Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Corn In Our Side

The bicycle is an amazing thing.  It is, at its essence, one of the most simple machines possible, and like most simple machines, provides benefits that far exceed its complexity.  Unlike most things, the bicycle's grasp far exceeds its reach.  Like most things in this category, it is not adequately appreciated.  I think it is time we stopped and thought about this for a moment.

I try hard to not succumb to the easy arguments in life.  We should have to think about what we do, what we believe, what we buy, how we live.  But sometimes that thinking can make living harder, and that is why so many of us, even me when I am tired, avoid it.  Much of the time if you ask me why I bike I would probably tell you I enjoy it more, that I like the exercise, that it is faster and easier than driving in San Francisco.  Those are all true statements, but they are easy ones to make.  They form the ideals of most of us who chose to ride over drive.  The more thoughtful answer would be that I am tired of contributing to the suffering around me- the noise, the pollution, the forceful takeover of public space that marginalizes all those who are not in a car, the sucking up of resources that need to be used in a more thoughtful and equitable way by all the people of the world.

The more I think about these things, the more insane so many of them seem.  The list of items I find needless and destructive would not be appropriate in this forum, but one of them is very much in line with what we try to do here at the blog- the production and propagation of bio-fuel usage in the world.  The two great hopes of the transportation industry, in all its forms, are electricity and bio-fuels.  Even the American Military is looking at bio-fuel as a means of fueling its insatiable need.

It seems like such a great idea.  Using renewable crops to grow our own fuel.  Brazil is doing it in spades, and there are consequences to it most people do not want to think about.  We can not make bio-fuels out of just anything when we are talking about huge industrial quantities.  Reliable, high quality fuel requires consistent, high quality ingredients.  Currently, no matter where you go in the world, those ingredients are sugar cane and corn (along with wheat and soy and palm oil).  These used to be crops used to feed people and animals, and now the people and animals are having to compete for food with the bus fleets and old diesel vans of the world.  And it is getting worse.  Not only do these crops no longer feed people, they use up vast amounts of water, are grown with huge amounts of chemicals and they destroy the land they are grown in.

Not everyone in the world has the resources to grow enough bio-fuel for themselves.  Many countries have started buying farmland in other countries to start growing fuel crops.  The countries that are selling are poor (Rwanda, Ghana, Madagascar ...) and the countries that are buying are rich (South Korea, Saudi Arabia...).  "In response, the importing countries negotiated and in some cases leased land in other, more irrigable countries to grow grain and produce biofuels for themselves. Countries like Saudi Arabia, China and South Korea have all leased land in Africa, where the governments lease irrigable land for as little as $1 an acre.(source)"  Land needed to feed the growing population of the world is going instead to feeding our cars, our delivery trucks, our buses, and eventually, our war ships and airplanes.

So, that is what has become a huge part of why I ride my bicycle.  My life and the way I live it should not contribute to the hunger of others.  My needs are no more important than those of any one else. My share should not come to me because somewhere else in the world there are those desperate enough that they will give up theirs, or have it taken from them by those who are greedy and shortsighted enough to think their actions are justified.

This is a long post, and not quite as a light as some of you may have come to expect from me.  I think it is worth it, though.  There are a lot of links here and they will take time to read and get through.  I encourage you to do it.  I encourage you to start thinking about the choices that you are making.  Listen to the story broadcast on NPR that spurred me to write this.  Tell me what you think.  Does this make you want to ride more?  Does it make you angry enough to start making different choices?  Does it overwhelm you?


  1. This is a good reminder. I get caught up in the everyday choice to ride or walk and I forget one of the major motivations for us was visiting Copenhagen, and realizing how quiet it was where half of the commuters were on bikes, and what a relief it was not to worry that my kids would be killed if they ran out into the street. It seems wrong now that I spend so much of our time on the streets afraid for them.

    1. My three kids took off on their own bicycle adventure today. It was the first time the older ones have ventured out of the neighborhood with the youngest on bicycles without me or James with them. I have to admit, it was a bit of a challenge to let my 17 year old take the seven year old out on the streets like that. They walk and take buses together all the time, but this was different. It shouldn't be that way. I should be able to let me kids go out together without having to worry about silly, distracted drivers on overused streets.

  2. Every time my office moves further away from home - I get on a bit of a downer. I spent years working in the town where I live. I could walk / ride to work really easily and always chose that over driving. Then my worked moved 7 miles away (hilly & rainy miles usually), last month it moved ten hilly miles away to a place that takes longer to get to by public transport than it does to cycle.

    On the days I take the easy option and drive, I see hundreds of cars passing me in the opposite direction. I always think what madness it is that we're driving from each others home towns to jobs in those other towns. Cant we do a job swap?! We'd all save time and petrol money.

    I try to cycle as often as I can, but it's not easy and employees dont make it easy - in this office move all the showers were replaced by more toilets. There's one shower left - it doesnt work. The roads are so congested & narrow that on my cycling days I set off an hour earlier to avoid the worst traffic. It's understandable why people do choose the easy option and drive in the UK. It's a sad fact of the educated, enlightened, western world.

    On a positive note though, I have noticed in recent years that school children riding to school seems to be really on the up. Sustrans (our Sustainable Transport charity) has been driving forward Fresh Air Kids, putting money into safer cycling routes to schools and I hope that this may signal a change in the attitudes of our current children once they grow up. I hope that it rubs off onto the adults too!
    Not to mention car insurance outpricing young drivers - perhaps this will help a shift in attitude.

    Earlier in the year we had a 'panic'. Oil tanker drivers were planning on going on strike. People panic bought fuel at a crazy rate. Not many seemed to even consider that there could be other options rather than driving their cars. Cars have become so engrained into our society that most people cant see anything else.

    1. I used to work 45 miles from home and the only viable option at the time was to drive. I hated it so much. All of the wasted time, the money going up in smoke, the discomfort completely ruined what was otherwise the best job I have ever had. I know exactly how you feel and I am very fortunate that I do not have to return to that. The relief I got from moving to a job that I could bike/train to was huge. In fact, I stayed at the job quite a bit longer than I would have if driving because I liked my commute so much : )

      Kids all over the world are growing up knowing that cars will not be a significant part of their future. Cameron, my oldest, does not want to drive until he is older because the cost of insurance is so high. That is fine with me because his bicycle has been such a boon to him over the years. He loves his bicycle, he calls it freedom : )

  3. Hear! Hear!! ... your this post deserves wider readership!
    (And may I say, Georgie's too)