Category Archives: Environment

Bike Lane Bellyaching Symptomatic of Civilization’s Doom

Recently, in my neighbourhood in Toronto, as part of a multi-year expansion of the much-neglected cycling infrastructure, the city installed bike lanes on both sides of a moderately-busy street named Woodbine, which many drivers use on their commute between downtown and the suburbs.

The installation has caused a firestorm on social media, specifically in a Facebook group named The Beaches, Toronto. This closed group of about 19,000 members includes posts such as merchant endorsements, queries about services, photos of sunrises, and reports of missing pets. Controversy springs up frequently (offleash dogs, street parking, privileged whining about minor view obstructions suffered by wealthy waterfront owners), and are deftly-handled by moderator Denise Angus.

An anti-bikelane petition has been started (link deliberately omitted; it has at this moment about 2800 signatures), and a pro-lane counter-petition (currently 1600 signatures).

The anti-laner petition cites increased traffic as the primary concern. The petition also mentions safety issues for children on side streets due to rerouting drivers, as well as parking reductions, and increased air pollution caused by cars stuck in gridlock. It also includes juvenile rhetoric such as: “The hills from the bottom are massive and even the most in shape person would end up a sweaty mess by the time they got to work.”

The anti-laners have a simple request – get rid of the lanes. The pro-laners ask that they remain.

The point missed by the anti-laners is that change is desperately needed, and everyone knows it. We are currently experiencing a season of unprecedented hurricane activity, with storms of four-plus magnitude battering the Caribbean and parts of the United States. Drought plagues the west, wildfires are chewing through our forests. And this is only the beginning – we know this. If you want a sobering picture of what’s in store for this planet and our civilization, read The Uninhabitable Earth in New York Magazine.

Meanwhile, traffic in Toronto continues to worsen; gridlock paralyzes streets and highways alike.

But even small gestures like a few kilometres of bike lanes are met with aggressive opposition to those it (apparently) inconveniences. People know there are problems, big ones – but many appear to be too apathetic, ignorant, or selfish to make any kind of sacrifice to tackle them.

While increased congestion is the overt reason to oppose the lane, plenty of anger at the erratic, law-defying behaviour exhibited by a small percentage of cyclists compounds the opposition – some cyclists don’t obey laws, ergo, cyclists should not be provided with safe spaces in which to transit.

And some say that cyclists are entitled, as if the means to own and operate a motor vehicle is not, in a global sense, the ultimate in entitlement.

Of course the vilification of cyclists is standard “us” versus “them” rhetoric. “Us” are the drivers. “Them” are the cyclists. In war, we dehumanize the enemy in exactly this way, by inventing separation and alienating the other. The anti-laners complain that bike lanes benefit “them” to the detriment of “us,” when in fact the installation of bike lanes benefits everyone.

Anti-laners also complain that they see few cyclists using the lanes, compared to the number of cars on the same stretch of road.

The fact that bike lanes hope to combat this enormous problem (too many cars, not enough bikes) by making cycling safer and more attractive escapes these opponents. They’d rather see low-usage as a reason the lanes should not exist. Meanwhile, statistically, cycling continues to increase in Toronto, at a faster pace than driving – this is a good thing, and it must be accommodated. And the anti-laners fail to recognize that an increase in cycling serves their own selfish agenda, that is, to improve traffic flow for those who refuse to do anything but drive, by getting more people out of cars and onto bikes.

Then there are those who oppose the Woodbine bike lanes only (not bike lanes in general) because in their judgment city planners don’t know what they’re doing. These opponents (whose position I’m certain has nothing to do with how the lanes personally inconvenience them) explain with authority that this street or that street would’ve been a better choice, as if those weren’t considered.

I’d like to think that city council approved the bike lanes on Woodbine specifically to force the issue – make it harder to drive, create a disincentive to driving. Make alternatives – cycling, in this case, but the plan should be broader: more carpooling, better public transit  – make these all more attractive. Make driving annoying to the point that people give it up. No politician would ever admit to antagonizing their majority voters even for the greater good (which is why our political system will fail to save us from climate change), but it really is what we need – active disincentives to the habits that degrade our planet. Fuel prices for anything but transit and commercial transport should be exorbitantly high, with the proceeds funding alternatives like bike highways and fantastic transit systems – but the political career of anyone attempting such measures would be brief.

Some claim that everyone has a good reason for driving that has nothing to do with selfishness. Their job is far away; their job requires them to travel around the city during the day; they have kids to drop off and pick up from school and daycare; they need to do errands on the way home.

