To: Union of Concerned Scientists
Two, Brattle Square
Cambridge, Mass. 02238-9105

From: D. A. Clarke
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
(member since 1995)

Nov 11 2000

Dear UCS:

I have been a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) -- a generally worthwhile organization -- for the last five years or so. I have consistently supported UCS within my limited means (as you've acknowledged in the occasional thank-you letter and questionnaire). But today I write to cancel my membership. This is an open letter; I will be sending copies to various environmental and consumer organizations.

Why I feel I can no longer support UCS

The Fall 2000 edition of your "Earthwatch" letter was almost entirely a commercial for hybrid-power automobiles; and I believe that this is a shocking departure from UCS' tradition of sound science and the straightforward presentation of environmental facts to the public. I believe you have betrayed your mission, and that my trust in UCS (and my support) is now misplaced and would be better directed elsewhere. In this newsletter, your Executive Director Howard Ris writes a special letter to the membership which I excerpt here:

A couple of months ago, I put in an order for a Toyota Prius. Only a small number of these hybrid cars are being marketed in the US, so there was a bit of a wait for my new car.

I'm buying a hybrid because the environmental and fuel-efficiency benefits of battery-gas technology are compelling. At about 50 mpg, my new car will cut my contribution to air pollution and global warming by 40 percent while saving hundreds of dollars a year in gas purchases.

Most Americans don't yet realize what a difference driving a green car can make. But as our Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices points out, what car we buy is the most environmentally significant choice we make as consumers.

One of the best ways to ensure that everyone has that opportunity to make an environmentally sound choice is to strengthen fuel-economy standards nationwide. Then automakers will have to produce clean, fuel-efficient vehicles on a large scale.

Recently, Congress took an important step in that direction...

... With luck, in a few years dealers will have enough green cars on hand that all shippers will have the chance to enjoy the benefits and pleasures of choosing a car with the environment in mind.

Howard Ris

PS The weekend after I picked up my car, I drove from Boston to the Adirondacks and back on less than a tank of gas.

This blatant editorial plug for Toyota is a fitting accompaniment to the front page puff-piece, "Hybrids are a Hit", which I excerpt here:

"My wife took delivery of a Honda Insight a few weeks ago," wrote Doug Dorman of Indianapolis.... so far as she is concerned, it's the right car to drive in the city, where too many SUVs sit at stoplights guzzling gas. Her car shuts the engine off when she stops for a light! She feels very virtuous as she drives around town."

Jeff McConaughy of Albuquerque echoed several others, saying, "I chose the Prius because I wanted to cast my consumer vote for higher efficiency, lower emission vehicles. It's my hope that the Prius and the Insight will sell well and that the US automotive industry will get the message that consumers will support innovation that lowers our dependency on foreign oil, benefits the environment, and saves us money."

Tony Ferro of Berkeley wrote us after test driving the Prius. "It's everything I hoped it would be. It handles and operates just like comparable sized cares with good acceleration. The continuously variable automatic transmission does not jump from gear to gear but smoothly adjusts for the optimum and most efficient gear ration. And the gasoline engine shuts down at stops, which reduces air and acoustic pollution."

"I'm excited about the prospect of helping demonstrate to other people in my community that environmentally sound technologies needn't force us to sacrifice safety, comfort, and style," wrote Mal Warwick of Berkeley.

As an antidote to these pollyannic soundbites, I would like to direct your attention the following very brief quotes from recent or current environmental reports or articles readily available online. This is a casual, random sampling; I could fill several large books with the results of a really serious research effort, and institutes such as Worldwatch already have.

