Generational Descent

Wednesday, 1st July 2009 at 8:00 UTC 16 comments

Ours (by which I mean those under 30 now) is probably the first generation in a position to not just adjust our lifestyles to cut carbon emissions, but to make a choice never to cause certain emissions in the first place. I’ve been wondering recently about the ways in which young people could be encouraged to take advantage of this.

With most addictive activities, the biggest mistake is seen by most recovered addicts as having been starting. Once one starts, it becomes harder to accept the benefits of stopping. And so it is with flying, or perhaps even driving. I suppose its possibly different for different people. I certainly struggle with the idea that I should stop eating meat and dairy, but for my friends who were blessed to grow up in veggie families, its obviously easier to move to full veganism as it would be for me (or if it isn’t, my point is still made, in as much as its easier to justify not changing to ones self).

I can certainly imagine that once one gets behind the wheel it becomes more and more tempting to drive instead of cycle or walk in less and less justifiable situations. Sure, I’d love to have the option when its raining to hop inside a car, but then if I got that far, would I maybe drive when it was cold? Or when it seemed too hot? Or I just couldn’t be bothered?

There’s got to be a bunch of other areas where we might want to start on the right foot, but the point is basically that in each case, setting out at the start of life committed to avoiding those emissions is very different to make a leap part way through. Its a different processes completely to cutting something out. I suppose its arguable that as one reaches maturity, one’s carbon debt becomes one’s own responsibility, and so it again provides a unique chance to start out getting things right. Its something which could be used powerfully.

But its also not something I’d promote lightly, as it bares something of a similarity in my mind to one of the things I find most detestable in Western Christianity; that infernal “Ring Thing”, the chastity ring concept/movement, what ever you want to call it. I do think there’s something potentially bad about getting teenagers to sign pledges declaring what they will and won’t do. But I suppose with students, its a bit different, though there’s still room for peer-pressure to become a problem.

Then come other questions, like what actually counts as the problem level for a situation? Is it a crime to learn to drive (maybe a ton of carbon), or to own a car (25 ton of carbon just to build the thing)? What about those heading towards an area of work which currently requires a car? Yes, community health practices need to drastically change (indeed, the whole health industry needs evaluating, but that’s another issue) but is it a good thing for people to boycott such careers just because of the strain they might currently put on the planet? I wouldn’t want anyone to feel bad about driving an ambulance, but I do think they should live near the ambulance station and cycle or walk to work.

And positives? I know I often place a little too much effort on cycling, and how young people get into bad habits in this area, but its worth examining. With kids still generally riding mountain bikes, which are too clunky to really get any distance on, how do we shift the conception of the bike as a way of getting to school when one is to young to drive onto an understanding of the bike as a primary means of transport? Is it unfair to demand that young people commit to cycling on all journeys of under 10 miles where they don’t walk? Is this maybe a bit of a bad demand when some young people are unable to cycle for perfectly valid medical/physical reasons? And do we want young people to grow up thinking buses are for old people (which incidentally is how its starting to appear)?

Maybe someone can turn this around and make it into a decent proposal. Perhaps the answer is some kind of pledge, or perhaps its just generally educating young people about the decisions they need to make now so as not to have to make different decisions later. Either way, its important to recognise that, as the world tries to kick the carbon habit, for some people, the option of not starting is available and therefore should be encouraged. Innovation is definitely needed.


Entry filed under: Activism, Climate Change, Environment, Participation, Politics, Sustainability, Youth.

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16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. misterbunbury  |  Wednesday, 1st July 2009 at 10:12 UTC

    Mountain bikes aren’t actually that bad around at least some cities. In Sheffield, the combination of bad roads (yes, really, worse than other places) and steep hills made the combination of bombproof wheels, wide handlebars, good brakes and low gears quite sensible. However, that’s slightly beside the point.

    A problem with cycling is that it’s still seen as a child’s toy – to be ditched when you’re a grownup and can graduate to a proper mode of transport ie a car (what a wonderful marketing coup for the motor manufacturers!). Consequently, nobody sees fit to invest time in learning how to maintain a bike, or invest more than a tenner on a decent pump. Their kids then end up riding bikes with deflated tyres, badly adjusted brakes and a few other things wrong as well, and cycling isn’t a pleasurable experience for them, so the kids are put off. It broke my heart to see kids undergoing their bikeability training (much better than the old cycling proficiency) at a local primary school then riding home on the pavement with their parents afterwards.

