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Friday Opinion: Advocacy groups should do more to leverage oil anxiety

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on June 18th, 2010 at 8:56 am

[Publisher's note: I've got a lot of opinions, but it's perilous for me to try and weave them into the daily news stories here. So I'm going to try and start writing them up, once a week, in the form of the Friday Opinion column. Here goes...]

Seen on Mississippi Ave.
over the weekend.
(Photo © J. Maus)

With the ongoing and depressing (on many levels) disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I've been wondering -- why aren't bike non-profits doing more to seize the moment and turn anger about the oil spill into more support for biking?

The main criticism of President Obama's recent speech was that he didn't grab hold of us and offer up a tangible way we could turn our anxiety about the spill into action. He spoke of "now" being the moment to do something to make it less likely this will ever happen again.

Something like, say, ride a bike more often?

Yet, not only did Obama squander a perfect opportunity to bolster his own Transportation Secretary's rhetoric about biking and walking, but far as I can tell, big city and national level bike and active transportation advocacy organizations haven't used the disaster to their advantage either.

This is the top news story right now (and has been for weeks) and bikes are a perfectly positioned solution to help ween our country off oil. Seems to me like now would be a great time for action alerts, mailers, and campaigns to raise money and get more people to consider biking.

While I understand that the "environmental argument" for biking (or anything for that matter) is limited, this Oil Disaster is bigger than just another argument. Think of the behavior change spurred by the '70s gas crisis and the high prices at the pump in the summer of 2008.

Yet despite this advocacy opportunity, of all the organizations I get mail from, only one of them has mentioned the Gulf Oil Disaster. The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) sent me a letter in the mail the other day that read in part:

"The catastrophic oil spill currently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is just the first wave of what could become an ecological tsunami unless America and the rest of the world learn to reduce our dependence on cars."

And then the simple shout out for action:

"Fortunately there are practical solutions at our fingertips."

The letter than went on to say how the ITDP was working to help build bike networks around the globe, including a bike-share system in Mexico City. Nice work ITDP, but where are all the other orgs at?

People for Bikes, the newly launched campaign backed by Bikes Belong, wants to build the bike constituency by getting one million people to sign a pledge in support of biking. It seems like this would be a perfect thing for them to use in an email blast or other creative campaign, yet there's no mention of it on their website.

Maybe I'm just missing something, but if professional advocates want bikes to be a part of the national conversation around future energy and oil policy, they've got to make more noise about this.

Have you heard of any Gulf Oil Disaster related campaigns form bike organizations you're a member of? Do you think using this national catastrophe would be a good advocacy strategy? I'd love to know your thoughts.

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  • Matthew June 18, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Only thing I've seen is the new graphic on the River City Bikes homepage: a silhouette of an oil rig with the text "The only thing that leaks on a bike is air." I agree, the lack of advocacy group action is puzzling.

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  • Anonymous June 18, 2010 at 9:12 am

    I think it wouldn't be inappropriate for bicycling advocacy organizations to seize the moment, but I also think that biking as a form of transport has more to do with habit--with getting into the habit--than with encouragement from a national organization.
    I think people on some level know that more biking and less driving would be a good thing, with or without the oil disaster. The problem is how to start that shift, begin to phase out reliance on cars and rely more on a bike. I'm unsure whether a nudge from a nat'l bike organization is what is needed, or local social pressure & encouragement. Personally I think your blog does more good for biking, for folks recognizing themselves as part of a large and growing community than anything I've seen.
    Let's face it. The short list of things we're all supposed to do (more of) to protect the environment has been around for almost 40 years. And is bus ridership up? Carpooling? Are these even *solutions*? No, I think social change is going to be far more work, more fun, more local than publishing exhortations that start from the premise that the gulf disaster would not have happened/been as likely if everyone biked (more).
    Let's start by highlighting what the 18% of Multnomah Co. households that don't have cars* do to meet their transportation needs. Render visible how folks we interact with every day manage without a car. Those are my heroes.

    *didn't according to the 2000 Census

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  • SilkySlim June 18, 2010 at 9:32 am

    This week's River City ad: "The more we pedal, the less we'll need" over the same oil rig backdrop.