A little reality check

"According to the EIA's Household Vehicles Energy Consumption 1994, the number of household vehicles in the US increased from 148 million in 1988 to 157 million in 1994 -- a 6% increase. Second, vehicles are being driven farther and farther each year. The miles travelled per vehicle increased from 10,200 miles per vehicle in 1988 to 11,400 miles per vehicle in 1994, an increase of nearly 12% ... If combined with continued increases in the number of vehicles and in the distances travelled by those cars, US CO2 emissions from transportation will continue to increase. In the EIA's reference case, emissions from the transportation sector would be 42% higher in 2015 than in 1990."
Global Change

"There are intriguing hints the nation may recover that [conservation] ethic sometime soon. Already, Americans buy more efficient cars, appliances, and plumbing fixtures than their parents had. But they buy more of them, which soaks up more resources. As a result, the US, which already uses one-quarter of the world's energy, is drifting ever closer to potential shortages."
Christian Science Monitor

"The traffic congestion and poor air quality that come with ever increasing auto travel already plague some areas of the state. With Oregon's projected population growth of a million more people in the next 20 years, that can only get worse."
State of Oregon

"The G7 nations -- the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Italy -- represent only 10 percent of global population but consume over 40 percent of the earth's fossil fuels as well as most of the world's commodities and forest products. Because consumption rates are so high in these countries, even small increases in population can have a significant impact. The United States, in particular, continues to have a higher rate of population growth than most of the other industrial countries, increasing the nation's environmental impact."
Union of Concerned Scientists

"The [Census] Bureau's latest projection, which assumes, essentially, that current demographic trends will continue, projects that the United States will grow from its current 268 million people to 393 million people in 2050, an increase of 125 million people... In 1970, there was one car or truck on the road for every two U.S. residents. Since then, vehicle ownership has increased. By 1994, there was one car or truck on the road for every 1.5 residents. While much of the increase in the number of vehicles on the road stems from higher per capita ownership, population growth accounted for 27% of the rise - not an insignificant figure. This means that had there been no change in the per capita consumption of vehicles at all, the number of cars on the road would still have increased by nearly 26 million - due entirely to the increased size of the population."
Negative Population Growth

"For example, the process of manufacturing an automobile results in CO2 emissions similar in magnitude to those released by the automobile over its lifetime."
International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives

"Patterns of land use have also been drastically altered by the increased use of the automobile. Millions of acres of agricultural land, forests and urban space have been paved over and dedicated to the automobile. In some inner city areas, up to 60% of the land area is paved over for use by cars. Paved roadways and parking lots result in more rainwater runoff, less groundwater infiltration, and increased temperatures in urban areas. Large amounts of land are also required to dispose of used automobiles and automobile parts such as tires and batteries. Many of these waste disposal sites have a negative effect on local air and groundwater quality. "

I should not have to remind UCS about these kinds of facts and figures. However, the untempered love song to the automobile that dominates your Fall 2000 newsletter compels me to review these basic facts about cars, population growth, and the automobile-centred lifestyle that goes unquestioned by most Americans.

So-called "green" cars: deceptive advertising

The tendency of Americans to drive more miles per person each year is not reversing itself. It is not even tapering off. Failing an unlikely revolution of popular attitude or a major catastrophe such as plague or war, we can expect the US population to continue its present growth. We can therefore expect the sales and use of automobiles to continue according to present projections.

Various estimates have been made of the environmental cost of manufacturing a car compared to the environmental cost of its subsequent use. Some have suggested 1/3 as the appropriate averaged pre-use cost -- i.e. that 1/3 of the environmental cost of the average car has been inflicted before it ever leaves the showroom floor. I see no indication that the so-called "green" cars will be cleaner or less costly to manufacture.

The business of consumable car parts alone is a major source of toxics and solid waste problems. Automobile tires not only shed dust constantly during their use lifetime (health problems have been associated with the shed particulates); they pose a serious disposal problem, both in the destruction of open land for "tire dumps" and the toxic emissions released by incinerating them. Lubricants, the lead used in auto batteries (some advance EV batteries also involve heavy metals), antifreeze; spark plugs, fuel filters, oil filters; the trash generated by the automobile maintenance and repair industry is mostly toxic, and ever increasing. I see no indication that hybrid vehicles will result in a reduction of this environmental cost; they use the same tires, consume the same motor oil, and wear out the same discarded parts as pure ICE vehicles.

