Taking the auto out of autocrat
What about a nationwide EV pool?
The Montgomery bus boycott in December of 1955 is chiefly remembered for the heroism of Rosa Parks and for the unlikely emergence of Martin Luther King Jr., an unknown and shockingly young minister who navigated the turbulent uprising and emerged from it at the head of the nascent civil rights movement. It was an epic moment in the history of nonviolence, on a par with Gandhi’s salt march—a gesture that captured the imagination and the heart of much of a watching nation.
But for those of us who have worked to organize marches and sit-ins and so on, the sheer mechanics of the thing are at least as fascinating. Parks was arrested on the evening of December 3, a Thursday. This was a world without internet, and in the Black community a world without its own tv station. But by the following Monday there was a wildly effective boycott of the city’s bus lines, which ran with less than ten percent of their normal load of Black passengers. The solidarity of that first day held, improbably and magnificently, for the next 381 days. Asking people to stay off the buses was not easy in a community where car ownership was rare: many of the passengers worked as domestics, a long hard day; adding an hour on foot each way was a true sacrifice, even with people across America rallying to send shoes. And of course there were plenty of elderly and infirm residents who couldn’t walk, so organizing alternative transportation was fundamental to the success of the protest. Many of the local congregations had station wagons or vans for getting choirs to concerts or kids to vacation Bible school; these were reconstituted as “rolling churches,” available for pickups. And a few hundred Black Montgomerians did have cars—soon they were formed into a fleet of informal shared taxicabs, a sort of early Uber Pool.
The Crucial Years is a reader-supported publication. If it’s helpful to you, consider buying a subscription, or giving one as a gift!
I’m thinking about all this, of course, because like everyone else I’m casting about for ways that we might be of practical help to the brave people of Ukraine. I’ve already suggested large-scale governmental ways to be of use—I’m glad to see others picking up on the idea of using the Defense Production Act to flood Europe with heat pumps that could replace the gas-fired furnaces that are Putin’s chief leverage against the continent, and on the idea of mobilizing government at a wartime pitch to produce needed equipment.
But many of us also want to do something ourselves—it’s a basic human instinct watching the bravery of the Ukrainians and not wanting them to have to bear every last bit of the burden. People have come up with innovative ideas, like booking Air BandB’s in Kyiv that they will never use just to get some money into the hands of locals. And here’s a list of charities doing good work on the ground.
But since the basic support for the Putin regime is oil and gas revenue, anything we can do to use less oil and gas also helps. Not immediately, but this war may grind on for a long time, and eventually our ability to get off hydrocarbons could play a crucial role. The GOP, Joe Manchin, and their patrons in the fossil fuel industry think the answer is producing more American oil and gas. But that’s just dumb, in part because breathing its combustion byproducts already kills 9 million people a year (far far far more than all war and terrorism combined), partly because it destroys the planet (as the IPCC reminded us on Monday) and partly because oil and gas are a global market. In the end, anything that maintains our dependency on them is a gift to Putin.
Far smarter would be figuring out how to cut consumption here—keeping demand down would keep the global price down, denying Putin (not to mention Exxon, the Kochs, and the king of Saudi Arabia) windfall profits. And the quicker we build out alternatives, the quicker their power dwindles.
Some of the ways to reduce consumption are time-honored and obvious: if Ukrainians can shiver in bomb shelters, we can put on a sweater or two and turn the thermostat down a few degrees. Or—if you’re in parts of the South or Midwest reporting unprecedented late-winter heat—you could turn up the thermostat a few degrees and let the AC rest. It’s nice that we’re lighting things up in blue and yellow—but we could turn off a lot of other lights.
Transportation, though, is America’s single biggest use of hydrocarbons. So perhaps we could cut back at least a little—maybe not drive one day a week. You don’t need to be as engaged as those resolute Montgomerians of the 1950s—committing to even a single day each week of walking or biking or taking the bus would make a difference.
