The Big Lie

By Peter Moore

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.

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20 Responses to “The Big Lie”

  1. To add two more opinions:

    1) The Reuters columnist Felix Salmon argues that the most expensive part of allowing cars onto Manhattan is the congestion, not their pollution:

    2) This message board post author argues that driving his Tesla Roadster emits about as much CO2 as riding a bicycle:

  2. Great article Peter. I always look at these things mathematically I guess, and my approach is to decrease embeddedness, increase independence, and work toward zero, knowing we can’t actually get there.

  3. Alex, not sure I understand your “zero” but I’ll take a shot anyway. For Descartes and all after him, mathematical modeling of the universe is possible through oversimplification, that is, by ignoring the complexity we don’t understand for the sake of numerification and hence predictability in the complexity we do understand. Wes Jackson’s “Towards an Ignorance Based World View” is a good critique of the limits of modern science without involving falling into the silly postmodern trap. It’s available online.

  4. While I agree there is no such thing as ecological absolute purity, I think the issue with food as fuel, and the ills of our agriculture as compared to driving energy use, is somewhat overstated, though I admit I do not have solid numbers for the argument. A few things I hear mentioned very rarely in debate about calories burned to bicycle, is that first of all bicycling uses less energy than even walking for a given distance, and also that the development of base fitness makes the body’s metabolism more efficient over time.

    So yes a cyclist traveling far distances on their bike will burn more calories than some one stationary, but the growth of energy output versus input is not linear. The more you ride a bike, the more efficient you become at doing so, becoming able to put out much more energy into the pedals with less calories burned than when you began riding. For me riding 17 mph is an effort barely warranting much heavy breathing, but for someone out of shape they may be straining heavily to maintain such a pace.

    Most typical days I ride about 6 miles for work and errands. If I ride a hundred miles for a century, I do eat many more calories than typical, about 2-3 times as many, but I also traveled about 16 times further than I ordinarily would. The body is amazing at adapting to run as efficiently as possible. Unlike a car engine which is rated to a particular fuel efficiency that won’t change much, the human engine is in a constant state of adaption to what we do with it.

    The hydrocarbons used in agriculture is currently a dependency that still binds bicycling to fossil fuel burning, but to what extent this adds up I think is difficult to pin down.

    Ultimately I think land use planning is biggest key in reducing energy use, because the need to travel far distances by any mode are reduced when environments put more goods services and people in close proximity to their daily needs.

  5. I love riding my bike and in an interesting twist, my car has made me love my car more as well. I find myself adding errands together as to make this car trip ‘worth it’. On a bike you really need to figure out the order of things be it by distance, time, urgency, or more importantly, just how much more of a load I have room for and can carry. As a vehicle to raise awareness of just how much we need vs. how much we take for granted as we transport ourselves around town, it’s quite incredible.

    @ the Tesla carbon footprint article: “only consider the cost of a trip, not the production and end-of-life costs of the bike and car, which would doubtless greatly favor the bike.” How kind to omit everything it takes to get all those rare earth metals into a handy, drivable form produced by the lowest bidder!

  6. “The body is amazing at adapting to run as efficiently as possible.”

    Wikipedia puts the “efficiency” of the human body at 18-26 percent, or roughly that of the internal combustion engine.


    “How kind to omit everything it takes to get all those rare earth metals into a handy, drivable form produced by the lowest bidder!”

    Your point is well taken, but to be fair to Tesla, I don’t believe their motors use rare-earth elements:

  7. Gary, I’m not saying there’s no green payback in cycling; I’m saying that the overall vision we humans need to keep in mind is much, much larger than “cars versus bikes” or–even more fatuous–hybrids and electrics versus plain old gas burners. We’re embedded in a system that makes us possible; we need to keep the whole system in mind, not just like fragments of it.
    Brent, your Wikipedia comment on human efficiency ignores the fact that a human on a bike weighs a tiny fraction of a human in a car.

  8. @Brent Comparing a human on a bicycle to a combustion engine on it’s own is not the same thing as comparing riding a bike and driving a car. The combustion engine in the car is using a lot of power for carrying dead weight, the car it self and all the bells and whistles that contains, with the passenger being a small fraction of the carried weight. Where as the cyclist is carrying them-self and the weight of the bike, which is typically a small fraction of the weight of the rider. Which is why a small combustion engine on a motorcycle can propel a rider just as fast with less fuel as the driver with a much bigger engine.

