Saturday, February 16, 2008

Do I Contradict Myself?

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
The words are Walt Whitman's from Song of Myself, but they could just as well apply to a Humvee with a Share The Road License Plate. Note, this picture is real. It was sent to us at the Bicycle Alliance by one of our members who snapped the picture while driving on one of the local roads. The only image manipulation I did was to obscure the plate number to protect the Humvee owner's privacy.

And I'm not posting this to mock the Humvee owner. The Humvee owner is probably also a member of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington and even if they aren't, a portion of that license plate money goes to the Bicycle Alliance. And it has always struck me as ironic that my work, which is basically helping people figure out ways to get around without using a motor vehicle, is funded, in part, by license plates on motor vehicles. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.

Now I have often said that I am not anti-car, I'm pro-bike. That said, I have been known to go into a good, foaming "SUVs suck" rant now and then. And they do suck, you know. I mean, really, look at the safety stats. But what they really suck is resources. Don't kid yourself. SUVs take a lot of energy to build and run and they spew a lot of stuff into the atmosphere.

But if you need one for, whatever the heck you need one for, there is something you can do. Drive it less. Drive is less by yourself. Maybe you can ride your bike to the store. Maybe you can carpool. Or walk. Or take the bus.

The folks over at the Sightline Institute think about things like this a lot and they published this handy chart:

We're not just sharing the road, we're sharing a planet. My big beef with SUVs is that, as my wife observed "they share the way Eric (our son) shares donuts." Eric makes sure he's got all the donuts he wants and if any are left over, he shares those.

I like bikes because they're fun, but also because they are a very efficient way to get around. These days there is a lot of talk about bio-fuel but a lot of that seems to come down to making choices of growing food or growing fuel. When you bicycle, food is your fuel.

We all make choices every day and those choices add up. My friend Chris commented, "We're not saving the planet, the planet will get along fine with or without us. We're saving ourselves." And while he's right in one way, geologically the planet will do fine, in terms of the biosphere we have a damn big impact. And that big impact is as the result of a lot us doing a lot of little things, over and over again.

Is this trip necessary? Do I need that widget? Can we keep doing this? I think these are questions that are worth asking.

And often times I find I contradict myself but I continue to try to do what I can. Little things can add up. A few more bikes on the road. A few trips not taken. A few more filled passenger seats.

We do what we can.

Bike More. Drive Less. Share the Road. Share the Planet.


John Clifford said...

You know, maybe I'm the sole bike commuter who really doesn't believe in global warming... or if it exists that humans and the CO2 emitted by Hummers and their ilk have anything to do with it. (IMO if any warming is occurring it's due to solar output increases.) A couple of decades ago the doomsayers were wailing about the pending pollution-precipitating Ice Age. And, on a cold winter morning I'd just as soon the temperature was a little bit higher in Seattle.

I'm also the guy driving the SUV three days a week, because I need a vehicle and my vehicle is a 4-door mid-sized pickup truck. Yes, if I absolutely had to I could do without it... but I don't, and it makes my life a lot more convenient and enjoyable.

The other two days I ride. I figure I'm saving 40% of the gas I'd ordinarily use, and that benefits me and everyone else. I'm burning about as much gas as the average subcompact driven 5 days a week, I'm getting exercise, and I'm sending less money overseas to folks who really don't like me and who will donate a portion of that money to other folks who would just as soon kill me or my fellow citizens. Plus, I bought American so more of my money stays in the US.

I commute more in the summer, less in the winter, figuring that every little bit helps, and that perfection is often the enemy of good enough. And, I don't beat myself up over it, or over my SUV, nor do I begrudge anyone else the right to drive the legal vehicle of their choice... Ferrari, F-150, or Prius. However, I do understand how little things add up.

Do you realize that, if everyone commuted by bike one day per week for a year (or commuted 52 times during a year), our gas consumption would drop by almost 20%? What would happen to the price of oil then? (It would drop markedly.) Great things can happen if a lot of people do just a little bit.

If the BAW and other groups really want to get more people commuting by bike, then there's got to be a push for bike-friendly roads (or off-road paths). The most direct way between my home and my office has half the trip on a road with no shoulder, ditches, and heavy commuter traffic. I commute at non-peak times (after 9 am, after 6 pm) to avoid the hazards of traffic.