And here’s another possible angle. What if—for those trips that really do need a car—we started figuring out some way to take advantage advantage of the fact that a non-trivial percentage of American autos now run on electricity. (Even where that electricity is produced by gas, it’s much more efficient to use an EV). Maybe that one day a week those of us who have EVs could take our neighbors on the errands they need to run—the trips to the doctor’s office, the trek to the grocery. I’m betting it would be easy for Tesla’s software team to figure out the necessary comms tech—it’s half mutual aid, half Lyft. And the effort would be assisted by the fact that many of us EV drivers are evangelists anyway (sometimes, it must be said, to a slightly dreary extreme). Now we could have a captive audience to show the pleasures of driving our quiet, elegant machines.
If the people of Montgomery could do without buses for a year, maybe we could—if our commitment to Ukraine extended beyond the rhetorical—build out an EV network over the next few months. Most of us can’t airlift arms or food into Kyiv, but we can give our neighbors a lift. In a world where thousands of Europeans are showing up at train stations offering to take in random Ukrainian refugees, and in a world where autos underwrite autocrats, it doesn’t feel like to much to ask.
I’m very grateful to those who are supporting my work by buying a subscription.
Other news from around the climate and energy world—which is mostly dominated this week by the fallout from the Ukraine crisis
+Naomi Klein, predictably, has a wise piece in the Intercept really driving home that we’re at a choice point: either go backwards into the fossil fuel era, or use renewable energy to build a world where dictators will have a harder time. Youth climate activists are making the same point in 60 Ukraine solidarity rallies around the world, from Lagos to Las Vegas. And the International Energy Agency has put forward a ten-point plan for Putin-proofing Europe. High on the list: “speed up the replacement of gas boilers with heat pumps.”
+Speaking of unpatriotic profit-seekers, the gas industry is gutting building codes to make sure that we don’t move faster towards electrified homes, Alexander Kauffman reports in the Huffington Post.
+Easy to tell that the wonderful campaigners at Clean Creatives are getting to the ad industry with their effort—now supported by more than 200 agencies—to stop them from helping the oil industry with its greenwashing. Ad Age, the pr trade journal, ran a sclerotic attack on the group last week. “Stop the madness,” the editor shrieks, worrying about an “existential threat” to his industry if lucrative contracts with Exxon et al were to dry up. That he issued this screed the same day the IPCC published a 6,000-page warning about the existential threat to, um, life on planet earth raises a few questions about his pr chops.
This week’s post may have been inspired by this week’s installment from our epic nonviolent yarn, which is all about creative civil disobedience. If you need to catch up on the first 50 chapters of The Other Cheek, check out the archive.
MK and Perry were back in their Oakland office, petting Noam Chomsky and sifting through a stack of printouts, the fruit of two weeks on the road. They’d covered central Florida with Mrs. Barclay, leaving her in Boca Raton with old friends from her Vermont girlhood when she began to tire. Perry had called Vern and Trance several times to keep them updated; Vern was a little alarmed about his mother lying down on a railroad track, but as he himself pointed out, “I’m more scared of telling her not to.”
“Not that she’d listen anyway,” said Trance
“That too,” said Vern, but he’d made Perry promise to keep her safe, a promise that was worrying him a little now that they were back in San Francisco. “What if a train just keeps going and plows into these people?” he asked MK.
“It hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “Why would it? I mean, we’ll let them know where we’re going to be.”
“I don’t know,” said Perry. “But the fact that these people are about to die somehow makes me feel more responsible for them, not less.”
“That I get,” said MK. “They’re pretty remarkable.” They’d followed every lead they’d gotten, and if most old people were conservative or apathetic, that still left…a lot of old people, especially in Florida. They’d met a 99-year-old man in a Miami Beach hospice who told them—he’d written it down—that he’d fought in the Lincoln Brigades, a fact at which they’d nodded dutifully. Only later, on Google, did they figure out what it had meant: he’d gone by himself to Spain as a 19-year-old to fight the fascists, years before Pearl Harbor. Now he was dying of an esophygeal tumor that made it hard for him to talk, but he was determined to join their protest. “Pronto,” he wrote on another card that he handed them as he left.