IMG_2676

winter riding

Lots of people, even those who own cars, manage a life where they commute by bike every day, while still managing to get their kids to school and daycare (kids who can walk to school should!), run errands, pick up groceries (get a good set of panniers), and so on. They’re healthier  and stronger for it, too.

And people without the luxury (never forget it’s a luxury!) of a car manage to hold jobs and take care of their kids and do errands, because they have to.

The point here is that you can (if you have the physical ability to do so) reduce or end your dependency on a car if you have the willpower to do it. You adapt. You plan. You might still own a car, but you only use it when necessary. You do big grocery shops on the weekend. You drive only on the days you need your car throughout the workday, or when you have some distant appointment.

Those against bike lanes are so wrapped up in vilifying cyclists and bike lanes that they’ve lost sight – if they even had sight – of the true enemy: the car.

Passenger vehicles are exceptionally large machines for the job they need to perform, which, at least in Toronto, is most often to convey a single passenger a moderate distance. And unfortunately, due to the inflexibility of workplace schedules, most people must travel during two specific, high-density periods of the workday.

Our city was planned and constructed for a lower-density of cars than it can now comfortably accommodate, and there is no space left to increase that infrastructure to accommodate current traffic density.

These factors – not bike lanes – are why traffic on Woodbine crawls. Bike lanes might magnify the problem, but they are not the cause. In fact, they are – albeit in an idealized way – the solution, and were human nature different, were humans more enlightened and sensible about their own self-preservation, if humans were willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, then these lanes would be a solution. More would cycle. Fewer would drive.

The Woodbine bike lane controversy is emblematic of human nature. It illustrates the way humans will vociferously fight a single issue that affects their short-term convenience, even if it represents a small step toward conquering a massive threat.

Planning, consultations, and media about the Woodbine bike lanes began more than a year and a half ago – where were all the anti-laners then? In a couple of decades, when civilization is dying and it’s too late to fix, the anti-laners and their ilk will be be crying foul, claiming they were never properly informed. Their anti-end-of-civilization petition will have billions of signatures. But where will they send it?

Advertisements

And if there isn’t a democratic solution…?

On my bicycle commute today I stopped along a trail for a moment – okay, it was to step behind some trees to pee – and I’d been listening to the haunting Radiolab podcast Dark Side of the Earth. I had just heard David Wolf’s account of spacewalking outside the Mir spacecraft with fellow astronaut Anatoly Solovyev, a moment during which they floated in their suits and stared away from Earth into the depths of the universe, with Solovyev telling Wolf to just relax – “расслабься.”

I had to pause the podcast and take out my earbuds to remove my neckwarmer, and I was suddenly in this stirring spring moment, beside a river, with songbirds all around, the sky a crisp blue. It was one of those abruptly sublime moments that take you by surprise and leave you dumbstruck, floating in a moment unencumbered by thought.

After a minute or so, as usually happens, the experience became polluted by exterior concerns, among them: I should take a video of this, I’m late for work, I need to blog about this…but these thoughts were followed by the most disturbing of all – that all this, all the wonder of this world, right now, right this minute, is in peril. The beauty of the instant both bolstered and destroyed by the tenuousness of it.

I experienced a moment of recognition that the planet’s prospects are extremely dire if we do not aggressively pursue significant change.

It brought to me thoughts of the recent defeat of stricter gun law legislation in the United States senate, this landmark moment that illustrates how our society is actually governed, not with the intent of preserving and enhancing the things that are good for us – our safety, health, and environment – but rather to support the means and ends of one tiny group of unbelievably selfish entities – the multinational corporations, and the ultra-wealthy people who run them. Everything of human agency, everything political, is now catered almost exclusively to a few thousand wealthy psychopaths, whose only concern is to maintain and augment their wealth regardless of the cost to life, to the natural world, and to the welfare of the rest of us. Make no mistake: the NRA-influenced Senate buyoff is simply an overt representation of how democracies now function, that is, with politicians acting almost entirely for the interests of their financial backers – those that contribute significantly to their election campaigns.

This is state-sanctioned bribery at the highest level, and it can only be changed by those in power, i.e., incumbent politicians. The problem of course is that politicians who vote to fix the system risk defeat in the next election cycle when their backers find compliant candidates who will legislate their will. Newcomers who oppose the bribery system stand no chance of being elected without funding from players in the bribery system.