    You’re certainly right that we’re addicted to petrol. Just like a drug, it skews our reasoning: we overlook the costs in time, energy and money of running a car, but concentrate on the costs of doing anything else. Just yesterday, I had someone tell me that they ‘need’ their car to get just over 3 miles to work, because they’re not fit enough to bike it. They don’t have any major disability, but it seems never to have occurred to them how much they’d save out of their (low) wages if they ditched the car, how much more they’d then be able to do and how they’d then free up time to do some exercise and get fit enough to ride the 3 miles to work. [bangs head against wall]

    As it happens, this person made other excuses as well, but it seemed to me that they were exactly that – excuses. The problem was that my friend was unable to conceive of living without a car, the idea was a strange, scary other world to them. So it is with many people and it isn’t helped by the fact that cyclists are seen as a race apart, wrapped either in cotton woll dayglo and helmets or else in lycra. I try to counter this by appearing normal when I’m riding round town (no helmet or dayglo if possible) but unfortunately can’t use this tactic with my friends anymore, as I definitely count among the slightly nutty and superhuman enthusiasts category in a lot of their minds these days. I have a hard time persuading them that I was the weenie, unfit asthmatic kid at school, and that cycling somewhere really is a feasible option for everyone, and much easier than walking it.

    Another friend keeps insisting that they won’t cycle on the roads because it’s far too dangerous, especially without proper cycle lanes. No amount of presenting them with the bald facts, that cycle lanes are *more* dangerous than the main carriageway and that cycling *isn’t* any more dangerous than lots of things we do every day, will convince my friend. But then, lots of people never pay any attention to evidence, but need a culture shift to convince them. [bangs head against wall again]

    I’m rambling, I totally agree with the addiction analogy, and people are going to have to get used to the idea of living more locally if they don’t want to expend effort traveling every day. Aircraft are another story, and one I expect to be challenged on for multiple reasons in the next few years. However, I really need to get on and do something useful now!

    • 2. Graham Martin  |  Sunday, 5th July 2009 at 17:13 UTC

      I think one thing worth looking at here is speed. Do people feel cycling is a quick mode of transport. Observation tells me that most people even in York seem to disagree, and that’s just the ones on bikes! Given I’m usually travelling twice as fast as everyone else on the roads (except the racers, who I tuck behind for extra speed) I’m not surprised people think 3 miles would take twice as long by bike.

      My impression from cycling to work has been that, actually, it will take much less time, as long as I am committed to the idea of building and maintaining speed. 10 mph is a good speed for Critical Mass, but not for riding around a city, when 15 will get you exercised for the day.

  • 3. Lois  |  Wednesday, 1st July 2009 at 13:06 UTC

    Possibly a good start would be to persuade those in power that public transport is a valid area to spend money in- on improving rolling stock, infrastructure, frequency and coverage, rather than seeing it as an area that has to justify its’ keep by making money (witness the current East Coast main line debacle). Some areas of public transport just won’t make money, but need to be there to serve the community nevertheless.

    And to take slight issue with the post above, I don’t think that the image of cycling is quite that bad these days. One thing I’ve noticed that I think does need to change is the perception- in the eyes of employers and older adults in general- that having a car is a sign of being properly grown up.

    And I do think that cycling is somewhat more dangerous because you’re more vulnerable than you are in a car. The same is true of pedestrians. Especially if you’re not confident, or not used to it, and that is how everyone has to start.

    I’ve said before, I think, that both of you can over-simplify the situation sometimes, but I think Graham’s post was pretty fair in considering the reasons people might have for using cars. But I’d also like to say that being able to drive- having that skill- doesn’t necessarily mean one has to use it all the time, or mean that someone inevitably will give up all other forms of transport.

    And ‘misterbunbury’ perhaps if you actually discussed things with people and listened to their concerns- which may not be the same as your priorities- rather than simply arguing and trying to push your point of view you might have more success. Sorry, that’s probably rude, but I’m not in a mood for being polite at the moment.

  • 4. stephen  |  Wednesday, 1st July 2009 at 13:56 UTC

    i dont think the pledge to save the enviroment will work unless you get them when theyre about 7 where they’ll remember it but wont know what they’re doing, it would become a part of theire life in a simmilar way to a new years resolution.

    with reference to the castady rings; they’re a promis before god so to a teenager its like a promis to a parent you cant disapoint. how the concept could work in the context of the enviroment i dont know.

    nice idea like to see it take off

  • 5. misterbunbury  |  Wednesday, 1st July 2009 at 14:02 UTC

    Don’t worry Lois, this was a discussion. I’ll say in my usual grumpy old man fashion that if anything, I was the one being most reasonable. However, all the bile I held back was eating away at my stomach so I wanted somewhere to have a good grumble, and where better than here?

    You’re right that cycling is more dangerous than car driving, insofar as motorists have a fatality rate of 0.3 deaths per hundred million kilometers and the figure for cyclists is 3.4, but to put that into perspective, being a pedestrian is even more dangerous, with a fatality rate of 4.4 deaths per hundread million kilometers (source: ) I know you said this, but the problem is that while nobody minds walking somewhere in their normal clothes, cycling is still perceived as an especially dangerous activity, not to be undertaken under any circumstances and especially not without protective cotton wool gear. The irony is that these people are driven back into their cars out of fear, and then proceed to make the roads a whole lot more dangerous by driving around everywhere.