They’d met two women who had worked as trainers for the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s, helping plan some of the early lunch counter sit-ins. “People know about Dr. King,” one of them had said. “But there were plenty of other people too. Plenty.” In fact, one of the women sent word of their plans out to a list-serv of civil rights organizers, and before long they had veterans of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Biloxi beach wade-ins. They’d met Zionists and anti-Zionists, former communists and former anti-communists. Many Peace Corps alumni seemed never to have gotten over their idealism, and there were an almost endless number of ex-ministers, retired nuns, and former rabbis, many of whom were eager to participate.
“Rev. Eliza Isham,” said MK, looking at one of the folders on the desk. “First female Episcopal minister in Virginia. She said she was in renal failure, but she looked awfully healthy. Are we supposed to do some kind of check to make sure these people are actually sick. Like, a note from their doctor?”
“I don’t think ministers are allowed to lie,” said Perry. “Are they?”
“Probably not,” said MK. “Anyway, we’ve got an enormous number of people here. And most of them haven’t actually even been activists before, that’s what really got me. I had ten ladies tell me, ‘Oh, I was just a mother.’ One showed me pictures of her six kids: two doctors, two lawyers, and two professors. ‘Just a mother.’ These are amazing people.”
“So I’ve got a good database going, and pretty much all of them are either on email or have a neighbor who can help them,” said Perry. “Do we want to set up a website? Send them instructions?”
“Janice Two Rivers and Professor Vukovic talked last week while we were gone,” said MK. “They were tempted to keep it quiet for the moment, until we’re ready to start sitting down on the tracks. We’ve got plenty of people already to keep five sites going for five days, and their guess is once we get started the publicity will pull more people in fast. So the thing is to do a little training over the web. With the professor, I think.”
“Not a problem,” said Perry. “I’ll get together with Cass and set up a series of conference calls.”
“Okay,” said MK. “And now let’s take our minders to the Spice Monkey for dinner.” She was joking, a little. Perry was actually the first to suspect they were being followed, because he’d picked up two serious attempts to hack his cellphone. The first, he was pretty sure, was Chinese in origin—especially when he spent a fake text to MK about a meeting at a Boca Raton funeral home, and then waited outside the address till he’d seen a car with two Asian men park down the block. “Since it was 94 degrees and they stayed in their car for an hour, I figured they might be staking us out,” he’d told her. “Also, they were 40 years younger than anyone else on the block.” The second attempt came from someone harder to identify—it was, Perry told Professor Lee on a secure phone line, an even more sophisticated hack. Professor Lee was worried enough to carry the phone down to Professor Vukovic’s office, but when he heard the account he laughed.
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” he said. “It’s usually best to figure they’re listening in anyway. And this way if we have any message we actually need to get across, I guess we can.”
“What surprises me is the Chinese,” said Professor Lee. “This doesn’t seem like any concern of theirs.”
“The Chinese burn more oil than any country except America,” Professor Vukovic said. “And they’ve been on a buying spree for oil companies. So I imagine they see it as their business. Not to mention that very few governments actually like peaceful resistance. Armed resistance is not a problem—they have a lot of guns. But what we do gives them the willies.”
So MK and Perry had tried not to worry about the minders. They didn’t let on that they knew, but they did behave just oddly enough to make sure that anyone watching would have plenty to report. One morning Perry had carefully taken six IHOP silver dollar pancakes and arranged them in a cryptic quadrangle in a parking spot outside, and then looked overhead as if searching for a drone. The next day MK brought three different straw hats—bright red, bright green, and bright blue—and switched them on and off her head at precise hourly intervals. They didn’t tell Cass, because they knew she’d worry, but they did tell Allie, who had laughed maniacally, and then suggested her own variation. “Stick out your index finger and your pinky—that’s Hook ‘Em Horns, the University of Texas hand signal. Do me a favor and flash it a few times every day.” MK particularly enjoyed flashing it at Perry—“between us, it means ‘you’re a cutie,’” she’d told him, which meant she could now enjoy making him blush even across a crowded room.
