If you take a look at Copenhagen this year, you will be able to witness a rise of green mobility solutions. 2019 might even go down as a milestone in understanding new transport solutions like e-bikes, e-scooters and boosted boards in the population.
Companies claim electric solutions as environmentally friendly, easy-to-use and fast ways of transport to compete with the dominance of cars. Partially, in the case of e-scooters, a ride-share model is promoted and all maintenance is left with the company behind it. Scooters are placed everywhere and anywhere, ‘park as you will’, someone else will take care of it! – maybe.
More and more models of affordable electric bikes are also being thrown onto the market, looking like sci-fi-vehicles or classic motorbikes. They offer a clean appearance, sharp edges and fast pace. In reality most of them are manufactured in China involving no-name mechanical bicycle parts and second class electrical components, and many local retailers are left lost for spare parts.
E-scooter rental companies specifically argue that their services reduce the numbers of cars on the streets and therefore save massive amounts of CO2. A study by the North Carolina State University has shown that in their case “49 percent of riders would have biked or walked, 34 percent would have used a car, 11 percent would have taken a bus, and 7 percent wouldn’t have taken the trip at all.” Furthermore, the study finds that using e-scooters is indeed emitting less greenhouse casses than driving a car, however using the bus, walking and riding a bike (even an e-bike) are “vastly superior” to using an e-scooter.
Seeing this US American data through a Copenhageners lense, I dare to argue that the number of riders that would have used a car drops off radically, and that e-scooters are replacing vastly superior ways of transport like biking, walking and using public transport.
We have to be aware that the true cost of green technology (both transport and energy solutions) is hidden by an extensive marketing campaign. It is one of the most successful corporatre fabrications spread over the past decades: technological advancements that use other fuels than fossil and nuclear are ‘clean’ and can be made clean if necessary. The existence of e-scooters is not much different from other green innovation and is heavily dependent on a fossil fuel-driven empire of mining, smelting, manufacturing and transportation across the globe. We can merely call this a ‘fossil-fuel plus’ model (quote Alexander Dunlap).
These scooters on average have a lifetime of less than a month in rental service, not only generating a minus for the rental company, but also requiring more resources to either fix or to end up on a dump. A scooter is on average made off of “13 pounds of aluminum, the 2.5-pound lithium-ion battery, the electric motor, and various plastic and steel parts.” (by Jeremiah Johnson) The lifetime a device like this needs to be ‘sustainable’ (in capitalist frames) is about a year or two while still being inferior to other modes of transport, but we should anyway not side with hope for companies to improve their design.
Lithium is a resource used in most battery-powered devices and which recycling process is unattractive due to high costs and ends up being dumped in irresponsible ways. In general terms, global e-waste production and recycling is an immense problem for both people and the planet, and outdoes our wildest imagination:
“Picture something like this: Mountains of discarded TVs and computer monitors tower above the rutted streets of a low-income urban community. In order to make a living, hundreds of people work in the shadow of this heap of e-waste. Some people tend fires which burn and remove the plastic from copper wires, putting out billows of noxious smoke. Other workers swirl circuit boards in tubs of nitric and hydrochloric acid to release the solder and precious metals — at the same time releasing gas that stings their eyes.
Plastic chips, obtained from smashing devices like keyboards and computer casings, are broken into tiny pieces and carefully sorted before they too are burned and melted together into a sellable chunk. And at the end of the day, all the byproducts that have no further useful purposes, like charred circuit boards and used acid compounds, usually are dumped in open fields and rivers or are burned.” (Toothman, How E-waste Works)
Many of my fellow critics argue that yes, these supply chains are incredibly damaging and exploitative, however, if we push for renewable energy all across the world, these factories will soon be running on clean electricity and can produce these wonderful devices in some equilibrium of destruction and restoration of the natural world. Looking at recent number by the WTO of what it takes to power 50% of the world’s economy with renewable energy by 2050 and then duplicating those incredible figures to reach net zero emissions, we stand before a world-ending amount of exploitation.
To paraphrase a few figures from Jason Hickels article “The Limits of Clean Energy”: extraction of neodymium (essential for wind turbines) has to rise by at least 35%, silver and indium (critical in solar) by 38% to 105% and 920% respectively. We will need 40 million tons of lithium, which would mean a 2700% increase over current extraction levels – and these numbers only account for electricity generation and storage.
“Mining has become one of the biggest single drivers of deforestation, ecosystem collapse, and biodiversity loss around the world. Ecologists estimate that even at present rates of global material use, we are overshooting sustainable levels by 82 percent.” (Jason Hickel)
The e-scooter you see standing at the street corner is not disconnected from the circuit of exploitation nor is the company owning the scooters and offering the services. They created the demand by going on the market backed by massive funds and their scooters are slowly merging into the urban landscape of Copenhagen and the world.
Many people have been seen or caught vandalizing scooters to oppose this inherent violence that we see transformed into a commodity, by e.g. scratching and painting over QR codes needed to unlock the scooters or following inspiration from instagram legend Bird Graveyard to kick them and to throw them off of tall buildings. We have to understand where these actions are coming from, what violence lies beneath green mobility solutions and what opportunities lie ahead for us to take a stand.
Get out there, ride a bike, be creative and fight back!
There are so many opportunities for wilderness still!