If for some reason you haven’t heard the news, Tesla Motors opened up its patents last week in a move that’s being hailed as an unprecedented act of altruism motivated by concern for the environment. Some of us, however, aren’t so easily convinced.
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In seemingly altruistic fashion, Elon Musk, current CEO of Tesla Motor Co.,announced last Thursday the electric car manufacturer would be “giving away” itsproprietary Supercharger technology along with all of its patents. In the name of progress Musk proclaimed, “[Patents] serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors.”
But before we start worshipping the entrepreneurial spirit of Tesla we ought to ask, what progress is Musk actually talking about?
At face value it might seem simple enough, after all, Tesla’s own website states the company is “Committed to Electric,” that they make “[T]he best electric cars and electric powertrains in the world” and therefore offer “the most efficient path to a sustainable energy future.” The company goes on to state, “Tesla’s goal is to accelerate the world’s transition to electric mobility with a full range of increasingly affordable electric cars. We’re catalyzing change in the industry. Tesla vehicles… are fun to drive and environmentally responsible.”
So, simple enough, yes (if you follow the money). In the scope of the company’s recent announcement, the progress Musk alludes to is firmly rooted in catalyzing the electric car industry in order to accelerate the world’s transition away from gasoline powered automobiles.
That reveals another question though: Does such a transition rooted in the hands of the automobile industry create a sustainable, environmentally responsible future?
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In 17 Contradictions of Capitalism, Marxist author David Harvey noted that capitalism never actually deals with its problems by resolving them, it merely moves the problems elsewhere. Under-gridding everything Tesla does is this tendency. Contrary to their fancy phrases of sustainable, environmental responsibility, we cannot buy our way into a healthy planet.
The logic of capitalism is always on the side of profit. Tesla’s decision to go open-source and reveal its patents does not act contrary to this basic tenant. They are making a calculated maneuver, that by allowing other electric car producers access to their proven model they may more rapidly defeat their traditional, fossil-fueled competitors. The quicker gasoline fueled cars are pushed out of the market, the better it is for Tesla.
However, even if there was a massive switch to electric vehicles to displace America’s petroleum addiction, little in the name of environmental responsibility or sustainability could be gained without an extensive infrastructure of renewable energy. Absent such an infrastructure we will simply shift our pollution from the exhaust-pipes of automobiles to the smokestacks of coal and natural gas power plants, a potential step backwards not forward.
As the Scientific American reported:
“The mining of coal is an ugly and environmentally destructive process. And, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) burning the substance in power plants sends some 48 tons of mercury — a known neurotoxin — into Americans’ air and water every year (1999 figures, the latest year for which data are available). Furthermore, coal burning contributes some 40 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that coal mining and burning cause a whopping $62 billion worth of environmental damage every year in the U.S. alone, not to mention its profound impact on our health.
Upwards of half of all the electricity in the U.S. is derived from coal… On top of this trend, dozens of electric and plug-in hybrid cars are in the works from the world’s carmakers. It stands to reason that, unless we start to source significant amounts of electricity from renewables (solar, wind, etc.), coal-fired plants will not only continue but may actually increase their discharges of mercury, carbon dioxide and other toxins due to greater numbers of electric cars on the road.”
Sometimes though, like with the transition to electric automobiles, the profit motive and “progressive” initiatives can find ways to go hand-in-hand. Considering Tesla is likely privy to the environmental ramifications of increased coal production (remember that altruistic, entrepreneurial spirit), perhaps the electric car manufacturer is strategically placing itself to further pressure renewable energy alternatives on behalf of its consumers and the planet.
Of course, that’s ridiculous. As a capitalist enterprise predicated on expansion, once Tesla acquires substantial market share it will do what all capitalist businesses do — find ways to acquire more no matter how exploitative, no matter how oppressive.