There's several centuries of oil left... if we're willing to pay the price to produce it. Before then, however, we're going to figure out how to get cheap electricity from solar, and then we'll be able to make all of the fuel we need... including hydrocarbon-based fuels and other chemicals critical to modern society. And, our civilization will change back to a decentralized model, with people working and attending school from home, via computer. That's a much more energy efficient model for knowledge workers and students.

In the meantime, wave at that Hummer with the BAW-friendly license plate... it could be one of many part-time bicycle commuters on their driving day.

Anonymous said...

I have one of those plates ... on my SUV wannabe (Subaru Forester)

When we lived in Tumawater I felt pretty good about my 'carbon foot print'. We had slimmed down to one car, we lived very close to work, and my wife and I rode the tandem to work several days a week in the summer. I was developing that urban version of green; I felt good about myself and my choices.

Then we bought a house in the country, and since then we've gone upside down. Our green has turned to an unattractive brown. Lately we are getting even more so (how do you get more upside down?)

Our commute is now 27 miles one way. I ride it frequently in the summer, it takes a long time for me becuase I'm slow, but it is really a great ride. But because we work in town and live in the country I felt the need for a second car, a pick up truck. Now we're leaving a carbon foot print with two feet. Then this winter our house flooded and so we moved a little farther down the road. Now I'm driving to work, over to the house to work on it or check on the progress of others, running to the lumber yard, the big orange hardware store, you name it. We're heating and occupying essentially two houses. This will go on for four months or so.

When we moved to the country it represented an environmental dillemma for me. I was pretty sure we would need two cars, here is an example of why: Say I want to ride an SIR Brevet that starts in Redmond. In order to get to the start I need to get me and my bike there either by use of my car, by use of public transpoirtation, or I could 'ride my bike'. Public transportation is possible but given the current state of things it would take most of a day to get there, and then most of another day to get back. I know I actually could ride my bike, but again, given the speeds I currently ride, that too would add an enormous amount of time to the whole adventure. Or, I can get there in a couple hours if I drive. But then Mrs C is left at home, in the country, needing to get to church in Olympia on Sunday. She could ride her bike, or try to piece together the public transportation, it's the same dillemma with only a person slower than me.

I know about smart growth, and the new urbanism, but everybody cannot live in high density urban dwellings. The model of suburban or rural villages really depends on a robust public transportation system that is composed of more than just more lanes on freeways. (Think St Quentin to Paris.)

I think this is the single most important improvement our society could make in an effort to reduce energy consumption. If we had a decent system of light rail and bus connections I would use it. I'd be happy to take the bus (or ride my bike) to the light rail station in Centralia (about 10 miles) and then catch the morning commuter to Olympia. Shoot, I would happily ride a bus the whole way. (Right now the Amtrak station for Olympia is about 10 miles out of town)

I have to say, I am very dissapointed in the way this supposedly green part of the nation has dealt with the issue of mass transportation. It seems we are more comfortable supporting the cost of a personal SUV than chipping in on a mass transit system that reduces the need for the SUV.

Yr Pal DrCodfish

Anonymous said...

Mr. Clifford,

To question whether global warming is actually happening is like questioning whether the Earth goes round the Sun. The evidence that the planet has warmed over the last 150 years beyond normal, long-term cyclical variations is so overwhelming one can't deny it without denying basic assumptions about logic and reality.

Variations in solar output do account for environmental changes on the Earth, but detailed studies have proven they cannot account for the observed temperature changes over the last 150 years.

You question whether CO2 has anything to do with global warming. Let me assure you that CO2 and other greenhouse gases are chemically capable of trapping infrared radiation. This fact is so well-known among physicists and chemists that you will not find anywhere on Earth a trained, competent scientist who disagrees with it. And the sheer quantity of CO2 added to the atmosphere by human industry is staggering. The amount we've added to the atmosphere since the late 19th-century *is* capable of altering the planet's climate. Detailed computer models bear this out.

The fact and mechanism of global warming is known, and not debated. Legitimate questions are raised about the long-term effects and about the best policy strategies for dealing with it. The simple fact we must face is that we are running a global experiment, the results of which of largely unknown. Detailed computer models of the Earth's climate *all* predict a continued increase in the planet's average temperature, under a wide variety of assumptions. These same models accurately describe the Earth's recent climate past when projected backward. There is no reason to believe they are not accurate about the future.