    Using one of the calculators I’ve seen comparing kilo-calories between driving and bicycling depending on your rider weight and average speed, which albeit is missing some variables, put my self at just under 700 mpg equivalent to a car.

  9. I didn’t think you were trying to say there is no green pay-back, and I agree we need a more holistic big picture view. What I am concerned with is some people reading some parts of this the wrong way as a justification to neglect bicycling.

    Having encountered a surprisingly large number of people who straight faced claim riding a bike is not only no green savings, but in fact somehow worse than driving, I get a little concerned when I read something that may play into that. My wife Meghan is in a sustainability class with a woman that started arguing with her that she heard riding a bike is bad for the environment so she didn’t get one, but apparently drives often while attempting to be more sustainable. I’ve seen comments of people convinced their station wagon is more green because cyclists breathe more and eat more food.

  10. You can prove nearly anything if you set your mind to it. I saw an article in the UK’s Daily Mail about how exercise, sex, and namely cycling increase your chance of heart attack. At the end of the article it noted that sudden physical exertion with none prior did increase the risk, but the benefits associated with it far outweighed the bad. It then went on to say how prolonged, frequent exercise lowered the risk and only increased the benefits. Studies aside, I think we can all agree that our friends and family who err on the physical exercise side of life tend to seem, in general, healthier than cubicle rats or those that get no exercise at all. Similar to a car, the human body needs use. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Without exercise and exploring our body’s range of motion the arteries harden quicker, the tendons shrink, muscles atrophy and while on paper, this is a GREAT benefit to our carbon efficiency I’m sure, it also means you’ll be a hunched over, a bed ridden antique, sooner than not. We simply measure life wrong. I hear (I am guilty here) of people bragging about how much work they do and how little sleep they get. Those same folks have great plans for their money when they retire. Yet, with a small investment, and a little cycling, you can enjoy yourself now and set your body up to actually be ‘able’ in the future. Then get into the preventative medicine end of the argument…

  11. “a human on a bike weighs a tiny fraction of a human in a car.”

    “The combustion engine in the car is using a lot of power for carrying dead weight.”

    I believe engines and muscles both generate work but have waste heat and mechanical losses. Efficiency gauges this loss, rather than how much weight the “motor” pushes.

    For example, I can install the same engine, with the same efficiency, in two cars, and have completely different fuel economies, depending on weight and drag issues.

    The broader issue, of course, is how to reduce one’s carbon footprint. I have a suspicion that an electric bicycle is just about the most carbon-free transport available. I believe the motor is nearly 90 percent efficient, and its power generation is quite a lot less “lossy” than growing human food.

  12. That’s an absurd argument Brent. Efficiency matters, but it’s applied toward mass. Mass of car >> mass of cyclist (person + bike). You can drive an uber efficient car, but inherently, you will still consume far more energy than an unusually inefficient cyclist, because you are pushing an order of magnitude more mass.

    Same with the electric bike argument – your argument is a red herring. The efficiency of an electric bike in terms of the BTUs getting from the battery and into the drivetrain moving the bike forward. But the BTUs got into that battery somehow. Most likely they came from electricity from a nuclear or coal power plant. Those plants convert heat from nuclear fuel or coal respectively to energy by generating steam and powering a steam engine. Therefore they are subject to the same loss of energy to heat as internal combustion engines, humans, or anything governed by the laws of thermodynamics.

    There’s nothing carbon-free about an electric bike any more so than there is a carbon-free human, which is Peter’s point.

  13. @Alex: I believe we’re making the same point, that all transportation devices produce carbon.

    However, I’m not sure which statement you find “absurd.” I don’t think it’s absurd to say that humans and cars have the same efficiency. I think that’s just a fact about the world.

    I agree with your point about the carbon footprint of cars and bicycles, but that’s not statement about efficiency. That’s a statement about energy use: bicycles use less energy (and pollute less) than cars. If somehow my body could push a two-ton machine down the road at 60 mph, I would pollute as much (or maybe more, given the high carbon cost of food) than a car.

    Too, I agree with your electric bike carbon-production assessment. But that wasn’t my point. Instead, my point was that electric bikes are probably the least polluting of all transportation devices. The production of their “fuel” — electricity — is less carbon heavy than the production of food:

  14. “I agree with your point about the carbon footprint of cars and bicycles, but that’s not statement about efficiency.”

    efficient : Making good, thorough, or careful use of resources; not consuming extra. Especially, making good use of time or energy; Using a particular proportion of available energy.

