I was struggling through my routine at the gym in April when the owner came up to me. "Give me something to share on Twitter for Earth Day," he demanded.
I've been working out for more than 30 years and I'm still waiting for it to be fun, or at least easy, so my brain was not operating at full bore. I panted, "How about this: Get out and exercise. It's good for your body and it's good for the environment." He seemed happy enough and wandered away, but his question got me thinking.
I'm a biologist. I know that we evolved out of the natural world and lived without machines for a long time. Everything our ancient ancestors did, they did by expending some effort, especially to get from one place to another. Our bodies evolved to keep up with this required effort. Indeed, our bodies need to work in order to restore themselves. Don't believe me? Just look at one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, stroke, cancer, and more: exercise!
Now, I know that a car is an amazing piece of technology, but it's just a means of getting us from point A to point B. When we climb into a car to drive five or 10 blocks instead of walking or cycling, we may come up with all kinds of rationalizations as to why it was necessary, but do we ever stop to consider that this simple act works against what our bodies need?
When I walk by a school and see roly-poly kids jumping from the big cars lined up outside, I suspect that parents think they're doing their children a favour. But it's at the expense of what kids need to remain healthy. If a neighbourhood is so dangerous that we can't let our children walk to school, then we should work to make it safer, or initiate group walks.
When a 90-kilogram person climbs into a 2,000-kilogram vehicle, more than 95 per cent of the gasoline is burned to move the car, not the person! That's a lose-lose-lose situation: we throw away money, waste energy, and exacerbate environmental pollution. The auto sector has dazzled us with big, fancy stuff because energy has been cheap and the environmental consequences haven't figured in its planning. With the near-death experience of the big three auto companies as the economy melted down, and with oil prices rising steadily, car companies are finding religion on being green as they tout smaller, more efficient cars. Let's hope this represents a turning point in the values that motivate them.
But we also need to shift the way we all of think of cars. People seem to regard a car as an extension of themselves — bigger, sexier, noisier, faster, more powerful. I can understand the psychology, but still, it's just a machine. It's something to get us to our destination, but it has become so deeply embedded in our culture that it's impossible to think of doing without it — at least until we build cities in ways that eliminate our need for personal vehicles.
We must think of a car as simply a machine to move us around, a machine that should be used sparingly because overuse is harmful. Our love of cars also sets a bad example for the rest of the world, especially China and India, where growing economies are creating huge numbers of people with the means and the desire to buy vehicles.
These days you can find all kinds of books offering 10 or 100 easy ways to save the planet. But the planet is not in trouble. Whatever we do, it will continue to spin and move around the sun. We may be in trouble though. We're altering the chemical, physical, and biological features of the biosphere, making it increasingly difficult for tens of thousands of species, including our own, to survive and flourish.
Changing course and reining in our demanding appetite and economy is not going to be easy. If everyone buys an electric or hybrid car, changes light bulbs, and carries cloth bags, we'll still be a long way from a sustainable way of living. But thinking about our own personal health and our relationship with the machine may at least get us started down a new road.