Fuck GM

Is that too harsh? Sorry, just being honest.

Today I met with a DPD planner who specializes in green building, and we discussed the huge challenges we face with the built environment, and eventually the conversation got to the inevitable acknowledgement that we really don’t know how we’re ever going to achieve the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that the experts are calling for — nothing less than 80% by 2050.

And on the way back to my office, I came upon the scene in the photo above, at the top of Harbor Steps on 1st Ave. And the first thing that came to my mind was this: Fuck GM! You are part of the problem. A big part. So take your fucking hybrid SUV and your stupid-ass “Green Today, Clean Tomorrow” banner complete with the Hummer logo and your free GM-inscribed cycling water bottles and get the fuck out of my city and go crawl into a hole and die.

So GM, here you are, one of the most powerful corporations that ever existed, at the apex of American free market capitalism and technology, and here we are in the year 2008 facing the biggest environmental crisis in the history of humanity, and this is the best you’ve got to offer? A hybrid Yukon SUV that gets 21 mpg? This is what you want the people out on the streets of downtown Seattle to get excited about?

GM, you have failed your society. You could have produced a 100 mpg car ten, perhaps 20 years ago. Maybe you could have produced a 200 mpg by now, who knows (check out “Who Killed the Electric Car?“). You had a colossal R&D budget at your disposal, but instead of investing in a future we all know was coming, you chose to focus your efforts on bigger and less efficient vehicles because they provided the biggest short term profits.

There are some who would argue that GM is not culpable because they were only giving the people what they wanted. Nonsense. They marketed the hell out of SUVs. They could just as easily have decided to put their advertising dollars into a campaign to sell high-efficiency cars. Don’t underestimate the effect it might have had: We are a culture that is exceedingly accomplished at influencing people through advertising.

But even more to the heart of things, that “invisible hand of the free market” defense of GM reveals a pernicious defect in our economic dogma: It lets everyone off the hook for making any moral decisions. As in, “if someone wants to buy my product, it doesn’t matter what that product is, it’s the buyer’s choice and not my responsibility to judge.” And so, for example, we end up with major corporations profiting by marketing and selling sugar water to a population that is increasingly overweight. Or a bazillion SUVs on the road as both oil prices and CO2 levels rise at alarming rates.

The responsibility to make moral decisions comes with being human. And with greater power comes greater responsibility. Instead of abdicating moral choice to the invisible hand, the executives of large corporations like GM, because they command such vast influence over others, have a correspondingly vast obligation to make careful and humane moral decisions. It’s not easy. But our system tells them not to bother, so they don’t.

Under normal circumstances GM’s poor performance would simply be unfortunate — they would adapt or they would go under. But in our current situation, the stakes are high and getting higher. And here’s what we could do about it: In consideration of GM’s historic and ongoing failure to produce the high-efficiency cars that are needed immediately to help mitigate potentially incalculable damage to human society brought on by global warming, we revoke GM’s corporate charter and nationalize the corporation. And then make the number one priority of the organization the production of ultra-high efficiency vehicles. This would unleash the creative energy of all the frustrated GM employees who have long been wishing GM would do the right thing — and I suspect there are lots of them. The organization would have a noble mission akin to the Manhattan project, and great things would happen fast.

Unrealistically radical, yes indeed — today. But if current trends continue, this sort of radical action is likely to start being all the more palatable, if not urgently necessary.