But feedback mechanisms are notoriously difficult to model, and can work to either accelerate or suppress current climate trends. We do not know what effect they will have, but I am not aware of any research that suggests they will have a positive impact (i.e., something we would wish for).

You assert that several centuries of oil left are left. You must know something the rest of us don't. And do you arrive at your figure by assuming level rates of oil consumption over the next several centuries, or do you include the likely increase in consumption in countries such as China and India?

I think you will agree there is not an infinite supply of oil in the Earth. And if there are vast stores of untapped oil, they very likely do not exist in territories controlled by the United States. And whatever oil is left is not special. Its use will create CO2 as a by-product. Several centuries of oil amounts to several *centuries* of dumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This doesn't sound good to me. It also means several *centuries* of the U.S. having to bend to the demands of oil-producing nations. This doesn't sound good either.

Rodney Dunning
Ph.D., physics

John Clifford said...

I don't want to be argumentative on someone else's blog, especially when that someone else is a pretty easy-going fellow. I don't have a Ph.D in Physics, or anything else. But I have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express a while ago, and a few back-of-the-envelope calculations, and a few facts, are out there for anyone to do and to find.

For instance, methane is 20x as efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere as CO2. Cows out put about 25% of the methane released into the air. Several hundred years ago, there were upwards of 10 million buffalo (big ruminants) running around belching methane. The numbers of belching ruminants in Africa were much higher a century ago, including elephants (which put out much more methane per belch than cows or gnus, or whatever). Given that a cow (or buffalo) emits methane instead of CO2, does one cow's daily impact on global warming equal one SUV's? Especially when many countries are starting to realize that their agricultural practices are putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than their automobiles?

Scientists have also determined that Mars has warmed by about 1C, the same as Earth, over the past century. Not a lot of SUVs running around on Mars... but the same Sun shines on both planets.

Other scientists are still warning about global cooling, as even others dismiss global warming in part or whole. It's not hard to find a lack of consensus (thanks, Google!) To quote one article: "Yes, carbon dioxide in the air has increased in the last century due to the use of fossil fuels. Yes, global average temperature has increased 0.8 degrees F in the same century. Unfortunately, the temperature increase came first: most of the temperature increase was before 1940, and most of the new carbon dioxide was added after 1960."

Or this, from a Ph.D in Climatology: "Temperatures declined from 1940 to 1980 and in the early 1970's global cooling became the consensus. This proves that consensus is not a scientific fact. By the 1990's temperatures appeared to have reversed and Global Warming became the consensus."

Re availability of petroleum, the US and Canada have centuries of reserves, in oil shales. To quote Wikipedia: "Global deposits are estimated as equivalent to 2.8–3.3 trillion (2.8–3.3 x 1012) barrels of recoverable oil." Given that the world consumes way less than 100 million barrels per day (around 80 million barrels, but 100 million is an easier number to figure with), that's 280 to 330 thousand days of oil left, or over 8 hundred years of oil at today's consumption rates. Seems like a lot of oil to me.

So... the consensus seems to be that there is no consensus. I'll practice energy conservation for the sake of frugality and stewardship... but I don't believe the sky is falling. And, I agree with drcodfish; it's hard to live a modern life without an automobile.

Kent Peterson said...

I'm actually often quite amazed at how civil the discussion is in the comments section of my blog. I'd like to thank John, Dr. Codfish and Rodney for keeping things less "heated" than they seem to be in other corners of the internet.

The one thing that I can constructively add to the discussion is some practical advice on living well without an automobile. My wife, kids and I have been doing it for over 20 years and helping people figure out the logistics of bicycle commuting is my main job at the Bicycle Alliance. John, you'll be happy to know that a lot of work we do at the Alliance is targeted exactly at the issue of making roads more friendly for cyclists, including things like the Safe Routes to Schools program, direct work with transit planners, our elected representives and others.

About the oil thing, we won't run out, but it sure looks like we're running out of cheap oil. Supply and demand at work. Demand has been going up, looks like it's continuing to go up and last time I checked there weren't any more dinosaurs dying to make more. Of course maybe we'll start extracting it out of our garbage dumps and the future will run on reprocessed Barbie-heads. I'm hoping that we as a species prove to be "smarter than yeast" <-- punch that phrase into google for a bit of the math that we all really should understand.

