The Most Heroic Hero of the Decade, Maybe the Century

If you are Quaker (as I am) the biggest thing to shake up Meetinghouses and make young friends’ hearts throb all over the country is Jon Watts. I first heard about him when his video “Friend Speaks My Mind” made the rounds around Ithaca Monthly Meeting. Besides being very funny, with lots of Quaker in-jokes, this video had a further resonance for me. It single-handedly brought into the open an issue that has been festering unspoken: are all Quakers Christian? I’ve longed to affirm in some way that I am a Quaker but not a Christian for a long time. But I was always afraid that others in the Meeting might be offended. Jon finally puts into words what so many of us have been feeling:

I’m not a Christian but I’m a Quaker
I’ve got Christ’s inner light but he’s not my savior

So that’s number one why Jon’s my hero. Number two I discovered reading the Xtracycle forum Roots Radicals. Someone mentioned a young man riding an Xtracyle Radish from Richmond to Boston on a music tour. Sure enough: Jon Watts! Furthermore, he’ll be going through this area. You can read about his tour on his blog. I am looking forward to seeing him at the Farmington-Scipio Spring Gathering. Why is he biking? He writes:

Why not just drive a car like any other rational American would?

It would be easy for me to spout off a guilt-based justification about how quickly our society is killing the Earth, and how each of us is individually contributing a great deal to that destruction by owning and over-using personal vehicles. And it would be true. I do feel guilty and hypocritical about simultaneously mourning the destruction of the natural world and contributing to it.

But the deeper reason why I am riding my bike the 600 miles to Boston: I find driving, for all of it’s convenience, to be spiritually deadening. So let’s turn the question on it’s head… why, when I could be actively using my body, engaging with the land and the environment around me, viscerally feeling the miles go by underneath me, and genuinely living would I isolate myself in a sound-proof, wind-proof, experience-proof chamber?

Why in the world would anyone do that?

Does Driving Cause Cancer?

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.

That caught my attention.

shopping by bike

We had the most wonderful shopping trip this evening by bicycle. First we biked about a mile to the dollar store to get some glow sticks for the Quaker meeting retreat this week. Thea rode on the back of Rini’s new Surly “Big Dummy” long tail cargo bike while Jasper and I accompanied her on our road bikes. We had dinner at our favorite restaurant (Maxie’s), followed by a trip to Greenstar to pick up several bags of groceries. Rini easily yet heroically brought home both Thea and the groceries on the Surly as shown in this photo.


Hi Fell!