Professor Soukwan Chan taught me only one class while I was back in Concordia, but without knowing it, he would be one of the most influential teachers I’d ever have. It was an Urban Studies class, and though I didn’t even get a great grade in that class, he encouraged me to take what I learned and to develop my own ideas from them. He was one of the few teachers that I’d met at the university who genuinely encouraged thinking out of the box. I suppose if your major is English literature with a minor in philosophy, most professors by default want you to think backwads in time father than forward, but Soukwan’s field was not only in a very progressive subject but he was also a revolutionary in his own way.
It was with his help that I wrote a paper that caught the attention of NRCAN, a government environmental agency based out of Ottawa, and I got a cash prize along with two-way tickets and board to the Chateau Laurier where I’d give a presentation on alternative transportation models. The cash prize of that was in turn used as the startup capital for RsM.
I think that ever since elementary school, with the discovery of things like all those catchy environmental fads like “reduce, reuse and recycle” or the dangers of CFCs, we all have always had a bit of a green-minded line to put on the resumes to appease that mandatory socially fashionable green-friendliness. I’m not a militant environmentalist– I don’t go around chaining myself to trees or driving my boat in front harpoon canons– but I do think that the modern urban model, both from a geographic and socioeconomic perspective, can use a lot of work from the bottom up.
I say that there are definately environmental fads. Sure, we recycle– but we also live in an age where people subscribe to the absolutely ridiculous practice of buying bottled water. Sure, we no longer use air conditioners that give of CFCs, but the gratuitous use of air conditioning in buildings and vehicles has incresed environmental impact because of increased power needs. Basically, when it comes to saying we’re green, we’re hipocrites.
But, really that’s okay.
No really, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s okay that we’re being hipocrites because these sorts of things are only measured in terms of an arbitrary standard of what’s considered right and wrong. Yes, everything has consequences– and a dying planet might seem like a pretty bad one– but you know, from some peoples’ perspectives, maybe it’s a good thing?
Take smoking, for example. Back when cigarettes first came out, people did notice “you know, I’ve been having breathing problems lately” but they chose to ignore them. Nowadays, because the problem has gone past a critical point, we’ve now got the concrete evidence that links certain behaviors to certain consequences. The way we treat the environment is the same– no amount of half ass consequences will do it, as many people in Washington an Ottawa will tell you, “global warming is a myth”– so maybe all this green living is really all just badly timed.
Think of it this way– for every extra unit of energy you spend out of your life saving the enviroment, that’s one more unit of energy that someone else doesn’t have to save– it’s one more unit of effort that they can use to claim that ‘there isn’t really a problem.’ Basically, you’re being a sucker.
On the other hand if you could only just accelerate the process of bringing the real consequences instead of preventing them, then we’ll learn faster. Take a look at how much we learned from the events of Hiroshima.
Regardless, in the grand picture of things, I’m still someone who has my own beleifs about the way things should be done. I just don’t necessarily press these beliefs on others. A few of the concerns I’ve always had were related to the issues of urban sprawl, especially when it comes to transportation related issues. I won’t go into details about just what sprawl it is, I’m sure you can read up a wiki. What I would like to explain is that I’m readjusting my life in ways that align with my beliefs, which I couldn’t while I still living with my parents.
Here are some of the changes, that arise simply because I’m on a bike:
- I don’t have a driver’s license. But, I have gone from a lifestyle of getting rides and taking public transportation to using a bicycle or my running shoes to get everything done. There are local businesses literally minutes away, and even Chinatown where I might need speciality goods, which is about 25 minutes away on bike at the opposite end of downtown Montreal, is still accessible. It doesn’t sound like much I suppose, but going from a lifestyle of cars and public transport is really different when suddenly you’re operating on just two wheels.
- Being on a bike means I’m no longer buying in bulk like I used to when I lived with my family, for two reasons: firstly, I can’t carry it all; secondly, I can’t eat it in time. Is that a bad thing? Not really– it means I’m getting out of the house more often and buying fresher ingredients rather than stocking up preserved or frozen things all the time.
- I don’t need a gym membership because frankly, biking everywhere or carrying my groceries with my own two hands is plenty of exercise. It also happens to be free. Unless you’re seriously training with very specific results in mind, there are very few results that you can get in a gym that you couldn’t get some oldschool kungfu “carry 50 gallons of water around the mountains” way. It’s always struck me as a bit bizzare that we make this social distinction between “working out” and “developing pratical strength.” Or, you know– being able to run 20 minutes on a treadmill, but tripping and falling when you have to sprint after a bus.
- I don’t waste as much time commuting as I used to. Before I moved out, on a workday I’d spend typically between an hour and a half and two hours commuting. If it was a ‘going out’ day, I’d spend easily over two hours if I hadn’t coordinated myself with buses. Nowadays, a workday commute takes me 30 minutes total, and a ‘going out day’ adds about ten minutes to that, assuming that I’m heading out to opposite end of Montreal.
- Honestly, not being in vehicle really opens up your connection to a city. I’m not just talking about potholes in the road. I’m talking about your sensation of everything around you, from the sounds of the city to the chill of rain. Being in a vehicle with the music on has this gloss-over effect that I think contributes to an increasing sense of dispondency.
- A bicycle isn’t like a car for several obvious reasons. An understanding of mechanics is one of them. While it is possible to really appreciate the inner workings of a car, which is something my dad brought me up with, our relation to a bicycle is a lot more intimate if we want it to be because we can really make our bike work the way we want it to. You can tighten this, loosen that, and the feeling of how it handles will change dramatically. It doesn’t always cost money to customize a bike either.
- Riding a bicycle also gives you a much greater sense of road responsibility. It’s really easy to drive an SUV in the sense that any mistakes you make will have little except financial consequences. Drive a Hummer and you’re pretty much on top of a food chain where you are basically invincible on the road. But that kind of power, what kind of responsibility does it come with? What did we do to earn that kind of firepower? Nothing, really. I’m not talking about how much you’re willing to pay for the vehicle… I mean, what says that you’re responsible enough to drive something that dangerous? Nothing, except that everyone else knows you’ve got a 5 star safety rating, so in the grand spirit of Cold War everybody gets the same 5 star cars. Riding a bike is different– you can die. I will be the first to admit that many cyclists out there don’t know a thing about it, but for me, one of the paramount principles of the road is respect. I don’t even mean road courtesy. I mean respect, the same way you would respect a gun, or a kitchen knife, or a power tool. Respect, because it’s dangerous, and by seeing the kinds of effects the tools and their users have on the lives of others, one can hopefully learn to develop a sense of connection to the environment and life around us.
- Which brings me to my last point. Riding is dangerous. I don’t do things simply because they are dangerous, but I think that engaging in activities with risks teaches me a great deal about how to ‘keep it real.’
I guess overall, the lessons I get out of all of this is that living truly has something to do with taking the safeties and autopilot off.