One of the major environmental costs of automobile-based transit is the paving over of land, with resulting disturbance of watersheds, accumulation of runoff water (polluted by the automobile fluid leakage and shed particulates on the roads), disruption of wildlife corridors, and massive annual road-kill. For more than one endangered species of North American wildlife, road-kill is now the primary cause of decline in the remaining population. The so-called "green" cars require the same highway system, are just as heavy if not heavier, and travel at the same high speeds as conventional ICE vehicles. In this context, insult is added to injury when your Director smugly mentions his pleasant drive into the country (the Adirondacks), using the network of national highways that are contributing directly to the destruction of our wilderness areas and native species. The cost of this little jaunt was lower for him in his new "green" car, but it was no lower for the ecosystems devastated by overpaving and an ever-growing highway network.

One of the major social costs of automobile-based transit is the destruction of urban amenity; cities designed for automobiles are not pleasant for human beings to live in. A combined social and environmental cost is inflicted when the overuse and excessive number of automobiles actively discourage pedestrian and pedal transit. While tailpipe emissions are a minor contributing cause of this displacement of other transit modes by the automobile, far more relevant causes are the auto-centered design of urban space, aka "traffic engineering", and the dangerous weight and speed of automobile traffic. Automobiles are not only a wasteful method of personal transit; they displace, and prevent the use of, less wasteful methods.

Another cost seldom discussed is the disenfranchisement of persons not legally entitled to drive or unable to afford cars. In many urban areas it has become nearly impossible to get and keep a job without owning a car; and yet the ownership of a car consumes as much as 20% of many working families' income. How are so-called "green" cars going to reduce these social costs?

Thirty years of traffic studies indicate quite clearly that additional paving, road widening, etc. have no lasting mitigating impact on traffic congestion; urban areas tend inexorably towards gridlock wherever the private automobile is the dominant transit strategy. Subsequent attempts at traditional traffic engineering, such as adding lanes and expressways, are enormously expensive, displace residents, and isolate remaining pockets of human habitation; furthermore they are ineffectual, usually resulting in a zero net benefit after a very short period of temporary mitigation. Nothing about so-called "green" cars resolves this pressing problem.

Yet UCS, in its shameless paean to the hybrid-powered automobile, assures its readership that buying and driving a "green" car is a sound, positive, and responsible thing to do; that "green" cars can in fact save the planet; and that the unsustainable American reliance on the private automobile can be magically made sustainable by a simple, no-pain-no-brain substitution of motive power.

What UCS is telling its readership is that "the American way of life," with its completely impractical and wasteful "one car, one driver" model of transit, is salvageable. Your Executive Director rhapsodizes over his paltry 40% reduction in emissions (applicable only to the operation of the vehicle, not to its manufacture), as if this did anything more than (not quite) compensate for the projected rise in the global impact of America's transit pathology. If every car-driving person in the US were to switch to a "green" car by 2015, the touted reduction in emissions would not quite keep us level with the unacceptable degree of environmental damage we are committing today. Even if we narrow our analysis strictly to tailpipe emissions, as UCS inexcusably does, this is not a reduction; it is barely treading water. Since most US drivers will not be able to afford the expensive new hybrids, market penetration will not be 100 percent by 2015, and therefore, in my estimation, we will not even be treading water.

UCS trashes public transit in print

It is embarrassing to me to see an organization such as UCS, which I have hitherto respected and supported, purveying this kind of feel-good infomercial to its readers. When UCS chooses to feature words such as Mal Warwick's as a thematic quote, I am more than embarrassed: I am enraged. I remind you of Mr Warwick's words as you printed them: "... environmentally sound technologies needn't force us to sacrifice safety, comfort, and style."

I really must dwell on this particular quote, since it summed up for me the betrayal of UCS' principles which this newsletter seems to represent. UCS appears, by selecting this particular quote and reproducing it without comment in the official newsletter, to be endorsing the speaker's point of view. His point of view is that alternatives to the private automobile are (a) unsafe, (b) uncomfortable, and (c) unstylish. The alternatives to which he refers are, of course, the bicycle, public transit, and walking.

Public transit is safer than either driving or riding in the average passenger car by a wide margin, if we measure safety by the rider's chance of incurring injury or death per mile travelled. Per hour, cycling is actually safer than riding in or driving a car. In crowded urban areas, the cyclist and the car driver make approximately the same average speed (10-15mph) and so a comparison of hourly risk exposure is legitimate. Whether public transit, or cycling, or walking, is more or less "comfortable" than driving a car, is a matter of opinion. I certainly would not assume that comfort is only to be found inside an automobile; I have had many pleasant rides, enjoying a newspaper or a good book, on both buses and trains.

