Bourgeois environmentalismElectric cars will cut pollution and gasoline imports, but the other deeper problems will remain.
Last July, as the pandemic raged, the government unveiled a budget retracting the low tax enjoyed by electric cars. Note that this did not apply to electric buses. Environmentalists, planners, economists, public intellects and parliamentarians decried the tax hike criticising the government for ignoring the city’s air pollution. Almost all national media, from headlines to editorials, made the tax hike a major issue. Last month, the Cabinet reduced the tax. We know that increasing car-dependency is wrecking our cities—worsening air quality, spewing carbon, killing people (in road crashes and by pollution), suffocating public transport, pushing aside pedestrians, seizing scarce public spaces, and eviscerating neighbourhoods.
Air pollution in Nepali cities, especially in Kathmandu, is a serious public health concern. Nepal’s petroleum import has more than doubled in the last 10 years, which is hurting the country’s economy as well. In relation to these, media attention and public discourse have focused on the electric car tax. But are electric cars the right solution? Should they be held as a topic of public interest that we should decry higher taxes?
Same old problems
Imagine we switched to electric cars from today. Electric cars help to reduce air pollution and also reduce the country’s dependency on imported fossil fuels; but all other problems associated with cars will remain. Traffic will still choke our roads. Auto crashes and fatality numbers will still remain high. Pedestrian and cyclist safety will still be on the line. Inequitable road infrastructure expenses will continue to rise. Inequity in mobility access will continue to deepen.
The Jevons paradox explains that energy-efficient private electric vehicles tend to further support adherence to car culture. Some believe that as electric cars remove environmental guilt, people will buy more electric cars and use them more, eventually contributing to unliveable cities. The low-income or working-class people, those who primarily rely on public transport, walking or cycling, suffer the most from car-centric policies. Car-centric cities become hostile for those in the lower strata of society. There are better ways—more sustainable and equitable ways—to address both the environment and the economy than promoting electric cars. The car culture, to the bourgeois class, seems inevitable. Blinded by consumerism capitalism, they fail to see beyond cars. Chillo sadak, chillo car (wide road, luxury car) symbolises progress, social status and city pride. Cars and motorbikes are often portrayed as a necessity.
For decades, we focused—and still focus—on building and widening roads, designing our cities to accommodate cars. To make more room for cars, we bulldozed houses, destroyed heritage sites, and encroached on public spaces and rivers. We crippled our public transport, turned our streets into roads and highways, and converted our public spaces into car parking. Electric cars—because of growing environmental concerns—are a new desire of the bourgeois, especially males. Electric cars have become a symbol of a clean and green city. When the then finance minister Yuba Raj Khatiwada increased the electric car tax, this class poured out their rage through the media. But they failed to speak out against the government’s plans to widen the roads, build flyovers, and build new cities (in the Kathmandu Valley), which will have big repercussions on our society and environment. They failed to criticise the minister’s priorities.
Yes, electric cars should be taxed less than gasoline-powered cars, but they should be prioritised last in the environment and transport policies. The priority on electric cars is an example of bourgeois environmentalism—a term Indian sociologist Amita Baviskar defined as ‘an environmentalism for the privileged, upper-class elites’. Bourgeois environmentalists justify electric cars by arguing that they will reduce the city’s air pollution, benefiting everyone, but they ignore all other ills of cars that marginalise the working class, kids and women, and harm society as a whole. Such bourgeois environmentalism deepens social, economic and political inequality.
Who benefits from a big tax break on electric cars? The privileged few who can afford cars. At whose expense? The city, the working-class people. Who pays for its cost? Everyone.
Who has the power to influence or shape policies? Who owns and has access to the media to express interest and discontent? Whose voices are heard? Definitely not the voice of pedestrians, cyclists or bus riders. Nor that of the low-income class.
The electric bus plan hasn’t moved an inch for the last three years. Unfortunately, what shocks us the most is the electric car tax hike. Why was the Cabinet in such a rush to decide overnight the electric car tax cut? For long, the politics embraced by the rich and the elite has shaped public discourse, swayed priorities and shaped policies—benefiting a few at the expense of the many, especially the working class.
Electric cars benefit our air quality and climate. Cars might be required in some cases. But (electric or not) car-centred discourses and policies compromise the bigger goals of sustainability and equity. Yes, electric cars should be favoured over fossil fuel cars, but we can’t afford to tax them low, definitely not subsidise them. When buses, bicycles and other basic amenities aren’t subsidised, why should electric cars—that only a few can afford—be subsidised?
Transport should be planned beyond cars and the strategies should address both environmental concerns and social equity. But policymakers and planners have continually prioritised cars. Environment-friendly, affordable and accessible transport for everyone—irrespective of class, age, gender, or physical ability—should be at the centre. Failing to put social equity at the centre of transport and city planning creates more unequal and unjust cities.
This means we need to shift our priorities—policy and investment—towards electric public transportation, safer streets and sidewalks, and cycle lane networks. To do this requires a radical shift in how we perceive and plan our transport system. This pandemic further forces us to rethink our cities and our priorities. Our priority should be making cars obsolete in the future. We can restrict new diesel SUVs and less fuel-efficient cars from the coming fiscal year, and then phase out fossil fuel cars altogether starting 2025.
What do you think?
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