The subject of biodiesel came up last week, and in explaining the concept to my daughter I remembered how much I’m drawn to it—as opposed to electric cars, which I instinctively distrust. That statement says as much about me as it does about the two technologies, so let me unpack it a little.
Here’s why I’m drawn to biodiesel:
1. Biodiesel piggybacks on existing technology. We already know how to build and maintain diesel engines.
2. At its best, biodiesel turns waste material—used vegetable oils—into fuel rather than requiring new production.
3. You can literally make biodiesel in your back yard. More practically, it can be made on a community scale.
Will biodiesel solve all the world’s problems? No. It is a small and partial solution to an enormous global problem, which though it cannot solve the whole, nevertheless—by virtue of being small!—empowers people to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Moreover, in principle, it creates no new problems that others will have to solve later, e.g. waste that will have to be cleaned up.
The electric car, by contrast, promises a total solution to that enormous global problem—but one that, by its very totality, disempowers people. The electric car…
1. Requires an overhaul of global industry, as well as the creation of new networks of technological and human support (i.e. charging stations).
2. Relies (for its batteries) on materials that must be freshly mined, often at great environmental cost. (That one may account those costs as less than those associated with internal combustion engines is not my point; my point is that they are not zero. They are new messes, which will have to be cleaned up later.)
3. Not only requires global supply chains and industrial manufacturing but makes vehicles on which people depend for (it is not too much to say) their daily existence ever more inscrutable to them.
As I said, I’m not interested for the moment in weighing the environmental costs and benefits of electric cars, nor in the fact that biodiesel made from fryer oil isn’t going to power all the world’s vehicles (unless we all eat a lot more fast food). Set that aside.
My present concern is with the sort of culture, the sort of personhood, the two technologies represent, and foster. Biodiesel is democratic: it can be implemented from below. The electric car is technocratic and must be implemented from above. The latter dreams of changing the world and imposes that change—and its costs—on the people who happen to live in it; the former, by accepting limits to what it can accomplish, invites people to act for themselves.
This is simplistic, yes, and I acknowledge that I’m talking about a best-case vision of biodiesel, but I don’t think I’m being unfair to electric cars. Regardless of whether or when or where one may judge them useful, they represent two fundamentally different approaches to technology. The question is, then, are you a biodiesel person, or an electric car person?
I’m a biodiesel person. In case you couldn’t tell. I think we need more biodiesel solutions, and fewer electric car solutions. But we have become dependent on electric car solutions. So maybe the bigger question is, how do we raise biodiesel children in an electric car world?