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Emission of Defeat

October 25, 2009

Alas, I am sorry to admit that this week has been a bit of an eco-failure.

For weeks now Austin and I have tried a variety of environmentally friendly projects–from shopping at the farmer’s market to

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recycling our waste–completing each one with a certain level of success.  This week was supposed to be no different: I planned to have a day where Austin and I only used public transportation, bikes, and our own two feet to get around in order to learn more about sustainable transportation.

It is no surprise that transportation causes 29% of all U.S. greenhouse gases and is the largest source of CO2 emissions.  When Henry Ford created the assembly line, he also created an insatiable American lust for the automobile and all it represents: independence, freedom, convenience and status.

And I suppose it is that lust that got the better of us this week.  Despite our efforts to walk and ride the bus more, we drove our cars every single day. How did we become so utterly dependent on our cars?  Though we had a local bus system and we both lived within walking distance of campus, why did we still choose to drive?

Independence and Freedom: Like most American teens, Austin and I considered receiving our license a rite of passage.  Your first car is a symbol of adulthood and independence, a literal move away from your parents.  Driving a car allows us to go where we want, when we want without asking for someone else’s help. We have the freedom to come and go as we please, without having to abide by a bus schedule.

Convenience: In a car-oriented society such as ours, it is no surprise that our cities are designed to be car-friendly and focused.  Wide lanes leave no room for bike lanes and urban sprawl makes walking an unreasonable choice when you’re in a hurry.

Status: I once made the mistake of suggesting that Austin get a Prius.  “Janie,” he said, “I’ve always driven an SUV and I’ll always drive an SUV.  I know that they may be bad for the environment, but I don’t care.  It’s one of those things I just won’t give up.” Driving a car, specifically an SUV, is part of Austin’s personal identity.  To him, that identity is simply more important than any CO2 or greenhouse gas emission.

So how do we get ourselves to use more sustainable forms of transportation?  How do we overcome the advantages of driving, remember its environmental impacts, and find alternatives that have advantages for both us and the earth?

And are there simply things we won’t replace, even though they are unsustainable?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2009 2:19 am

    I had to take a deep breath before writing this comment. I had to erase my comment several times as it made me ache to see how many are in the same boat as Austin, using material things to define oneself no matter what the consequences to the environment. And it brings up the question that is even deeper, about humanity in general – why do people let the media’s idea of who we should be and what we should want control our decisions and how we feel about ourselves?

    I’m also curious about where you live and what kind of efforts are being made (not just by others but personally) to make your area more bike, pedestrian, and transit friendly. While your post comments about the difficulties of getting around on two wheels or two legs in cities, your post also states that it wasn’t that difficult to get to campus, etc., yet you made the conscious decision to not walk or bike.

    Not all cities make it difficult – it depends on its citizens and what they demand of their elected officials and participate in the process. Here in the Pacific Northwest, our two biggest cities put a portion of our budget toward increasing sustainability including biking and pedestrian options. Zipcar ( is available in a large number of cities around the US as well. As someone who is car-free (not car-less), I found getting rid of my car to be a great thing. No payment, no gas, no insurance, no pollution. I ride my bike to work each day (10 miles roundtrip), to the grocery store, and out to meet friends. Bus and feet help as well, and my Zipcar membership fills in when I need to go pick up heavy items. And I can always rent a hybrid if I want to get away for the weekend to somewhere that Amtrak doesn’t serve. Also a LOT of people in this country get along without a car because they simply can’t afford it – keeping a car in NYC for example makes a giant portion of the population dependent on the subways, etc. And those dependent on public transportation do something that car-centric folks often don’t do – they make sure they live near public transportation, biking, or walking options. When I bought my house, I told my agent I wouldn’t look at anything that would leave me stranded if I didn’t have a car. This is not to say ‘ooh look how cool I am’ but rather to show that it can be done.

    And I’ll toss this in there – once you start riding your bike and getting your body used to it, you’ll notice a lot of benefits. For me? 1) No gym membership – I lost 20 lbs the first few months I started bike commuting. 2) It’s faster than the bus into downtown for me by 15 minutes! 3) The adrenaline kick from riding is amazing – the clean air, the freedom, the wind in your hair, and knowing that you got there with human power, not non-renewable oil from the Middle East. Biking is as patriotic as it gets. Both biking and walking also allow you to slow down and notice your neighborhood, get to know your neighbors, and be a more conscious member of your community instead of locked up inside your car away from the rest of the world. Aren’t we alone enough in our blocked off worlds full of internet, ipods, video games, etc?

    So this comment is not meant to offend but rather meant to act as a challenge to everyone reading to broaden their mindset – rather than say what we won’t do, how about we encourage steps to take towards a more environmentally focused mindset? i.e., if he doesn’t want to get rid of his SUV, how about starting out by trading the gas guzzler in for a Ford Escape Hybrid SUV?

    Every single thing we do in life is a choice, and the more we recognize this fact, the more we have the opportunity to find flexibility in what we do and see that the world won’t end and our personality won’t have to change just because we act more environmentally responsible. Let’s celebrate what we have done and keep pushing each other to go to the next step.

