Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on May 3rd, 2010 at 9:23 am
(Photo: Amy McMullen)
[This article was written by Portland resident Sarah Gilbert, a professional writer who blogs at AOL's Daily Finance, CafeMama.com, and many other places. She's also known as the woman who got a local food chain to open up their drive-thrus to bicycles. When not writing, Gilbert is tending to her three young boys, whom she pedals around on her Xtracycle-equipped Electra Townie with a "One Less Minivan" sticker on it.]
"I no longer feel I must defend my choice to go by bike instead of car; instead, I feel I must hold it high, a banner of hope and, perhaps, victory over these heart-clogging disasters."
I was just a kid when the Exxon Valdez spilled its 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. Although I cried at the fate of marine birds, seals and fish left, oil-soaked and strewn across the beach for miles, I remember no sense of personal responsibility for the accident. There were plenty of people to blame: the captain who'd fallen asleep, the company officials who'd overlooked his drinking problem, the general greed of oil companies across the (modern) ages. Nor do I recall a popular sense of self-censure at the time, or during any of the much greater oil disasters throughout the late part of the 20th century.
(Photo: US Coast Guard)
The top ten oil spills of all time occurred in a stretch between 1978 and 1991, and collectively they average more than 100 million gallons each (although the outlier, a purposeful spill in Kuwait as defensive military strategy, was 520 million gallons alone).
The oil spill, err, "leak" in the Gulf of Mexico currently dominating headlines could lodge itself quite securely in the top 10. Scientists are estimating it's already at 10 million gallons, and recent news reports are that BP has no idea how to stop it; this spill could go on for months. Coming as it does with its 11 deaths, unknown but surely mind-blowing environmental damage, and on the heels of a devastating Massey Energy coal mine collapse in West Virginia that killed 25 and exposed some rather shocking allegations about the company's cozy (and illegal and unethical) relationship with regulators, my responsibility in this mess is choking me.
" It took me years -- five of them -- to shake my driving habit and my fancy SUV, but as I did it was always with a growing sense of fear and realization of some of the more destructive impacts of my once-bottomless appetite for oil and other sorts of cheap, combustible energy."
When I moved back to Portland from a decade on the East Coast in 2001, I brought with me a luxury SUV and a comfort level with driving only exacerbated by living, and commuting, in Northern Virginia for a few years. For much of that time I had been regularly spending 10 or 12 hours in a weekend on the wide interstate highways of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina, where I was always isolated but never alone. It took me years -- five of them -- to shake my driving habit and my fancy SUV, but as I did it was always with a growing sense of fear and realization of some of the more destructive impacts of my once-bottomless appetite for oil and other sorts of cheap, combustible energy.
My family gave up driving in 2006, and while I felt very keenly the link between the easy-peasy availability of cheap oil -- along with the permissive attitude toward coal mining and coal-burning power plants -- and the looming effects of global warming, it seemed as if people with the same attitude as I were few and painted with an extremist brush. What would it take for others to see how our attitudes toward driving (and ubiquitous plastic, water bottled and trucked around the globe, conventional agriculture, and other obscene uses of petroleum) were more sensible and caring, less radical and unforgivably left-wing?
Maybe it's this, these twin disasters for whom "tip of the iceberg" is at once too mild and too ironic a descriptor.
I -- the once-years-ago I -- feel personally responsible for the oil spewing out of the base of the ocean at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day, and I will ride my bicycle with my children and ever more firm a conviction that I do not now, or ever, need to have a hand in environmental disasters of the shocking (this) and less obvious (the slow wend of climate change) variety. Yes, riding a bike instead of driving is just a small part of mending the rent we've torn in the planet; but it's an important and integral part, a symbol that is both a central part of one's lifestyle and a lovely, extravagant foundation for a slower life.
I no longer feel I must defend my choice to go by bike instead of car; instead, I feel I must hold it high, a banner of hope and, perhaps, victory over these heart-clogging disasters. For me, riding a bike is about affirming life, of people now and to come, of marine birds, sea mammals, oysters, estuaries, the planet. Will these disasters open more eyes as wide as mine? I wonder.