GM’s gas-thirsty Hummer, discontinued in 2010, is poised to return for the 2022 model year as an all-electric vehicle. Photo from Wikipedia

Glen Argan: When will we learn that less is more?

  • February 5, 2021

General Motors, the auto manufacturer which made billions from the sale of Hummers and other gas guzzlers, has committed itself to end production of petroleum powered vehicles by 2035 and be carbon neutral by 2040. The announcement is a significant step forward in the battle against climate change. Not only will the decision eliminate tailpipe emissions from GM’s vehicles, it will also encourage other automakers to step up their work in developing electric cars.

GM’s Jan. 28 announcement comes a few months after BP (formerly British Petroleum) declared it will reduce oil and gas production by 40 per cent over the next 10 years and increase its investment in renewable energy tenfold to $5 billion a year. While several European oil producers are adopting a similar approach, large American petroleum companies see renewables as a low-profit business and, perhaps unreasonably, expect oil prices to climb to previous heights.

Still, the writing on the wall is clear: Major companies are moving away from petroleum products and toward approaches that they expect will have less deleterious effects on the natural environment. This development is much to be preferred to government-driven regulation of the automobile and petroleum industries, a process which would increase bureaucracy and infuriate industry with a heavier burden of regulation.

However, even if all petroleum companies follow the lead of BP and all auto manufacturers compete with General Motors to switch to electric cars, the climate change issue will not be resolved soon. Electric cars will still need to be built using plastic, steel and other resources. Electrical grids and transmission lines will have to expand to cope with an estimated 25-per-cent increase in demand for electricity. As well, the average car on American roads is 11 years old; it could be 20 years or more after GM’s 2035 deadline before the last internal combustion engine is retired.

BP and GM may want to label their changes as part of a sustainable development strategy, but sustainable development is still industrial development. Unless a radical shift occurs in how political and economic power is exercised, the global problem of overdevelopment in wealthier nations and underdevelopment in poorer nations will continue.

Our deep-seated belief in the Western world is that our lives can and should be characterized by growing abundance with an ever-expanding array of goods and services. That belief is unsustainable. Until we change it, we will continue to have major problems with climate change, air and water quality, biodiversity and excessive use of pesticides and herbicides.

Further, as Pope Francis stated in his encyclical Laudato Si’, “Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.”

Is there any way out of our dilemma? Newscasts so often focus on what is worst in the human person — our capacity for hatred, crime, war, jealousy and selfishness. But Pope Francis retorted that “No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to His grace deep in our hearts.”

Greater than the power of corporations and governments is the power of human conscience. It is conscience that battles tyranny. Conscience brought down the mighty Soviet empire, and the rising tide of awakened consciences has led to many reforms in democratic nations, including medicare, women’s rights, an end to slavery and, yes, laws that protect the environment.

The Pope wrote that the abundance of material goods available to us baffles the human heart. Instead of being fulfilled, we are always yearning for more. We cannot be satisfied with less. So, we want more money to acquire more things. But our appetites are never sated.

The valuable lesson that is so hard to learn is that less is more. “Christian spirituality,” the Pope wrote, “proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little.” We need to stifle our desires to own two, or even any, cars, to live in a 3,000-square-foot house and to take regular vacations far from home.

General Motors and BP are taking necessary steps in the battle against climate change. However, they remain within the paradigm that says industrial growth means progress. The world needs a new perspective, one which emerges from human consciences and says we already have more than enough.

(NOTE: In my Jan. 24 column, I stated that Massimo Faggioli’s book, Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, was published in Canada by Novalis. In fact, Novalis is the Canadian distributor of the book which was published in the U.S. by Bayard.)

(Argan lives in Edmonton.)

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