Preventing extreme weather is a moral issue that requires our individual concern and lots of electric cargo bikes.
This winter Ithaca has had an unsettling lack of snow. We’re lucky: the main consequence is simply a lackluster ski season here. My sister in Amherst Massachusetts has had a bit more excitement: they’ve had a freak ice storm on Halloween, a hurricane, a tornado, and an earthquake. Yikes.
Global warming causes extreme weather. And global warming is in turn caused by humans. Yet news media still seem to be treating weather events as if they were acts of God, arbitrary and beyond our control. People say “That darn weather blew away my barn! But what can you do?” instead of “You people and your pollution wrecked my barn!”. There is no one to sue as there was with the Gulf oil spill. Because oil is visible and sticky and smells bad we can easily accept that the Gulf oil spill wrecked the shrimp industry in Louisiana. But because the CO2 that causes global warming is widespread and transparent, we can’t as easily see that the “CO2 spill” coming from our tailpipes is similarly wrecking ecosystems all over the planet.
Yesterday the Bikes Belong folks sent me an email urging me to write to my congress people. Apparently a Representative Mica and a Senator Inhofe are attempting to “eliminate dedicated funding for biking and walking programs” because they feel these programs are “frivolous” and “do not serve a federal purpose”. Instead of sending the message suggested by Bike Belong, I wrote the following:
Dear Congresspersons Maurice Hinchey, Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer:
I am keenly aware of the connection between my car use and America’s shameful oil dependence. So two years ago I made a personal commitment to reduce my car use. I’ve been using an electric cargo bike to run most errands around town and even make long trips. Last month I made 30 bike trips adding up to 254 miles. Many of those trips were carrying a passenger or hundreds of pounds of cargo; all of them used a hundredth the energy of a car; almost all of them were immensely enjoyable. In contrast I made 10 car trips adding up to 181 miles.
My point is this: my bike use is not recreational. It is not “frivolous”. It is a valid solution to very real problems America faces. For Representative Mica and Senator Inhofe to reduce funding for bike programs is short-sighted and intolerable. It is a slap in the face to my efforts. Please see to it that bike funding is not cut. And please encourage Americans to bike not just for recreation but to replace their car; not just for their own health but for the health of the nation.
I had 100 miles to cover. I filled my water bottles, charged my batteries, applied sunscreen, and took off.
I used my motor sparingly in order to make it the whole way. I started out with 720 Wh from my two batteries. The panels gave me another 100. And I was able to freeload another 100 from the cafe where I had lunch. People look at you funny when you ask to use their outlet to charge a massive 12-pound battery, but so far no one has refused.
As I neared my destination the sky darkened and rumbled. A shadow passed over me and I felt as if a giant foot was about to step on me. The sky opened and out poured its contents. In this situation I usually just put on my swimsuit and keep biking. But a man beckoned me over to his porch. We sat drinking beers and watching the lightning crackle and boom like a fireworks show.
I finally reached my destination. My family and friends welcomed me. I was tired but happy. And I had proven to myself that long distance travel by electric cargo bike is possible and even enjoyable. Not necessarily enjoyable in the sense of comfortable, but enjoyable in the sense of meeting people and experiencing nature firsthand rather than from behind a window.
And I showed myself that solar power can have a valid supporting role in my suchlike travels. I think the ease with which an electric cargo bike can be made solar makes it a good starting point for future experiments.
I haven’t yet heard anyone say what needs to be said about the gulf oil spill: I drive a petroleum-powered vehicle so I am to blame. There I said it. Let me say it again: I drive a petroleum-powered vehicle so I am to blame for the gulf oil spill. You must spank me.
I cannot blame BP. BP is just one more corporate scape goat diverting my attention from my own failings. There will be many more BPs attracted to environmental risk-taking as the price of oil raises the stakes, like a rising jackpot attracts gamblers.
I am addicted to oil. How then can I blame BP? Can the drug addict blame the pusher for the social woes of illicit drug use? BP is simply a tool that society has manifested in order to fulfill my desires. I shouldn’t question BP, I should question my desires.
I ask myself if I really need to run my errands at speeds above 20mph. I ask myself if I really need to live farther than ten miles from my workplace or school. I ask myself if I really need to drive thousands of miles a year. My answers to these questions lead me to conclude, sadly, that I must take the green bumper stickers off my car.
This may seem like a harsh analysis. I hope you can understand the epic denial I have about the true source of blame for the gulf oil spill. And yet there is an even more epic denial I admit to: the spill has only damaged one ocean; global climate change, caused by me personally, is damaging the entire planet. It’s hard for me to face guilt that large. I try not to despair. I look into my heart and imagine a better place. And I try to make it happen.
Internationally acclaimed environmental activist Sandra Steingraber spoke with my First Day School class this morning. (“First Day School” is Quakerese for Sunday School; I teach the 6th to 8th graders.) Sandra’s specialty is researching and writing about the links between the environment and cancer. It’s truly sobering stuff, which you can read about in her books or see about in the movie Living Downstream to be released next month. I invited Sandra to speak with us because I admire her as an activist, and I hope to emulate her approach in my work as a bicycling activist. She describes herself as a “shy activist” who would rather do the science side of things and support brasher activists rather than be a brash activist herself. And maybe people would rather listen to the science than the rhetoric any maybe people would rather hear it from a shy person than a brash person.
Because of my quest to Blame the Cars for All Badness I was pleased to find the following paragraphs in Sandra’s book Living Downstream:
The even better news [better because environmental causes of cancer are fixable whereas genetic causes are not] is that the synthetic chemicals linked to cancer largely derive from the same two sources as those responsible for climate change: petroleum and coal. Finding substitutes for these two substances is already on the collective to-do list. The U.S. petroleum industry alone accounts for one-quarter of toxic pollutants released each year in North America. This does not include the air pollutants generated from cars and trucks burning the products that the petroleum industry makes…vehicle emissions are linked to lung, breast, and bladder cancers…Investments in green energy are therefore also investments in cancer prevention. In this, it feels to me that we are standing at a historic confluence, a place where two rivers meet: a stream of emerging knowledge about what the combustion of fossil fuels is doing to our planet is joining a stream of emerging knowledge about what synthetic chemicals derived from fossil fuels are doing to our bodies.
…By-products from the burning of fossil fuels are under particular suspicion. Breast cancer, as we have seen, was first linked to potential sources of air pollution in Long Island. Subsequently, associations have been found between exposure to traffic exhaust during puberty and risk of early-onset breast cancer. Perhaps not coincidentally, a growing body of evidence suggests that tailpipe emissions have estrogenic activity. Air pollutants may alter breast density in ways that raise the risk for breast cancer. A 2007 review of the literature concluded that the risk of breast cancer associated with exposure to engine exhaust and other aromatic hydrocarbons is roughly equivalent in magnitude to some of the well-established risks for breast cancer, such as late age at first childbirth and sedentary lifestyle. Corroborating evidence comes from the laboratory: members of a family of combustion by-products called aromatic hydrocarbons—of which benzo[a]pyrene is one—cause breast cancer in animals. According to researchers at Albert Einstein College in New York, aromatic hydrocarbons inhaled by the lungs can become stored, concentrated, and metabolized in the breast, where the ductal cells become targets for carcinogens.
Bladder cancer, too, has been linked in several studies to air pollution. The strongest evidence comes from Taiwan, where researchers found positive associations between air pollution, especially from petrochemical plants, and the risk of dying from bladder cancer. An investigation of bladder cancer deaths among children and adolescents in Taiwan found that almost all those afflicted lived within a few miles of three large petroleum and petrochemical plants.