    Of course the issue is one of efficiency, the bicyclist has no need to lug an extra 2 tons around. There are certain advantages to that extra 2 tons, but if the goal is simply to move a person x number of miles, a bicycle will use the least amount of energy to do the task. I’m not sure I get how you are defining efficiency, or why you consider energy use a separate matter.

    I don’t doubt that electric assist bikes are very efficient machines, but just as different diets have different footprints as the article you point out notes, different electricity sources have different footprints as well. The production, recycling and replacement of batteries, which is not an issue on a standard bike, is another impact. To what extent this impact is, I am not entirely sure of, but unless I see some convincing research, I am not convinced electric bikes are less polluting than just riding a regular bike.

    Which is not to suggest I don’t think electric bikes are a potentially worthwhile invention, if they get people on a bike that otherwise wouldn’t be, I think that is a good thing. However their cost premium, heavier weight, and more complicated maintenance, I think make them less appealing for most people in enough physical shape to ride a typical bike at a decent pace.

  15. Ok I am probably the most inefficient cyclist out there. Regardless of how you define efficiency, I weigh more than 300 lbs and typically ride bicycles with a single speed. Summary: a fat man on a bmx is cycling innefficiecy at its finest (and sexiest I might add). I without a doubt eat quite a bit of food. I am always hungry. When I ride my pace varies but typically I do not ride slow. When I get somewhere my fatass is ready for some eats. But that is no different than any other day. I am always hungry, so whether I drive my car or ride my bike, when I get where I am going I am going to eat. The amount of food consumed does not change based on travel mode! You cannot tell me that my bike even compares to the amount of energy consumed by my car trip. On a bike I just feed my belly, on a car trip I have to feed the tank and the belly. I ride my bike for the same reason that I am going to eat that donut. Because they both make my life a little sweeter. Sometimes there just is not a quantitative explaination for why one makes a particular choice.

    The absurdity and backwards logic of this post is just intended to remind the readers that day to day human behavior is rarely defined by any level of quantitative analysis on the part of the person. The motivations for these bahaviors make about as much sense as a fat man on a bmx.

  16. @Gary:

    I think you’re spot on about the broad definition of efficiency. I may have been trying to contain it to one of its many meanings, that of the efficiency of an internal combustion engine. Neither of us is wrong, we’re just using the same word in different contexts.

    Your question about whether electric bikes consume less fuel than human-powered bikes may be answered by this short paper, which concludes:

    “Despite the intuitive sense that electric bikes would require more resources than regular bikes, life-cycle analysis shows that they actually consume 2-4 times less primary energy than human riders eating a conventional diet.”

    Of course, human-powered bicycles have other benefits as well — a big one is public health — which is why many of us want to see more of them on the road.

  17. “Exercise, sex, and namely cycling increase your chance of heart attack”. Dang.

  18. The environmental impact of human’s riding bikes or human’s riding electric bikes or electric bike’s riding humans, or human’s having sex are all pretty negligible next to the consumption of Escalade’s and Hummer 6.0s.

    And yet, Peter’s point that no matter what you do – ride a bike, eat out of your vegetable garden, or pour oil on your breakfast cereal (is there another kind?) – you’re not independent of everyone else, you’re not some man in the woods hewing his existence out with sweat and a hatchet, is well taken.

  19. I suck at apostrophes. See above for evidence.

  20. @Cory, love the post. If I have this right, I think that efficiency is the watchword here. If your mode choice has so negligible an effect on food intake, the energy required to self-power you over a distance is marginal compared to that required for daily processes – including digesting donuts!
    For a median-weight guy, that ride might stimulate the appetite because it’s a measurable energy drain. For a hyper-fit cyclist, I suppose, that ride wouldn’t bid a donut simply because of higher efficiency. Now somebody will let me know if I’m mistaken….

    I find that I enjoy riding for the simple reason you cited: it makes life sweeter. And I do eat a donut now and again, sure, but I’m also fairly efficient as a cyclist, I suspect. Oddly, riding doesn’t change my appetite. I do enjoy food more, though. (NB: Avoid jelly and eat whole wheat donuts. Supposed to release the energy more gradually!)

    Peter, I love the bike because I do feel embedded in the world. The breeze, the smells, the effort. Work is accomplished and I feel it. It’s not the destination but the journey, truly. I’m sure we all relate.

    And I’ve come to loathe driving because I simply feel stupid pushing a button to get somewhere. No work is accomplished. So, I’d rather take the bike. Or the stairs than a lift. I walk up escalators. Etc. I’m conscious of the moving of mass, too, but I like the feeling of accomplishment.

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