So if there’s no chance of a democratic solution, what’s left? I hate to say it, but logic dictates that if there is no democratic solution, we must either endure the system as it stands (at least until the consequences of the status quo come to bear, which they will – I’m thinking here of climate change), or bring about transformation through non-democratic means. It’s the reason I feel so compelled by this new feature film, The East – in concept it represents a radical course of action for a world that has lost its ability to create policies for anyone but the rich.

I guarantee this film will make more than a few corporate executives uncomfortable.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating for violent change. I abhor violence – in fact, violence, as seen in the empire-building efforts of the Bush II White House, is simply another tool of the wealthy to spread their influence. But I do believe it is the course that will be taken by individuals and groups if the political situation does not soon change. People are becoming desperate – from poverty, injustice, climate change – and these are only going to get worse. Desperate people are dangerous. The wealthy are desperate themselves, desperate to maintain control, desperate to increase their obscene wealth. This is their psychosis.

The alternative is that the natural world will bite back. We cannot destroy the world. But we can damage it enough that it will ruin civilization. This is the path we’re on. I have children, I wish I was wrong. I can find little evidence that I am not.

Think of it this way: wouldn’t you love to watch a nature program or IMAX film about some startling species or gorgeous ecosystem without the inevitable warning from the narrator about the multiple threats to its existence? But you always see it coming, despite the grace of the whales or the vitality of the African savannah – the big “but” in the program, when we are told of dwindling numbers or the encroachment of oil companies.

I want to experience the world not as something threatened, and probably doomed, but as a place both beautiful and perpetual. A lot of political change has to happen before we get there. And if that change doesn’t come democratically, it will come violently. With violence from the planet. And violence from the people, either independently, or in association with disruptions of climate.

In other words – either we end the influence of wealth on our political system so we can pursue what’s right for the people and the planet, or we suffer violent consequences. I’d rather do it on our own terms, before it’s too late. Is there a way?

Tagged

Hate to Say I Told You So, Climate Change Deniers, But…

Image

The methane feedback loop appears to be ramping up.

Beckwith goes on to say, This is abrupt climate change in real-time. Humans have benefited greatly from a stable climate for the last 11,000 years or roughly 400 generations. Not any more. We now face an angry climate. One that we have poked in the eye with our fossil fuel stick and awakened. And now we must deal with the consequences. We must set aside our differences and prepare for what we can no longer avoid. And that is massive disruption to our civilizations.”

Tagged , , ,

Crazy Environmental Effort #3: Sustainable Power

Bullfrog Power logo

 

My family voluntarily pays more than we have to for our electricity and natural gas. This may seem a crazy notion – indeed, some of my neighbours have said as much, but less indelicately (“it’s interesting and cool”) – but it’s the right thing to do. Traditional energy is underpriced, because the price does not include the energy’s total cost to the environment and our health. Renewable energy (currently) costs more, but the price represents the real cost. So I’m willing to pay, not just for myself, but to expand the viability of renewable energy, and to ultimately lower the cost for everyone.

I’m trying to save civilization for my kids. And yours too. You’re welcome.

Bullfrog Power offers renewable, carbon-neutral energy for households and businesses.

Tagged , ,

Crazy Environmental Effort #2: Solar Hot Water Heater

Solar Hot Water Heater

Actual photo of our actual roof – honest!

We have on the roof of our house a solar hot water heater. The system, made and installed by Global Solar Energy Inc., takes municipal cold water under normal pressure and heats it before delivering it into our gas hot water heater, reducing the amount of energy needed to heat the water, and shrinking our carbon footprint.

Tagged , ,

Crazy Environmental Effort #1: Heating Only As Much As I Need

20121213-211654.jpg

When I make tea, I drain the kettle, fill the mug I’m going to use, and pour the water from the mug into kettle. That way I am boiling exactly the correct quantity of water, saving both energy and time.

Tagged

Our Planet, Literally Falling Apart

We are not going to destroy the Earth, but we are going to destroy our way of life. This is how the end begins.

Tagged ,

And these fools want to govern?

PC Flyer

Wood u voat 4 PCs?