    The image of cycling isn’t as bad as it used to be, although York is still one of the most cycled places in the country and so unfortunately not quite representative. However, you’re right that owning a car is still a sign of being a proper adult…what a coup for the motor manufacturers! If someone has enough money but doesn’t have a car, you should start looking for the beard, the sandals, the Guardian newspaper and the hash pipe. Or something like that.

    Finally, yes yes and yes again about investment in public transport. Roads don’t pay their way, so why should anything else?!

  • 6. tiggs  |  Wednesday, 1st July 2009 at 17:46 UTC

    What about rural villages?

    Just a thought….

    • 7. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 1st July 2009 at 18:15 UTC

      I did wonder if someone might mention this, and indeed, its a big hole in the idea, and a very reasonable thing to mention. I wonder if saying “I won’t own a car by myself” might not be a good plan. But then, what about farmer’s kids, stuck a mile from anyone with whom to share a car, other than family? Yes, these are indeed good questions…

    • 8. kaerast  |  Thursday, 2nd July 2009 at 19:39 UTC

      We should all be living in rural villages and be sustainable enough to not need to travel beyond a couple of villages. Trading would happen at a much more localised level, and we can reserve longer distance travel for moving goods around that can’t be produced locally.

      I was about to put a disclaimer that I knew it wouldn’t work in the real world, but actually, why not? A few years ago I lived next door to a man in a caravan who hardly ever left the village, he sold his eggs and dog training experience for the food which he couldn’t get from his smallholding, and was the happiest man I knew (although that may have something to do with living on an important ley line). Sure it might not work for all of us, but it is a workable lifestyle.

      • 9. Graham Martin  |  Friday, 3rd July 2009 at 13:26 UTC

        I’m sure that BrainDuck would have say something like this, but as she’s off line right now, I’m going to say something she might well agree closely with.

        The problem comes when you look at areas like health services. Yes, a Doctor can trade experience for food, if everyone has enough extra food to share. But a hospital typically has so much technology that requires so many people and so much energy to make, that to drop to the level of living you mention is all well and good, but how are we going to sustain the health care services we currently have?

        As soon as people start getting ill, which they will, things get a lot more complex, and people need to be freed up to go and work in labs and hospitals in areas too specialised to bring to the local community, and in areas where transnational-research efforts are inevitable (though flying must be cut down in academia, don’t get me wrong on that one!).

  • 10. Lois  |  Thursday, 2nd July 2009 at 15:26 UTC

    Never thought I’d hear you, ‘misterbunbury’ of all people encouraging people not to wear cycling helmets…but yes, I see your point. I certainly don’t consider cycling prohibitevely dangerous in normal circumstances.

    • 11. Graham Martin  |  Thursday, 2nd July 2009 at 17:09 UTC

      Does that mean we’ll see the one or other of you on Critical Mass on Friday evening? I was slow on publicity, so any extra help would be appreciated.

  • 12. misterbunbury  |  Thursday, 2nd July 2009 at 18:29 UTC

    Lois, my views have changed. I’m fed up with the stupid amount of victim blaming that goes on, and am worried that we’re drifting ever closer to compulsion. This is bad not only because there’s no decent evidence that the things actually work in collisions with other vehicles, but also because it shifts responsibility (and therefore the motivation to actually do something about the problem) onto the small and vulnerable, and away from those who actually cause the danger.

  • 13. Jon Searles  |  Friday, 3rd July 2009 at 15:07 UTC

    Misterbunbury…I’ve had one friend whose life was saved by a helmet….when it was broken on the bumper of a truck. She ended up in traction, though, and if she had been slightly less lucky she would have broken her back and been paralysed or killed, and there wouldn’t have been anything the helmet would have done. Most places in the U.S. now require children to wear helmets…..and ride in the street. Splat. That’s why the fatalities are so much higher for cyclists than for motorists. Bikes aren’t allowed a place to crash with other bikes. 🙂 They also have to ditch the cars, I agree. If the streets were for everyone that would be a better solution, it’s just that most drivers seem to oppose the use of streets for anything but cars.

    Graham…..I’m not sure if I have a comment on this quote…

    “Ours (by which I mean those under 30 now) is probably the first generation in a position to not just adjust our lifestyles to cut carbon emissions, but to make a choice never to cause certain emissions in the first place.”

    🙂 🙂 🙂 The wording is just too good to be true. Good writer or not, I think you have definitely had very good luck today. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • 14. Graham Martin  |  Sunday, 5th July 2009 at 17:02 UTC

      By way of saving an argument, Jon, Mr Bunbury was also saved by his helmet when he wrote off a Volvo. This is why Lois is so surprised at him.

      • 15. Greg  |  Monday, 20th July 2009 at 15:31 UTC

        Graham, I’d take issue both with you and with John here, bu since this is two weeks old, watch my blog for a response.

      • 16. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 20th July 2009 at 20:30 UTC

        Feel free to comment here, its not like the debates moved on, I’m sure.

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