A few months after I sold my car in 2012 in favor of getting around by bicycle, a young man asked me why, since having one less driver made little difference in the amount of pollution. I thought for a minute, then said, “Imagine you were a senator in ancient Rome when the others were conspiring against Caesar. If you loved Caesar and didn’t want to kill him, when they drew their daggers to stab him, would you stab him too? You couldn’t save him by holding back, and if you didn’t join in, your life could become more difficult afterwards.” That’s how I was with my car and the atmosphere, I know my not driving makes no real difference, but I just don’t want to participate in the destruction.
And the fact is, my life has not become more difficult. I love using my own muscles to power my transportation, and I’m healthier and stronger for it. And then I noticed the financial freedom from leaving behind car insurance, maintenance, and gasoline. I laugh when I get a flat tire and pay a local shop $20 to install a new tube, a little more than I used to pay for a car wash.
I remember a time in Africa, riding with a colleague in his car, passing people walking alongside the highway hauling baskets, wagons, or mules. I wondered what they thought of us flying past them. Were they jealous, or angry at us? I sometimes think about them now when I ride my bike. I don’t feel jealous of or angry at the drivers whizzing past me. I more tend to feel sorry for them, trapped in their steel boxes, usually alone, disconnected from nature and other people. I feel free and alive.
On that day back in 2012, the thought occurred to me, “Now that I’ve sold my car, I wonder if I’ll ever fly again.” And amazingly, I haven’t. I’ve crisscrossed the US and Canada several times since then, learning the schedules and foibles of Amtrak and Greyhound, and enjoying the better legroom, greater walk-around freedom, and more colorful community of passengers than on planes.
One thing that concerns me is that I made these changes after a lifetime of driving and flying adventures covering four continents. It was easy for me to leave that behind after collecting a treasure trove of petroleum-fueled experiences and memories. How can I ask young people today to move into their adult lives saddled with slow and inconvenient transportation options? If someone has an answer, I hope they’ll make a viral video about it.
I’m so grateful to Peter Kalmus for this website. I get angry when I watch climate scientists at their fancy conferences at the four corners of the world, knowing they, except for Kevin Anderson, got there on jets. What hypocrites! Where are the Skype presentations by scientists staying home to model the behavior needed to save the planet? I’m now glad to see dozens of scientists making changes in their personal and professional lives in accord with the dire warnings emerging from their work. It’s a crying shame there aren’t many, many more.
Marshall Burns is a physicist and technology entrepreneur who pioneered in the development of personal computers in the 1980s and 3D printers in the ’90s. His career forte is the analysis and interpretation of complex data, which he learned to do in his PhD research on quantum chaos. In 2007, Burns’ focus shifted from technology to human issues, leading him to work on social justice from African neocolonialism to American sex laws.