In my mailbox today I found this flyer from the Ontario PC party. At the upper right is a quote, attributed to The Trentonian, May 13, 2011: “[Tim Hudak] said a PC government will give families, seniors and small business owners relief on hydro bills and by pulling the plug on mandatory smart meters.” Yes, read it again. And again. Clearly there’s a rogue “and” in there. Fine, The Trentonian needs to hire a proofreader…there are a lot of words in a newspaper. But for the PC party to quote this, verbatim, on a flyer with about 75 words on it, is appalling. These losers want to manage our energy systems, our hospitals, our education system? If you can’t handle the language on a fucking flyer, how are you going to manage a province of thirteen million people?

Oh, but it’s just one little error, Bri. Don’t be so hard on these folks. Okay, wait, there’s more. Sure, they’re quibbles, but look how it ads up. This is one fucking piece of paper, and these dweebs can’t get it right:

  • I looked up the article in The Trentonian. It’s from May 12th, not May 13th. Details, details.
  • One of the bullet points reads: Remove the ‘Debt Retirement Charge”. That’s right; Tim is saving money by making the first quotation mark a single, while showing his extravagance by closing with a double. (An interesting editorial conundrum: how to present that quote in text? Enclosed in single quotes, I would’ve used doubles; if it ran with doubles, I’d use singles. But one of each? Agh!)
  • And how about that zinger in the upper left: “Unplug smart meters, [Tim] Hudak says.” It’s a quote from the Toronto Sun, nothing more than a paraphrase of what Hudak said. There’s no value judgment here, no endorsement by the paper, nothing at all remarkable about it. Just a thing Tim said, and the Sun mentioned. Thanks for showing up, Tim, here’s your prize!

Putting aside an unreasonable expectation that my government be smart enough to write a sentence, all these promises to reduce the cost of electricity are perilous. If you look at this page from the Ministry of Energy, some of the debt that charge is paying accumulated because the Harris PC government kept electricity rates artificially low.  Maybe it’s just me, but if something like electricity is expensive to produce, it should be expensive to consume…it’s the only way to get people to conserve. And isn’t that what Conservatives should be advocating?

I drove today…

…and every time I touched the gas, it was like stomping on bunnies. I felt with every acceleration (injection, compression, explosion, exhaust, times six cylinders, times an average of 1500 RPM), with every act of breaking (valuable momentum converted to heat in the break pads), every turn (rubber wearing against asphalt, more momentum lost), even when I was idling (fuel burning, exhaust gases escaping, to no achievement of work), that I was killing our world. This giant, one-and-a-half ton box of metal, plastic, and glass, all of it having to move and turn and stop and move and turn and stop again and again, just to transport my 180 lbs. from one place to another.

This was bad enough, but then – like in horror movies, when the protagonist encounters some utterly hideously entity, only to discover that this is but one of an astonishing multitude (think Ripley in Aliens finding herself among all those eggs in the power station) – I looked around me, on Toronto’s busy streets, and saw dozens, hundreds, thousands of cars and trucks and SUVs and vans, all of them engaged in fullbore destruction of our living environment. And then – oh mercy it actually gets worse – I multiplied this by every single day of the year, year after year after year, increasing each year, and my mind leapt out, spread across the globe, sweeping across North and Central and South America, spreading to Europe and Africa and Asia, taking this single human in this one 1600kg vehicle burning 12 litres of gas every hundred kilometres, rounded the world to Africa and New Zealand, and there it was.

The realization that we, as a species, are fucked. The Earth will survive, but we’re going to make living on it really uncomfortable for ourselves and all our living creatures, and most of us will die off. New life will appear, eventually, once we are gone and our influence ended, and life will flourish here once again. But we won’t be around for it.

Really, there’s no other way this can turn out. Because tell me dear reader, are you going to do anything about this? Are you going to continue to consume and pollute as if we are not an exponentially expanding volume confined in a finite space? Are you going to leave your car at home tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, permanently adopt a method of transport that is much less harmful to our planet?

And if the answer is yes, do you actually mean it – can you confidently state that if you return to this post in six months or three years or ten years you will still be using that new, cleaner mode of transport (or something like it), that is to say, you will have committed yourself to permanently abandoning your daily automobile commute? Pretty unlikely yes? Well let’s just fantasize and say yes, you can and will do this – you have the guts and the will and the character and the strength – then what are the chances that thousands, no, millions of people will take the same action, and to commit to it permanently– what are the chances of that? Really, it’s virtually impossible that you will do it, so what are the chances that millions of others will?

What other conclusion can you possible come to?

Thought so.

We’re fucked.

Have a nice day.

Please Mr. Postman:

How about tucking those blue rubber bands back in your bag and returning them to your pickup point? They may still have some life in ’em.