Letter From Away
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Letter From Away

The all-wheel drive 2022 Quandary

Letter from Away — December 30, 2021

Sometimes the options that seem best have hidden costs. What can we drive that won’t cause further harm?

I don’t want to go outside today. It is cold and bright, and experience has taught me that I own enough clothing to make myself pretty comfortable out there, but I’ve got this column to write, the last of the old year, and like so much of 2021, I just want to get past it.

This is the kind of day I used to spend in the car, burning up miles and listening to music or a good audio book, enjoying the sunshine while basking in the heat drawn off by the coolant that circulates between the radiator and the heater core. Some hybrid and all-electric cars use heat pumps, basically using a source fuel which is only as clean as CMP wants it to be, and that’s a pickle we still can’t get out of the jar without making some sort of mess.

Finland claims to have solved some of the environmental issues around nuclear power by encasing used fuel in giant boxes of boron, packing the boxes in bentonite clay and burying them deep in the ground. Once the first depository is filled, in around a hundred years that will go by in a flash, they’ll have to look for another square mile or so to bury the next batch of spent fuel. Knowing our hunger for easy energy, that will probable accumulate much faster. By then, if we are still around, we are likely to have used up all the easily accessible boron and bentonite, as well.

This is on my mind because Betty Beep is getting tired.

Betty is my car, a sweet and roomy hybrid. She has begun to shudder frequently, mostly when the gas engine starts after a long idle. I’m told this is a sign of expensive things to come, and Betty is old.

I don’t see many of her kind in the proud but diminishing rows of used but still shiny plastic and sheet metal that are scattered across the countryside.

In the pre-plague times, when planning was a workable strategy, the used car lots were full of choices. Both hybrid sedans and and the more capacious minivans that are beginning to attract my wanderlust fantasies. But, as is true of so many things these days, car hunting is different. Choices are limited.

For about 10 minutes I thought of buying a hybrid minivan, but aside from the cost of the cars, and their current rarity, the manufacturer of my van of choice has decided that the middle row of seats should not be removable, making it less likely to be the camper of my dreams.

Which leaves me wondering, if I were to waste some sort of fuel driving around on this cold day, what sort of fuel would it be?

Good old gasoline, or gas made more efficient by a hybrid engine and some pretty toxic batteries, or an electrical motor that burns whatever is being served up on the grid today, or some combination of the above.

Friends say I am overthinking this decision.

I test drove a new car recently, and was pretty overwhelmed by the number of things the machine wants to do for me. Aside from warning me when I’m being passed or crossing a lane inadvertently, this particular model handles my high beams for me. Those high beams are made using LEDs, a great way to reduce energy usage but a terrible kind of light to shine into eyes of an oncoming driver on a dark and rainy night.

Then I looked at the sound system, what dealers now call an entertainment center.

Most people have discovered that those amazing compact disks we listened to just last week are now being made obsolete by the discontinuation of any hardware able to turn clear polycarbonate plastic with a reflective metallic layer and a clear protective coating of acrylic plastic into audible music. Last winter I spent months converting a series of audio books so I could listen to them through an external mp3 player in my car. The 2022 models don’t have sockets for such peripherals, what the rapidly aging social demographic calls an AUX port.

I still own cassette tapes, actual mix tapes I made myself in the 80s and 90s, even though the chances I’ll ever listen to them are slimmer than the CDs that are joining them on the disposal pile.

The online dictionary at Oxford Languages says disposal is, “ … the action or process of throwing away or getting rid of something,” and gives this usage example for the word: “ … the disposal of radioactive waste.”

Merriam Webster gives the same example, saying disposal is “ … the act or process of disposing: such as … systematic destruction especially … destruction or transformation of garbage.”

The fuel we burn to run 90 percent of the vehicles on this planet comes from organic material that has been more than 100 million years in the making. Buried deep in the ground and acted on by the pressures of a vibrant and dynamic planet, what was once alive has become the grease that lubricates the world.

When Finland’s boron-encased fuel rods have been around that long, we still will not have destroyed or transformed them. We call it disposal, but it is really just hiding from our view that which reminds us of our unending need.

None of this is helping me figure out what to buy, but I have figured out that, no matter the manufacturer of model year, in terms of sustainability, my next car will be a Quandary.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.

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