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  • Michweek June 18, 2010 at 9:35 am

    I've been telling everyone who listens. Don't just boycott BP, boycott all oil industries. It's not enough to avoid one company and continue to go about your normal routine. We have all had a hand in creating the demand for this product that lead to this saddening event. Step out of the vehicle, step away from petroleum intensive consumer goods all together! Non-organic foods are highly petroleum intensive! There is a lot one person can do, let alone if we all go out there at once!

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  • Memo June 18, 2010 at 9:45 am

    What do you mean it's perilous for you to "try" to weave your opinions into the daily news stories when you have already said you do weave your opinions into them?

    That said I appreciate your move towards separating the two and want to both encourage and thank you for this new tact.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) June 18, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Memo (is that your real name? ;-)),

    I have not perfected the ability to report a news story and also share my opinion on that news story in the same story. Does that make sense?

    I usually keep the stories relatively free of my personal perspective and opinions and I let all that happen in the comments.

    The problem with this is that I don't have as much opportunity as I'd like to share bigger-picture thoughts on what's going on and provide some context/perspective on the issues I report about. thanks.

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  • Michael M. June 18, 2010 at 10:08 am

    I'm more or less with Jeff Mapes, who opined in Pedaling Revolution that people bike mostly because they enjoy it. The environmental benefits might make them feel better about themselves and their choice, but they don't make that choice because of environmental factors.

    I think advocacy that plays on people's positive feelings about cycling and the benefits (economic, health, community, safety) of riding more often is more compelling that advocacy that seeks to exploit a disaster. There's a very real risk of backlash with the latter, a risk that such advocacy could be denounced as coldly calculated and opportunistic. It might also be attacked as overstated. According to Metro's fact sheet (PDF), local passenger transport accounts for 14% of our region's greenhouse gas emissions. That's significant, but not overwhelmingly so. We could cut that in half, and we would still be dependent upon fossil fuels to sustain our way of life. Of course, there's no particular reason why cycling advocates should focus on the larger factors that chain us to fossil fuel consumption, but singling out "dependence on cars" as the solution to our problems is greatly oversimplifying matters.

    I don't know about you, but I didn't grow the laptop I'm typing this on in my garden.

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  • resopmok June 18, 2010 at 10:29 am

    I may be wrong, but it seems like a lot of people simply aren't making the connection between their own oil consumption habits and the gulf spill. Either that or they do make the connection, and like many addicts, feel hopeless and ashamed at their inability to break from it. In addition, there is some validity to the argument that if we didn't consume it, someone else (in the world) would, so there wouldn't be any decrease in real demand for the product. Lastly, it's not like this is the first environmental disaster on this scale the oil industry has dealt to the planet - look at the Niger Delta. The fact that it happened on our coast is what makes it newsworthy - oh the injustice _we_ should have to suffer directly from this corporate greed.

    The real problem addiction though is not oil, but this clinging to the American Dream and a life of excess. As a country, we've chased the carrot of wealth and things nearly off the edge of a cliff. We're running our country for broke with wars and the government says the best way to fix our problems is to go shopping. Why don't we just throw the money into the Gulf of Mexico and try to soak up the oil that way?

    Having a large proportion of people riding bikes for primary transportation certainly makes sense, in my mind, as part of the whole solution. We'll never get there though, until we start to shoulder some responsibility for the problems in the first place.

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  • Paul Tay June 18, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Keep da fun between yer legs, NOT around NECK.

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  • Aaronf June 18, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Being a vegetarian saves a lot of fuel consumption too.

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  • Memo June 18, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Hi Jonathan,

    Here is link that should be helpful to you - http://www.poynter.org/ Though you may want to perfect your craft before start touting the quality of your reporting. For me that really makes your mistakes really stand out, especially when you are often times critical of other reporting.

    While Memo is not my really name, it is a past nickname. Politics is something I am not comfortable discussing in such an open form using my real name. Though I stand by all of my comments and believe them to be both respectful and informed. If you believe otherwise, please let me know.