I do share some of John's techno-optimism but I think we have to use our brains to figure out ways to live within a reasonable energy budget. We've been spending too much of the savings the dinosaurs socked away and I think we'll have to be a bit smarter if we don't want to follow them.


Toddman said...


I was going to respond in a comment, but it turned into a book and I moved it here.

Anonymous said...

Global warming or not, that brown haze hanging over town lately does not come from extra solar output and would be greatly diminished if more folks were smarter than yeast.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Clifford,

Your first quote comes from Timothy Ball, whose qualifications to speak with any kind of authority on global warming have been brought under serious question. Your Google searches no doubt turned that up (how could they not?)--why didn't you mention it?

But yes, there are a small number of scientists who disagree that global warming is a problem, and a smaller number who assert it isn't even happening. But the overwhelming majority of scientists accept the facts and the projections. Unfortunately, in this case the minority is simply mistaken.

Your assertion that scientists have not reached a virtual consensus on this matter doesn't pass the laugh test. But this type of thing isn't settled by vote. It's settled by evidence and models. Instead of giving us cows and quotes, can you point to a *single* climate model that does not project a global warming trend over the next several decades?

May I suggest you put aside Google, Wikipedia, and back of the envelop calculations, and consult the peer-reviewed literature? Or even a good physics textbook will help. I recommend Art Hobson, "Physics: Concepts and Connections." Chapter 9 is relevant here. You'll find the latest statistics and a good overview of the general methods.

Your 3 trillion barrels estimate comes from a US Geological Survey estimate published in 2000. It does not represent a research finding, and its assumptions are questionable. No one knows the precise amount of oil left in the ground. Even if that much oil remains, this isn't necessarily good news, for reasons I pointed out earlier.

You reference global warming on Mars. The cause is not known, and the Martian atmosphere is as complex as the Earth's. Solar variation can account for part of the effect, but global warming models for the Earth are corrected for this effect.

Rodney Dunning

Tour de Cure said...

All seriousness aside, does that Humvee need a step stool to get his bikes on that hitch rack or what???

Anonymous said...

Ride a bike to get places.
Don't eat meat.

Or not.
I'll be dead and gone in a few decades and I don't have children and I think humans are capapble of surviving. Civilization, I don't care that much about, at this stage.

I think old ways might return if human civilization collapses, and the wildlife would probably fare better.

But... we'll probably figure ways to exploit the changing climate too and keep the ball rolling.
Maybe the ball can roll in a slightly different direction?

Hjalti said...

Leaving aside the AGW tempest in a teapot, I'd much rather see a Hummer with a share the road bumper sticker on it than one with an "All bikes get the hell off the road" sticker. If the hummer driver is aware and courteous, more power to them. It's not my choice, I'll use what works for me. Heck I won't even drop my credentials to try and show you that I'm so smart you should agree with my position. You've got it right Kent. Lead by example.

C said...

To be fair, I was paraphrasing George Carlin when talking about the planet.

I think it's the driver not the vehicle that is the problem. My Toyota Tacoma pick-up truck puts less pollution into the air than most Pious - I mean Prius - hybrids because I only drive it on weekends, usually to haul big heavy things that would be impossible to effectively carry on a bike (like sheetrock and plywood) I've only put gas in the thing once in the past 3 months. A bigger vehicle driven less is far better than a hybrid driven daily.

I also try not to assume too much about a vehicle without knowing the driver. A buddy of mine got flack from a Pious owner because he drives a huge Ford pick-up. What the Pious owner didn't know is that he's an arborist and the truck is his work vehicle. Really, really hard to haul away a 50 foot felled tree in a hatchback. These vehicles do have their place though I'll be the first to acknowledge there are way to many of them being driven outside their intended purposes. Personally, I don't get this. I'd much rather have a comfortable sedan if I was forced to drive everyday. I don't get it but at the same time I know there are a lot of people who have legitimate needs for trucks.

C said...

"The evidence that the planet has warmed over the last 150 years beyond normal, long-term cyclical variations is so overwhelming one can't deny it without denying basic assumptions about logic and reality."