“So, to summarize, our job is really quite easy,” said Professor Vukovic. “We have to sit down on the tracks for a little while, until we’re arrested.” He was speaking into his computer, addressing the fourth of five webinars, one for each of the groups planning to get arrested—tonight’s crew would be deployed to a stretch of track not far from Mobile, on the Alabama Gulf Coast Railway.
Cass was a little worried—the conference calls took an hour each night, and that hour took a lot out of the professor, who was clearly getting sicker with each passing week. Now that she knew what to look for, she could tell when his belly or back was hurting—the tumor in the tail of his pancreas was pressing on the surrounding organs. The doctor had given him powerful painkillers, but they made him sleepy, and he was insisting on working harder than ever. Early in the week they’d allowed themselves a small celebration—slivovitz and butter cookies—when the last of his files was officially digitized and the entire archive uploaded to the cloud. “You’ll have to figure out the best way to make use of it,” he told Cass. “Maybe a library open to anyone, but you and Maria will know best.” Now he spent most of each day in phone calls to various campaigns around the world, providing a last round of advice—today, so far, he’d talked to anti-torture campaigners in Egypt, a crew of former prisoners in Indiana working for sentencing reform, and a Londoner heading the campaign for marijuana legalization in the UK.
“We have marijuana here in Colorado, yes?” he’d asked Cass when he got off the phone.
“Yes,” she said. “Do you want me to find the dossier on the legalization campaign in 2012?”
“I was thinking more that I might want you to find me some marijuana,” he said. “This woman in London said it was very good for nausea.”
“Shouldn’t we check with your doctor,” Cass had asked
“We could,” said the professor. “But I’ve never actually been marijuana-intoxicated. So maybe that would be interesting, too.”
“Um, I’ll look into it,” Cass had said dubiously. “Now it’s time for the next webinar.”
So the professor, gently rubbing his abdomen, had spent the hour talking to the people who’d be sitting on the Alabama tracks, and trying to answer their questions. The logistical ones he referred to MK, who was on the call from Oakland—she had detailed information about parking lots and bathrooms and schedules. But the professor took the harder questions.
“Is this really going to do anything about climate change?” said one woman. “My children say it’s foolishness, that global warming is much too big to stop like this.”
“You sound as if you’ve raised wise children,” said the professor, with a smile. “I’m no scientist, but from what I understand they’re entirely correct. Climate change is the largest thing humans have ever done, and no single action will ever make a difference. Not even a single nation really matters: if the U.S. stopped burning fossil fuel tomorrow, the rest of the world could go on and the atmosphere would barely notice.”
“So why are we doing it?” the woman asked.
“Because—you never know what’s going to set things off,” he said. “Making salt on one beach. Boycotting buses in one city. No rational person would have looked at those and said: ‘that will end colonialism. That will stop segregation.’ And they didn’t, not right away—it took years. But they were sparks. That’s what we are. It’s possible—really, it’s likely—that those sparks won’t set anything on fire; most of the time lightning hits and there’s no forest fire.. More actions fail than succeed, in the long run. But given the stakes, changing the odds on climate change even just a little seems worth some sacrifice.”
“You’re not a very good organizer,” said another woman, who identified herself as Erma from Hilton Head. “Back when we were fighting the war, we’d just tell people ‘if we go to jail, we’ll win.’ And we did. Don’t professorize so much.”
“You’re probably right,” said Professor Vukovic. “They say when you’re dying it brings out your essential character. I’m an . . . analyzer. But this time we’re all going to be actors. We don’t know how the play comes out, but that’s what makes it exciting.”