice are different.

  4. Rob,

    To respond to one small point before I head off to work: I had an unusually narrow idea of the word ‘liberal’ in mind when writing the above:

    “Instead market liberals tend to stress our scientific achievements, our progress, and our ability to reverse and repair environmental problems with ingenuity, technology, cooperation, and adaptation. For these thinkers, population growth and resource scarcity are not major concerns when it comes to environmental quality. A glance at the historical trend of better environmental conditions for all confirms this (especially statistics from the developed world). So do the global data on human well-being, such as medical advances, longer life expectancy, and greater food production.”

    This description is one of four worldviews laid out by Clapp and Dauvergne.

    The technological optimist / Malthusian pessimist divide is probably best captured by comparing market liberals with ‘bioenvironmentalists.’

  5. “Judgements about sustainability are going to involve futurology of various sorts, since what will count as sustainable will depend on what else is being done: patterns of demand and supply for various commodities, levels and locations of population growth, investment in infrastructure, and so on.”

    Very true. Dumping mine tailings in the woods is perfectly sustainable for as long as you are only dumping a little. Likewise, fishing or farming too extensively in one area when there are plenty of others to move on to. It is the enmeshed scarcity of the contemporary world that makes things tricky.

    On the liberalism front, it is perhaps noting a trans-Atlantic divide. The conception of what it means to be ‘liberal’ varies a good bit between the UK and Canada. I think the term has more left-wing connotations here. In the United States, it is basically just an insult used against supposedly soft-headed people. By ‘liberal,’ I meant primarily those with faith that human ingenuity is capable of improving the world.

  6. this, of course, doesn’t take into account the fact that people still drive hybrid (or otherwise ecologically-friendly) automobiles. it doesn’t matter that people drive reduced (or even zero) emission cars; urban sprawl demands a high environmental (and social) price.

    i think there’s a huge danger to have people marketing these products as the solution to the problem. you’re right: it’s slacktivism in all its yellow-rubbery glory.

    not to say that driving a hybrid is bad, of course; it’s certainly better than driving a standard car.

  7. “By ‘liberal,’ I meant primarily those with faith that human ingenuity is capable of improving the world.”

    I’m pretty sure the vast majority of those who are not market-liberals still believe that human ingenuity is capable of improving the world, although it may suitably describe the beliefs of liberals in the broadest sense. I would say that market-liberals, as described in your link, have faith in markets over institutions, whereas social greens have faith in institutions over markets, and institutionalists value both institutions and markets.

  8. Sorry, I meant to finish that by saying that the only group that lacks faith in human ingenuity to solve problems are the more radical bioenvironmentalists.

  9. the fact is, if they built a toyota prius with a 75 hp diesel engine and no electric motor or batteries, it would likely get better overall mileage. It wouldn’t be as fast or as sexy, but it would be a lot better car.

  10. Dust to dumb
    Prius easily beats Hummer in lifecycle energy use; ‘Dust to Dust’ report has no basis in fact
    Posted by Joseph Romm at 3:42 PM on 27 Aug 2007

    A study came out recently claiming to prove a Hummer has lower lifecycle energy use than a Prius. Because the result was so obviously bogus — and in sharp contradiction with every other major lifecycle analysis ever done — I didn’t spend time debunking it.

    But it made it into the comments of my blog and continues to echo around the internet, and the authors keep updating and defending it. A couple of good debunking studies — by the Pacific Institute (PDF) and by Rocky Mountain Institute (PDF) — haven’t gotten much attention, according to Technorati, so let me throw in my two cents.

    The study’s title is revealing: Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles From Concept to Disposal, The non-technical report, from CNW Marketing Research, Inc. Yes, although lifecycle energy use is probably the most complicated kind of energy analysis you can do, this 458-page report is “non-technical” and by a market research company to boot.

  11. How SUVs can save the climate
    When is a Tundra is a better buy than a Prius?

    You trade in your Civic, which averages about 32 miles per gallon, and buy a Prius, which gets a whopping 47 mpg. You’ve bumped up by 15 mpg — a big deal, right?

    Sort of. Over the next 15,000 miles of driving, you’ll have reduced your fuel consumption by 150 gallons. That’s fine. But consider what happens when you upgrade your SUV. That’s where the real action is.

    You swap out your Dodge Durango (16 mpg on average) for a Toyota Tacoma (23 mpg). It’s an upgrade of just 7 miles per gallon. It seems tiny. But consider that over the next 15,000 miles, you will have saved 285 gallons of fuel — nearly double what your fuel-sipping neighbor saved.

  12. Green-Conscious GE Develops Hybrid Lightbulb

    October 2, 2006

    FAIRFIELD, CT—One year after pledging to develop more energy-efficient products, General Electric Co. unveiled a product it is calling its most eco-friendly lighting source to date: the first-ever gasoline-electric hybrid lightbulb.

    “With the price of gas escalating as its supply dwindles, now is the perfect time to introduce innovative lighting technology that only relies on this fast-depleting, nonrenewable resource for a portion of its power,” GE chairman Jeff Immelt said in a statement released Monday.

  13. Media Release | August 4, 2009
    Hybrid vehicles produce scant environmental benefits, high cost

    Despite major costs to taxpayers in the U.S. and Canada, government programs that offer rebates to hybrid vehicle buyers are failing to produce environmental benefits, a new UBC study says.

    The study finds that hybrid sales have come largely at the expense of small, relatively fuel-efficient, conventional cars, rather than large SUVs, trucks and vans, which produce substantially greater carbon emissions.

    “If the intention of rebate programs is to replace gas guzzlers with hybrids, they are failing,” says Ambarish Chandra, a professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business and study co-author. He says large vehicle sales have risen steadily since the introduction of hybrid rebates.

    “People are choosing hybrids over similarly priced small- and medium-sized conventional cars, which are not far behind hybrids for fuel efficiency and emissions,” says Chandra. “The reductions in carbon emissions are therefore not great.”

    The study also finds that the majority of consumers who purchase hybrids were not motivated to do so by government rebates, says Chandra, whose co-authors include Sumeet Gulati, assistant professor in UBC’s Dept. of Food and Resource Economics, and Milind Kandlikar of UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues and Institute of Asian Research.

  14. Here, then, is the conundrum: if the vast majority of motorists in America claim to want higher fuel economy and are prepared to pay for it, why are they not doing so? There is no shortage of cars already on the market capable of 40mpg or more. The Toyota Prius gets 50mpg on the EPA’s combined cycle, while electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf deliver the equivalent of 60mpg and 99mpg respectively.

    Yet few people are buying them. Despite large tax incentives for buyers, Volt and Leaf sales have fallen well short of even their manufacturers’ modest expectations. Altogether, hybrid and electric vehicles account for only 2% of America’s new car market. The government may mandate manufacturers to produce fuel-efficient vehicles, but it cannot mandate motorists to buy them.

    The problem is their higher purchase price. Take the Toyota Camry, which is available in directly comparable hybrid and conventional forms. The hybrid version costs typically $3,400 (or 15%) more than the standard car, but achieves 13mpg (or 46%) better fuel economy. Even so, there have been few takers for the petrol sipper. Last year, Toyota sold over 313,000 ordinary versions of the Camry compared with fewer than 15,000 hybrid versions, notes Mr Anwyl.

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