Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Enjoy the alternatives to cars

Do something great for the environment that has nothing to do with pretzel-shaped light bulbs, new bushes on the South side of your home, flip-flops made from recycled tires, or tabulating food miles.

In your next conversation with a friend or family member about the price of gasoline, mention in passing that you LOVE the new prices.

Really.

If we bike more, use trains more, avoid airplanes more, and walk more, we will enjoy life more.

What fun, you may ask, is there in riding a crowded subway train, as more and more people are reluctantly doing lately? Tons! The other day, I looked around for a strange human muttering or humming sound, barely audible above the screeching rails. "Person in need of medication?," I wondered. Not at all. It was a small man sitting squished against larger strangers, with his eyes peacefully closed, quietly singing some kind of chant, perhaps Tibetan or Central Asian. The small number of people within listening distance broke the silly urban taboo against making eye contact and enjoyed the rest of our ride communally, as our singer gently guided our thoughts out from the subway tumult and toward the divine.

Yesterday, after biking the mile and a half to Alewife station, I was told before boarding that the line was shut down altogether for a while, due to fire department activity at a later station, and everybody would have to wait in line for a bus shuttle. That's the worst thing about public transport, right? After getting back on my bike, instead of the shuttle, and riding along the Charles River in the morning sunlight to my office downtown, I wished I had time to keep riding. When was the last time you parked your car at your work in the morning and wished you could do the journey again?

My family of four, including children now aged six and seven, just finished about fifteen months of a low-car-use discipline (described in an earlier post and in the Boston Globe suburban edition last year), where we marked a calendar in red for each day that we didn't use our one beat up old Honda. We ended up using the car about 12 days a month, and even then mostly for short trips. The kids are accustomed to walking or biking to school, church, friends' houses, sports practice and games. We saved not just on gasoline and auto maintenance, but also got a 5% discount from our car insurer due to low mileage.

At a conference of activists this spring, I attended a session on the food system and global warming. As participants brainstormed a long list of things the sustainable food movement could do to address global warming, I suggested, "Speak well of high gasoline prices." The suggestion was a dud. Even organic farmers must pay for fuel, and it is hard to like high prices. It is challenging to shift our attention beyond the income effect of a price increase, and instead focus on the wise signal the new price sends to millions of resource decision makers throughout the economy. To take just one example, high fuel prices annoy the environmentally sustainable farmer, but they really sting for an industrial farmer. The high prices improve the competitive position of the sustainable farmer.

If the world's best scientists are right, the lifestyle changes that people are making this year, in the face of high gasoline prices, are essential to the future environment for our children and their children. But the scientists cannot say whether that low-fossil-fuels future is tolerable or bleak. That decision depends not so much on science, but on our attitude.

The trick to maintaining a constant gasoline budget, even in the face of new prices, is to reduce gasoline use. The fun challenge is to reduce gasoline use, and yet find yourself living more richly.

1 comment:

Janet said...

Great post, and I couldn't agree more. I tend to agree quietly, though. I'll think about speaking up, especially in the face of all the just plain whining about gas prices.