The Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways video is wonderful. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re going to love it. The technology is impressive, and the narrator promises clean energy, safer roads, healthier communities, and much more – very convincingly. The Solar Roadways Indiegogo campaign has been a huge popular success – crowdsourcing more than $2,000,000 so far for their silver-bullet idea for saving the planet.

Not so fast. I too enjoyed the video, but was compelled to write up my thoughts on the problems with this idea:

1)      There is no silver bullet. The Solar Roadways video is powerful because it has attracted so much attention from folks outside of the traditional environmental or cleantech realms. Family members who I thought only followed sports have been sending this video to me as if they found the solution for saving the planet! What a waste of a captive audience. Viewers will come away with a reinforced notion that technology can solve all of our problems, a false notion. Climate and population stabilization, let alone universal food and water security, will require a heavy dose of values adjustment and behavior change.

2)      Car-centrism gets us nowhere. The video narrator invites you to imagine safer driving, snow-melting roads, and programmable parking lots, all attractive prospects for people whose lives revolve around car travel – which, admittedly, is most of us. However, for the globe’s 7 billion people to actually live within the biocapacity of a single planet, there would have to be almost no private vehicles on the road. A study on one-planet living in Vancouver showed that even if Vancouverites cut car-driving completely from their lifestyle, the still could not bring their ecological footprint within range. Yes, the video mentions bike travel and sports arenas, but its car-centrism makes the concept sustainababble on the whole.

3)      Appropriate Scale. I am not anti-technology, and I do not doubt that solar road tiles will make their way into many useful applications, building from the popularity of this video. But the mass consumption and globalized economy required to pave entire freeways with these tiles is only possible within first-world economic rules—rules that are at the heart of our march toward an ecocidal future. A just world requires rules that incentivize technological and political development on what E. F. Schumacher called an “appropriate” scale. And considering at the heart of Solar Roadways is cars, this idea does not currently meet those requirements.

But what if we repackaged Solar Roadways as an appropriate technology? Introducing:

Solar FREAKIN’ Pathways!

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Solar Roadways no. But Solar Walkways and Bikeways–absolutely! (Image from Solar Roadways)

As walkways, trail networks, and bike highways proliferate, these systems too could benefit from the same sturdy and programmable pavement technology – not to mention the energy generating capability.

Technology will play an important part of our future, but true sustainability is only possible if we make the huge cultural and behavioral leaps necessary to get from green technologies promising to save us in one fell swoop to appropriate ones like cradle-to-cradle bicycles and sneakers. And once we’re all living small footprint lifestyles, we’ll have an easier time meeting our transportation and energy demands with Solar Pathways!

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 John Mulrow is the Business/Industrial Sustainability Specialist in the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center’s Emerging Technologies and Technical Assistance Program. He is a former fellow of Worldwatch Institute.

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