The Big Lie
The fundamental problem with our highly technological society is that it is based upon a big lie, or rather a complex series of interrelated lies. The core of these is that we are autonomous, self- sustaining beings. We are not. We are, even in the purest biological sense, completely beholden to a complex biosphere dependent upon the sun’s energy. There are a host of necessary mechanisms needed for human life to continue, something we urban dwellers forget, alienated as we are from the processes that make this life possible. Our milk is in jugs; our food in plastic wrap; our fuel from strategically located pumps on paved streets we traverse in climate controlled surround-sound bliss: these alienate us from any true knowledge of our embededness. And this is why muscle-powered transport is something positive: it helps us live in the world as it actually exists, rather than the world as it seems to be. Muscle powered movement extracts its energy costs in the most direct way possible, rather than through a much more complicated series of banked-then-extracted hydrocarbon deposits that are rapidly depleting. The directness of energy extraction and expenditure in the “muscle movement” model of transport directly correlates to its sustainability over the long term, because in its simplicity, the seemingly normal middle steps that in reality involve immense costs (and are in the long view a historical oddity) are left out. This lack of mediation means that we live more in the world as it is, instead of in the world as we pretend it exists. And living in the real, rather than the apparent world is something very, very good.
The fuel for human powered travel is food; and food is theoretically indefinitely sustainable compared to extracted oil, since food is based upon solar power, regenerated topsoil, and reused water. In contrast, oil, which we use for either generating electricity (for those affluent enough to own either a hybrid or an electric vehicle) or by directly injecting it in a highly refined form into an engine’s combustion chambers exists in a very finite stock. But current agriculture (or more accurately agribusiness) complicates food’s sustainability since industrial food is now grown through non-sustainable practices; and this has been increasingly true since the 1940s. Our farming is now dependent on extracted hydrocarbons through chemical fertilizers and other similar features of industrial farming. So while muscle-powered movement minimizes our use of oil, it does not end it. Furthermore, because we are embedded in a world where looking at these words on a glowing screen is the norm for both the writer and the reader, we both are involved in the general destructiveness of our society. Any freedom from this shared responsibility is a romantic illusion.
For these reasons, believing that using a bicycle for transportation makes you more “green” in a substantial way over car users is at least partly self-indulgent. While it is common for people to desire environmental purity, no-one ever achieves it: not now; not 5000 years ago. Even so-called primitive people who had never heard of what Wes Jackson calls “carbon pools” effectively destroyed their environments according to Jared Diamond; and any serious attempt at being fully green would involve going to lengths that would make the shed-dwelling Unabomber Ted Kaczynski seem like a play-acting lightweight. Riding a bike is good; yes; but it does not change the underlying pattern of our society, and is only a drop in the bucket.
Why then ride a bike for transportation? There are still good reasons. First of all, it’s enjoyable in a way that driving a car in heavy urban traffic is not. Second, despite our inability to achieve green purity, any growth in awareness of what balanced human life involves on this small green planet is healthy. While we can never untangle ourselves from a general wastefulness and destructiveness–something that has accelerated immensely in the last five hundred years– we can be aware that every mile traveled on a bicycle–or on foot– involves a complex interaction between the sun’s energy, topsoil that if healthy has taken thousands of years to form, and the contribution of other factors that fall under the term “agriculture,” itself (we’re apt to forget) part of the larger mystery of the wild or of nature and her processes, which we can call the overall ecological framework. In an analogous case, while growing your own tomatoes or shopping at a farmer’s market will not bankrupt Archer Daniels Midland or Dupont, it might make you more aware of how your food is grown, where it comes from, and how it reaches your table. And while riding a bicycle instead of using a car will not “save” the world or make us ecological saints, it might make us more mindful of the complicated web in which we are all enmeshed. We might live according to what is true, rather than what is convenient or socially sanctioned. No individual can escape the parameters of his or her era. But within those parameters, we can live aware of the complicated reality that surrounds and contains us. Awareness is intrinsically valuable, and I hope also contagious.
My ideas come from my own embededness within a set of specific intellectual and cultural communities, and for those of you whose imaginations and intellects are sparked by these ideas, I recommend reading Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Kathleen Raine and Gary Snyder, among others. Each of these, from his or her own perspective, provides a much-needed long view so lacking in our mainstream society’s discourse: each strives to correct the big lie that, for both profit and convenience, we’re asked to believe. Ecological purity does not exist; sane living does. Equally, freeing ourselves completely from the social and cultural blinders of our society is impossible and probably even undesirable, but some real degree of clear thought is both possible and necessary. These four writers and others like them have helped correct my own myopic views.