Riding Towards Climate Change

For five years, I’ve made the same New Years Resolution: to ride my bike more. I didn’t expect to accomplish it in one year. I’m better at making gradual shifts than turning over new leaves. So I’m prepared to renew my intention until I’m satisfied with the result. Until then, each year at our small ritual with family and friends, I say the same thing.

And each year I have ridden more. I may be almost there. I still drive, especially when I have cargo or passengers, or when things just won’t work otherwise. But, for getting my own body to and fro, my primary means of transportation is my bicycle or walking.

I mostly walk to work. This takes 30 minutes, while driving a car takes nine minutes. You might think that I am wasting 21 minutes. But I feel like I am saving time, because the 30 minutes I enjoy are less of a waste than the nine minutes I do not enjoy. And I’m not only enjoying myself. I’m getting exercise and thinking things out. I find walking particularly conducive to deep thought.

I just don’t enjoy driving anymore. When I drive, I feel disembodied, floating through space. I feel isolated, encased in a bubble of glass and steel. The world streams past, and I’m cut off from the wind, the trees, the life of the street. I have no camaraderie with other drivers, as I do for other walkers or bikers, only intermittent annoyance. My hips hurt. I used to think I had arthritis. Now I realize that the pain occurs only when I spend too much time in the awkward sitting position required for driving a car. I’m aware that I’m dragging lots of heavy steel and metal with me to my destination. And driving requires a quality of attention that keeps my thoughts from going inward. If I don’t have something to listen to, I’m bored.

Biking, on the other hand, takes work and brings pleasure. I biked to get around as a kid, which may be why I drop easily into a carefree state of mind on my bike. I move slowly through the landscape, noticing much more than when I drive or even walk. I like biking’s small challenges: making it up the hill, zooming safely down, riding with no hands when the road is empty. I always wear a helmet and I have a comfortable rain suit, scarf, gloves and head light. I customized my mountain bike so that I’m sitting upright, which I find much more comfortable than bending over. I’m sure I sacrifice seconds off my time due to my lack of aerodynamics but who’s racing? For me, it’s all about pleasure and safety.

So I’m riding uphill in the rain to a yoga class, and I’m loving life. There goes an empty pick up truck carrying only the driver. I reluctantly breathe in the sickly sweet smell of exhaust. And then another empty truck. Then an SUV. Then the first truck comes back again already, still empty. I’m irritated by these wasteful vehicles, and when I get home, I look up how many carbon emissions I’m saving, because I want to feel virtuous.

I figure I’m forgoing about 2250 km of driving in our Subaru Legacy each year. So I’m preventing less than half a tonne of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere as a direct result of my driving. But I get to triple that, to account for the industrial support it required to build the car, get the gas to my car, build the road, and so on. That puts me up to a savings of 1.23 tonnes of carbon that I am not putting into the atmosphere.
I look at my current favourite carbon offset website and learn I could offset this amount of carbon for between $5.55 and $25 a year by supporting organizations that implement carbon reducing technologies.

Hmmmm. That’s not very much money.

I begin to realize that my personal bike riding campaign was thin on research at the outset, and heavy on emotion. I had to do something to decrease my participation in climate change and, since 2003, the Iraq war. Now all that biking seems negligible, because paying $25 would take much less effort.

But wait a second.

Aren’t carbon offsets just a useful transition while we make more fundamental changes?

They aren’t really the fundamental change themselves, I remind myself.

The necessary change is direct reduction of one’s own tonnage. The lifestyle of the North American is a primary cause of global climate change. If I am going to turn my belief that I am essentially a good person who wants to do the right thing toward this problem, I have to change my lifestyle to emit less carbon.

I don’t have to be disempowered by the fact that climate change is a massive problem with billions of small causes and solutions. With imagination, I can feel totally empowered because I don’t have to wait for Stephen Harper or George Bush or Hu Jintao to wake up to their immense responsibilities. I can wake up to my own responsibility. I am directly, physically contributing to the problem and I can directly, physically stop. And transportation, which causes almost everybody’s largest carbon contributions, is a good place to begin.

Moreover, riding my bike more has given me an inkling of how perhaps a lot of our culture’s problems are tied together. Now that I don’t feel entitled to drive wherever I want, I can see how the automobile disengages me from my body, my landscape, and my neighbours. I observe and read about increases in obesity, destructive land use, and growing social isolation. And I think, if we all wake up and take the medicine in a timely fashion, it could very well be tastier, and we’ll feel better, than we ever imagined.
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