Science Matters: What should we do with our car company?

Here’s your weekly Science Matters column by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

What should we do with our car company?

If you’re a Canadian taxpayer, you’re now the proud part owner of a failing automobile company, thanks to the federal and Ontario governments. They’re generously giving General Motors $10.5 billion of your money for an 11.7 per cent share in the company.

Former CIBC World Markets chief economist Jeff Rubin calls it an "investment in obsolescence." The author of Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization, recently told the Tyee news website, "We should be investing in the future, not the past, making a huge capital investment to build buses and public transit."

He’s not alone in his thinking. South of the border, where the U.S. government is giving GM a whopping $50 billion for a 60 per cent share of the company, filmmaker Michael Moore wrote, "The only way to save GM is to kill GM."

He goes onto say that doesn’t mean killing the infrastructure. "If we allow the shutting down and tearing down of our auto plants, we will sorely wish we still had them when we realize that those factories could have built the alternative energy systems we now desperately need," he writes. "And when we realize that the best way to transport ourselves is on light rail and bullet trains and cleaner buses, how will we do this if we’ve allowed our industrial capacity and its skilled workforce to disappear?"

How indeed? One thing is certain: We don’t want GM to go back to "business as usual". This is a company that has fought every progressive move to improve safety and reduce the environmental impact of vehicles, from seat belts and air bags to fuel-efficiency standards. The usual argument has been that any progressive move would drive the price of cars up to the point where the company would go out of business. Well, guess what? Maybe if GM had spent more money on keeping up with the times than on lobbying and court challenges and building SUVS and Hummers, it wouldn’t be facing bankruptcy today.

GM executives have also argued in the past that the markets should dictate their actions and governments should stay out of the way, but they now seem to have made a u-turn when it comes to government involvement!

Well, we now own part of GM. Shouldn’t we have some say in what becomes of it? Will the U.S. and Canadian governments show some imagination and foresight and turn this crisis into an opportunity?

Mr. Rubin and Mr. Moore are right: Our future is in fuel-efficient cars, buses, and trains, and in green energy. (And even private automobiles may eventually be a thing of the past; the idea of using of a tonne of metal and many litres of fossil fuel to get one person to the grocery store or work is more than a bit absurd.)
We often hear arguments that a major shift in our manufacturing base is not possible – it will be too costly and take too much time. But, as Michael Moore points out, in 1942, GM quickly switched from building cars to producing planes, tanks, and weapons for the war effort. The emergency we face today is no less severe; in fact, it is more so. And we have better technology now.

Likewise, when the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite in 1957, the U.S. spared no amount of money or effort to get people into space and eventually onto the moon.

And despite arguments that we can’t afford green technologies, governments didn’t have much trouble finding billions – or trillions – of dollars to bail out banks and car companies that were largely the authors of their own problems. Where are our priorities?

The need for a cleaner future is here. The technology is here. The opportunity is here. All that’s required is some will and imagination from governments and corporations. We can no longer rely on diminishing fossil fuel supplies. Our very survival depends on developing more sustainable technologies, transportation, and products that don’t pollute the air, water, and soil.

We don’t need more Cadillacs and Hummers. We need a new way of looking at our world.

Science Matters has been running weekly since 1999. To read past columns, please visit www.davidsuzuki.org/science_matters/.

Take David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

What do you think? Share your thoughts...

On This Day in History
  • More historical events coming soon.
Shared on Twitter