    PS – remember how we used to pack into sedans with our families growing up, now every soccer mom thinks she needs a minivan or SUV because nothing else is big enough or safe enough? Neither existed when I was growing up and we seemed to make it to school and practice and on road trips just fine. Just because it exists doesn’t mean we should….

    Sorry about the length of the comment but your post definitely inspired thought and discussion and I thank you 🙂

    • janiec52 permalink
      October 27, 2009 12:43 pm

      I appreciate your comment very much and it in turn has made me think more about my personal decisions and the reasoning behind them. My post makes it sound as if Austin and I are heavily dependent on cars. Though we do use them for a large part of our transportation, most days we walk or take the bus to school. The University of Kansas campus is car-free during school hours so a lot of people take the bus to school or simply walk because buying a parking pass is really expensive. Having this system in place propels a lot of people to choose the more sustainable (and cheap) option.

      Unfortunately, not every campus nor every city has a system in place that encourages people to take the bus, walk, or ride their bikes. Having the infrastructure in place is a very important part of the equation.

      I liked what you said about riding your bike as a therapeutic way to get outside, exercise, and get places at the same time. Though I’m guilty of this, I think its so ironic that people drive to the gym, try to find the closest parking spot, and then go inside to work out. If you’re trying to exercise, why wouldn’t you ride your bike or run to the gym or just park further away?

      Austin and I discussed your comment the other day. Thanks for sharing with us the different programs that other cities have in place to make commuting more sustainable. Again, I appreciate your comment very much!

  2. Danny Smyl permalink
    October 26, 2009 12:37 am

    It seems that your articles all lead to the same interesting question: Where do we draw the line between human wants and natures “right” to endure?

    Well, we can shallowly look at the issue in terms of “sustainability” -whatever that is supposed to imply- to evaluate man’s capacity to pollute without permanent consequence. The problem with sustainability is that “the ability to endure” is defined subjectively. We might say that maintaining watersheds is a “sustainable” practice; realistically, a watershed will fill with silt in a matter or decades. Additionally, we could say that polluting a river to its carrying capacity is “sustainable,” but by “green” terms that is a falsity.

    Loose definitions destroy our ability to QUANTITATIVELY (hence, correctly) observe our impact on the Earth and predict what we can do to live within the chemical tolerances of our environment. So, to answer your question regarding what I will replace in order to help the environment: I will not do anything until I am certain that my actions are significantly harming future generation’s ability to live happily. Of course, there have been many cases where our actions have been conclusively proven a detriment to nature (CFC’s, solid waste dumping, low drinking water standards).

    We must take a deeper look into what, scientifically, our actions are doing to our environment. The most controversial issue is, of course, global warming. This is, for me, a very unsettling topic because these is NO conclusive evidence pointing in ANY conclusive direction on this matter. Simply believing that if we “reduce our carbon footprint” we lower “Global Climate Change” is foolish (you wouldn’t jump off a bridge because your friends did it). American’s (as of October 22, 2009) seem to agree with me, only 57% of average Americans believe there is significant evidence to suggest that our actions raise global temperature (77% of Americans believed our actions made the earth warmer in 2006). Of course this trend is roughly linear, and by 2010 we’ll probably be below 40%.

    So, should we neglect ourselves of the things that make our lives enjoyable for the sake of, maybe, helping the environment? No. We should live within our individual means and wait for SCIENCE to tell us what we need to do.

  3. Austin permalink
    October 26, 2009 12:40 am

    I’d just like add on to my quote in Janie’s post and explain the reasoning behind my unwavering devotion to SUVs. My family owns a construction business that demands vehicles with immense hauling capacities. Interestingly enough, our way of life is centered around large pickup trucks and I was raised with the mindset of “bigger is better.” I worked for my parent’s company for many years and they appreciated when I had a vehicle that could assist in carrying tools and parts to the job site. A truck or an SUV was a necessity, and I chose the latter of the two.

    Since I’m now in college and the need for a large capacity hauler no longer exists, I’m definitely considering switching to a vehicle that gets better gas mileage and isn’t so harsh on our environment. Due to my upbringing I’ve become attached to SUVs, and while that may never change, I will definitely look into the new hybrid lines that GMC has been releasing recently for my next purchase.

    • Danny Smyl permalink
      October 29, 2009 8:17 am

      Austin, GMC’s hybrid SUVs are great. Even the 2009 Yukon gets 22 mpg “in city driving'” which is pretty awesome for a typical “gas guzzler.” In fact, the 2009 Yukon has the same fuel efficiency as my Tacoma.

      Regarding your comment “Bigger is Better:” you are absolutely correct, in the construction world we need large trucks that are capable of transporting heavy loads. Unfortunately, for the CO2 conscience person, the relationship between torque in a vehicle and gas consumption (equivalently, CO2 emission) are exponentially proportional (that is, as power increases c02 emission increases as the square).

  4. Daniel Morin permalink
    December 15, 2009 4:55 pm

    The Global Warming theory was funded by politicians, and therefore its “scientific” value remains questionable. For instance, this is how the United Nations answers a question regarding ClimateGate: (Armed Response to ‘Climategate’ question).

    A couple of other videos worth to watch: (ClimateGate Who’s Who) (Obama Top Climate Change advisor was discredited for his hockey-stick theory) (Learn what Global Warming Peer Review is about)

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