    Memo

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  • J.R. June 18, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Good stuff on NPR science friday today. Too big to punish. http://www.sciencefriday.com

    Also, city planning on display from fastcompany. All envision bikes in their
    mockups.
    http://www.fastcompany.com/pics/how-design-cities-people-instead-cars

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  • matt picio June 18, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Memo - If you don't use your real name, then you're not standing by your comments, you're hiding behind a pseudonym.

    I'm not advocating that you post under your real name, just saying be honest - "standing by" implies in the open and visible, exactly the opposite of posting under a pseudonym.

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  • Memo June 18, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Matt, I let my comments speak for themselves as to their quality (good or bad), and personally, if not in person stand by them. One does not need to use his or her real name to write good comments in the same instance that one using a real name does not necessarily write good comments. By linking many of my facts to their sources and following up on my comments, I do stand by more of my comments than most.

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  • Brad June 18, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    NO! The bike advocacy movement needs to focus on its core messages of sustainability, personal mobility choice, and public health. By jumping on the "Bash BP" bandwagon, you risk losing your effectiveness once the crisis is over. Why? Because once the relief wells are drilled the immediate crisis will be "over". Politicians will gush over BP getting the job done and backslap one another for forcing them to do so. The clean up won't get splashy headlines and it will take years, possibly decades, to accomplish. Congressional races will dominate the news in September and October. Most Americans not living on the Gulf Coast will forget.

    The bike cause already owns nearly all of the committed anti-car and anti-oil advocates. The anger towards BP is very widespread and rightfully so but have you seen a marked decrease in car use over the past six weeks? People are pissed but they are still driving and will continue to do so until gas prices spike. That only happens if a moratorium on deep water drilling remains in place or the entire industry is penalized with new regulations. Only when driving consumers feel the pain at the pump will the time be right for our practical and cost efficient solution to leverage against Big Oil.

    Best to leave the overall education about the dangers of oil to the big, omnibus green groups that have greater reach and budgets for that. The bike movement risks being further labeled as those "crazy, know nothing, sky-is-falling car haters" if gasoline is still hovering at $3.00/gallon and oil soaked birds are not on the front pages by the time Christmas rolls around.

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  • Roland June 18, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    They should most definitely be using this as an opportunity and a lesson, because it (perhaps only temporarily, but still) converts many people into "environmentalists" capable of hearing the "environmental argument."

    You just KNOW if this were a liberal screwup (as opposed to the primarily conservative-driven one it is), all the conservative windbags would be shouting about it and exploiting the hell out of it.

    I suspect the left is so quiet about it because they're all just as oil-addicted as the right, and they have no moral ground to stand on. (There really are no ACTUAL conservatives or liberals in American politics anymore, but that's another story.)

    How's all that drilly, spilly stuff workin' out for ya?

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  • Matt F June 18, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    I agree with resopomok's point: "I may be wrong, but it seems like a lot of people simply aren't making the connection between their own oil consumption habits and the gulf spill". I told a friend that we are all complicit. He disagreed and simply blamed it on the person at BP who f'd up. Each of us has to take some personal responsibility on these huge global issues if we want to make any progress alleviating them before our hands are forced.

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  • Matt F June 18, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Good points Brad.

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  • Spencer Boomhower June 18, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Glad to see the new opinion column, Jonathan!

    Even so, I don't mind it if your opinion finds its way into your reporting, because what I look for in a blog is information with a point of view. It's easy enough for readers to filter your opinions from your reporting once we get where you're coming from.

    (For instance: I gather that you're fond of bicycles, and wish to promote their use in Portland. See? It's easy.)

    Because your opinions are well-informed, I think it would be a loss if you were to totally excise them from your news stories.

    Of course, that's what newspapers have always tried to do, but for them to act as if they could keep reporters' and editors' biases from seeping into the news has always seemed a little unrealistic to me. Even if an attempt at unbiased reporting is the ideal way for newspapers to go, that doesn't necessarily translate well to blogs.

    On the subject of the spill, I'm not sure I agree with that Sadowsky quote you link to: "The environmental argument will only work if you're talking to an environmentalist."

