Environmental Conversion

Most of the stories we see in the news about environmentally-friendly transportation either champion the changes or question whether they really make a difference. Today’s story in the Duluth News Tribune, though, was a different matter.

You could not come up with a more environmentally friendly activity: going to a Co-Op to pick up food that is about to be discarded, and delivering it to a soup kitchen that feeds poor and homeless people – and using a bicycle with a trailer instead of a motor vehicle. Because the load is heavy – often 100 lbs or more – the bike moves slowly; a couple of others follow along behind so cars can see they are there.

This is just the sort of good deed you’d expect from Alex Strachota, one of the volunteers who makes this trip weekly to help keep the soup kitchen stocked. When he was a student at the College of St. Scholastica he helped to get our green bike program started. As far as I can tell, the direct route from the Co-Op to the soup kitchen runs along a street that is a designated bike route – but it only has one lane of traffic in each direction. When the bike with food moves along at a moderate pace, cars back up: they can’t pass in the single lane, and there’s not enough room to go around. Everyone agrees that the street is a designated bike route. They disagree about how to ride on it.

Because cars are parked along most of the route, the bikers can’t ride next to the curb. The police state they should weave in and out of any open parking spaces so that cars could get by. The bikers say they aren’t required to do this – and it might be dangerous. There’s no mention of whether it’s even feasible to maneuver a bike + a trailer with 100+ lbs of groceries in and out of the spot usually occupied by a single car: it doesn’t seem likely to me.

The comments – there are 164 of them as I write – are illuminating. While the report makes it clear that bicycles are legal in the traffic lane, many of the comments say, “ticket them for being in the traffic lane.” Many of them say, “If they can’t go the speed limit, keep them out of traffic” – a very odd notion of what a speed limit means. Quite a few have a snide tone, wondering why these college graduates don’t just get a car or take a cab.

Conversion.  Last summer, the Monastic Institute focused on sustainability and monastic life.  One of the speakers, Prof. John Carroll, spoke about the difference between small, mostly cosmetic, lifestyle changes in the name of ecology and the complete make-over of one’s habits and practices that is needed for real change.  The latter, he said, is a matter of conversion: a person or family or community cannot make and sustain the amount of change required unless they come to see the earth, the process of producing and transporting goods, and their place in the system from a completely different perspective.  Even then, he said, the change would not be easy, and would not be met with social approval.

This incident, and the comments about it, illustrate his claims in a microcosm. From the mainstream point of view, cars are the standard way to get from place to place, and the roads belong to them.  Alternative methods may be tolerated, but only to the extent that they don’t inconvenience those who are driving – and the people who choose them are pretty suspect anyway.  For those whose conversion to sustainability is deep and profound, the use of cars for local transportation contributes to pollution, noise, obesity, and global climate change.  Cars must be tolerated because they are legal, and their convenience is recognized. But the people who choose to use them may not fully understand what they are doing.

The uneasy tolerance breaks down when those doing the “standard” thing – driving cars – experience too much inconvenience.  The nastiness in the comments and the need to “speak out” are both indicators of a fault line in our social bonds and contract.  There’s no doubt that financial, environmental, and social changes mean that our lifestyles in the future will have to be different than they were in the past.  One of the first steps, though, will have to be stretching our tolerance and our consideration – for the new and challenging situations created by those who are ready and able to make the conversion, and for the expectations and habits of those who have not.

I’m glad this story made the news, so that the discussion goes beyond a few people and a court case.  And I hope the next folks who see Alex and the others from Dorothy Day House pedaling along Fourth Street to bring food to the soup kitchen can take the delay in stride, and be grateful that there are people willing to do this.

Photo by Bob King.

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