As to the view that style (also known as "class", or more honestly as conspicuous consumption) is appropriately expressed by the purchase and display of an automobile -- many would disagree. I am distressed to find UCS, usually an advocate for responsible choice and an informed attitude, tacitly endorsing the view that people who don't own or regularly use automobiles are "unstylish" or low-class; or that "lack of style" is a suitable excuse for not making a responsible choice. What message are you delivering here, especially to younger readers?

Though somewhat more subtly expressed, UCS has just publicly endorsed the thinking that leads teenagers to mock the city bus as "the loser cruiser", and to dream of the day when they will have a SUV of their very own. Substituting a so-called "green" car for today's SUVs may postpone slightly the inevitable enviromental crisis being precipitated by our obsession with the private automobile, but it will not prevent it. It is irresponsible and dishonest to pretend that it will.

UCS encourages consumerism and automobile dependency

Slamming public transit in print is only half the offence. Describing the "green" private automobile as an "environmentally sound technology" is fundamentally dishonest, for all the reasons I have outlined above. Even if the private passenger automobile were powered by water and emitted only air, it would still be an unsound technology.

Therefore I am deeply offended by your Director's bland assumption that every person must inevitably buy a new car; that the only choice we need consider is which kind; and that a hybrid car is therefore the "responsible" consumer choice. A growing number of people in Europe (and now, barely, in the US) are choosing not to own cars at all, and in my opinion this is the only truly "green" choice a consumer can make. The choice between buying a new SUV and buying a new "green" car is not a bold new step into a Green Lifestyle. It is merely a choice between the very slightly lesser of two evils.

Whether we overuse our cars at 50 mpg or at 15 mpg, we are still running out of fossil fuel; we are still polluting; and we are still endorsing and perpetuating an unsustainable transit model and an unsustainable economy, at tremendous present and future cost. A "green" car is not some sort of magic bullet that will cure all our ills and absolve its owner from his/her contribution to what looks more and more like accelerating environmental collapse. Yet UCS is touting it as such. Why? Do Honda and Toyota really have big enough PR budgets to buy UCS?

I believe the only impact of these cars, and of your propaganda campaign on their behalf, will be negative. Americans will indeed "feel very virtuous" and enjoy the "benefits and pleasures" of your so-called "green" car, believing they have solved the car problem -- when they have only achieved a very slight amelioration. They will enjoy added security in this illusion because an organization as reputable as UCS has assured them of it. UCS in this case is like a doctor prescribing a soothing cough syrup to a patient with throat cancer. Lying to the patient never helped anyone yet.

I expect UCS to deal in hard facts and real numbers, not wild optimism and blatant product plugs. Continuing to endorse and promote the private automobile (regardless of its motive power) can only lead to more environmental and social tragedy, more waste of public resources, and more international environmental devastation as the rest of the world seeks to "live like Americans." If Americans wish to do something "green" and "responsible", we need to start living in such a way that the rest of the world really can live like us. This means that we have to start re-thinking our obsession with the private automobile -- not desperately seeking ways to continue it. UCS should be leading this transition in American culture, helping people come to terms with the unacceptable cost of our automobile addiction and get over it -- not helping to perpetuate it.

For all the above reasons I would like, please, to cancel my membership. While UCS was genuinely researching and publishing the truth, I was an earnest supporter of your organization. After the misleading, and in my view irresponsible, promotion of the Toyota and Honda products in your Fall 2000 issue, I can no longer support UCS.

Regretfully yours,

D. A. Clarke

Note: This letter was printed out on paper and mailed to UCS on Jan 2, 2001. They may not receive it for 3 or 4 working days, and even after receipt it may not be read by the appropriate person for some time. If you correspond with UCS in the near future on this subject, it would be fair not to assume that they have received and read this letter instantaneously. I suggest providing them with the URL if you wish to refer to this letter, rather than assuming that they have appropriately routed, read, and considered the paper version.