    Think about the BP spill story itself: It's the biggest news going, but what is driving all that interest if not concern for the environment? Are people looking at that video of bubbling crude gushing into the ocean, and gasping in horror at the thought of rising gas prices, or all that gasoline they'll never get a chance to burn in their motors? I suppose some might be, but for most it's the spectacle of that much toxicity being released into the world, that much wildlife being suffocated, and all those natural resources being poisoned that is holding the interest.

    This is an environmental catastrophe, but it's not just "environmentalists" who care about it.

    How is this the case, when so much of the world seems so unconcerned with so many environmental issues? I'd say it's largely because there is, in that broken pipe, such an obvious source of the pollution; something to focus on, and point cameras at.

    If only anthropogenic global warming was caused by CO2 spurting from such an obvious and solitary source.

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  • J.R. June 18, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    More solutions offered next week at Bagdad:
    http://bikeportland.org/2010/06/18/event-deep-green-film-premiere-623242510/

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  • cr June 18, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    memo - well said regarding the comment/pseudonym comparison.

    To the post - We had a 'crisis' at the pumps a few years ago. During that time I had the opportunity to live in Southern California and witness first hand as bicycle commuting increased, fuel hit $4.70-something and diesel went even higher. Obviously not fact-based, but it seemed that I even saw a few less Hummer's and Cayenne's on the road. It also seemed that the advocacy groups embraced this opportunity to promote alternative modes of transportation and achieved some false results. Eventually, the fuel prices went down and I have a hunch it left a few groups and retailers with a false perception (or even an inaccurate forecast) on the number of people who had actively switched to bicycle commuting.

    My point is that advocacy groups can use all the facts they want, but it's not going to change someone until it affects the person directly and permanently. Sure everyone knows the spill is bad, linked to oil consumption, and killing wildlife, but sociologically we are way too short sighted for the direct correlation. People will either "get it" or they won't.

    The spill will get people thinking and will definitely cause a few to change their habits, but these are also the ones who are smart enough to adjust without advocacy groups spending money on it. Advocates need to keep focusing on the things that make bikes a legitimate mode of transport: the faster commutes, the cost effectiveness, the safe routes, the fun, and the ease of which it can be done. It's also with the kids, so we have to teach and lead by example if there's ever any hope of bike commuting really taking hold.

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  • twilliam June 18, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Re: BP sucks image.

    How 'bout, "Oil Sucks", and forget about spreading the BP message and logo around.

    Especially since the guy is built like a supermodel. I bet he's nothing but a viral marketing dude, in the pay of BP.

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  • Steve B. June 18, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    I agree with Brad. I think bringing in "it's about oil" as a core message of bike advocacy triggers a lot of eye rolling. Connecting local support for biking with tangible, local benefits like; saving money; improving the local economy; creating a healthier Portland; and reducing stress and congestion; seem to get a better buy in. I think we are so deep in our dependence for oil that the most critical action is on the federal level.

    I rarely hop on my pedals and think about reducing my oil consumption. If I wanted to radically reduce my own demand for oil, I'd have to stop flying, quit drinking coffee, and a perform host of other lifestyle changes that pale in comparison to using a bike for transport. I don't have any excuse for not doing so, but I am thinking out loud here about what motivates me to bike instead of drive, and what then might inspire others to do the same.

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  • Red Five June 18, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    why do hipsters drink a "corporate" beer like Pabst Blue Ribbon? Not only is that beer crap, they SHOULD be buying local!

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  • jim June 19, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    You don't think the liberals are going to let a good disaster go to waste do you

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  • Red Five June 19, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    Jim when you say "disaster" are you speaking of the gulf oil spill or Pabst Blue Ribbon?

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  • Kenneth June 20, 2010 at 12:15 am

    As a new bike commuter, I must say the oil spill is what finally pushed me into buying a bike. Yes, I do consider myself an environmentalist, but until now, have been relatively inactive other than giving to a few groups.

    I have also gone "weekday vegetarian", finally quit smoking, started reusing plastic vegetable bags, going to the farmers market, and began managing the "vampire power" around my house. I'm not saying this for a pat on the head... just that we should not underestimate the power of those images of oil smothering birds and shooting out of that damned pipe.

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  • jim June 20, 2010 at 2:10 am

    disaster as in when the big O sits down with a Pabst to discuss the oil spill

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