True but keep in mind that 150 years in the history of the planet is an insignificant amount of time! 150 years out of several billion years is hardly a long term trend.

People talk about melting ice caps as being a bad thing. However, I seem to remember in geology class many years ago reading that for most of the planets existence having only once ice cap was the norm. How much of the warming is disaster and how much of it is a return to the norm?

I do think we have oil problems and putting aside all environmental issues it's not a good thing. I personally don't like that all the oil money basically goes to culturally backwards despotic countries in the Middle East or dictators like Chavez who seek to suppress free speech/free press rights. We really should limit our oil intake to what we can obtain from democratic countries that show at least some modicum of respect for the rights of women, free speech, and free press.

Anonymous said...

I lost my Beagle not too long ago. He was really really sick. The day prior putting him down, I let him eat anything he wanted. Burgers, piece of chocolate, ice cream, etc. He loved it. Next day, he's dead. He's gone.

Since, we're running out of time, regardless of global warming or, just plain being humans and not getting along (believe me, we're all capable - a couple of guys in here would like to get a gun and shoot each other in the head right now - if it were only legal, how sweet would that be?)

Back to my point, since we're running out of time, I'll be just like my old Beagle and will be enjoying life, including my SUV until OIL is no more.

I ride a bike, because I love riding bikes.

If you like making pizzas on Fridays, do it!

If you wanna love yourself by living in bushes, love yourself already.

BTW, don't get in a collision with an SUV while riding. You will lose.

B safe out there.


"What's your conscious choice?"

gpickle said...

This conversation is great to read and I am happy to know what forms peoples opinions and beliefs. I read what is here and what bothers me is that it looks at certain aspects of a system and completely ignores others. Yes it is great that having a personal internal combustion engine to sit on can get you to a bike ride that starts far away and you can enjoy a more convenient and enjoyable life.

Well, enjoyable is debatable but it is your opinion after all.

Focusing on pollutants and their possible contribution to global warming here is not enough. What is the impact of your choice to drive on the family in Abidjan that has toxic waste from an oil tanker dumped in their alley? What of the Nigerians caught in the crossfire between rebels and big oil producers? What of the squirrel trying to cross the road?

You drive for you and you drive on a road of blood that leads to a cemetary. Have fun!

That is my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Dear C:

My "150 years" is a rough figure, referring to the span of time for which we have reliable thermometer-based data (since approximately the end of the U.S. Civil War.) But we have indirect evidence from a variety of sources such as boreholes, tree rings, and arctic ice core samples that help us project the Earth's global average surface temperature going back over 100,000 years. That covers essentially the entire history of the human species. What we find is the the global average surface temperature is higher today than at any time since human beings first appeared on the planet. Seen in this light, 150 years becomes very significant, because over the last 100,000 years the planet has not experienced such a *rapid* increase in temperature.

"People talk about melting ice caps as being a bad thing. However, I seem to remember in geology class many years ago reading that for most of the planets existence having only once ice cap was the norm. How much of the warming is disaster and how much of it is a return to the norm?"

As I wrote above, the rate of increase over the last several decades is unprecedented over the last 100,000 years. While solar variations do play a role, the current upward trend in the Earth's global average surface temperature correlates more strongly with the increase in CO2 emissions (and other greenhouse gases) from various human industrial activities. Models that include both solar variations and CO2 emissions have proven very accurate when projected into the past.

But arctic ice core samples show CO2 levels to be constant over the last 100,000 years, at least. It appears the current, extremely rapid changes are superimposed on the normal, long-term cyclical variations in the Earth's climate, and are largely due to CO2 emissions.

About obtaining oil from democratic countries: You're correct that there is no correlation with oil production and stable, democratic governments that respect basic human rights. Unfortunately, because oil companies share supplies to control costs, it's virtually impossible to boycott oil extracted from a particular country, or even from a particular region of the world.

Rodney Dunning

Anonymous said...

Shame on you for using the term SUV to generalize about any car that gets low gas mileage. My Honda Pilot (and alot of SUVs of today) gets as good mileage as a whole ton of sedans.

Eric LaForest said...

Great post!

I always ponder this exact same thing when I peddal past a car that has their bike up on their car mount, parked at the store.

Couldn't they have ridden to the store?

Eric L.