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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

How Not to Talk to a Bicycling Environmentalist

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: bicycling, biking, climate change, politics, conservative, liberal, environment, Keith Goetzman,

Patriotic biker

Bicyclists have a reputation as a bunch of liberals, but it’s worth remembering that not all bicyclists are blue to the core. In fact, as Utne Reader has previously pointed out, there are plenty of conservative-minded folks who get around at least part of the time on two wheels.

Bicycle Times recently published a commentary by one of these mysterious creatures, Tom Bowden, subtitled “How to Talk About Cycling to a Conservative.” (The piece originally appeared on the website Commute By Bike.) Unfortunately, Bowden undermines his own attempt to extend an olive branch by repeatedly engaging in the same sort of stereotype-driven preconceptions and ignorance he’s supposedly campaigning against.

Here are some of his suggestions that really rankled me as a bike-commuting environmentalist:

“If you must meet a conservative face to face, wear a suit! It won’t kill you. Think of it as camouflage—you may find them nodding their heads in agreement even before you open your mouth.” Comment: Really? We should don business-world power attire simply to be taken seriously? I understand that wearing a “Cars R Coffins” T-shirt might not exactly help break down barriers, but Bowden’s proposal is like suggesting that Benjamin Netanyahu don a keffiyeh before the next round of Middle East peace talks. Besides, I know plenty of liberal bikers who wear suits to their jobs and meet face to face with conservatives every day. We’re not all clad in biker-hipster wear from sunup to sundown.

“Here is what turns off conservatives: Global warming, climate change, or climate disruption. If it’s as bad as Al Gore says it is, it will take more than a few bike lanes to fix it. But more importantly, you don’t need to win that fight (or even engage in it) to make your point. Cycling has plenty of merit without dragging in tangential and controversial issues like global … whatever the heck they call it this week.” Comment: OK, dude, you just shredded much of your credibility as a reasonable person. Here, for your information, is what turns off—all right, pisses off—bicycling environmentalists: First, portray well-established climate science solely as the pet theory of a Democratic ex-vice president. Second, trivialize the very real reduced emissions that millions of bicyclists bring about every day by avoiding car trips. Finally, insinuate that the very concept of climate change is wack because it goes by a few different terms depending on the context. Nice work: We’re livid.

“Here is what turns off conservatives: Anti-car arguments in general. Face it: cars exist and most Americans love them. You’ll get nowhere with a conservative if your explicit agenda (or suspected hidden agenda) is an attack on American ‘car culture.’” Comment: Few bikers are so pure that they don’t have a car in their household, so most of them are a part of car culture too—but unlike Bowden they’re willing to confront this conflict head-on and work toward a culture that is not so auto dependent. Car culture is responsible in large part for our messed-up transportation system and has been directly implicated as a major cause of climate change—but, oh yeah, that’s just Al Gore’s pet theory.

“Conservatives don’t like other people to tell them what they should do.” Comment: Do I really need to point out the irony here?

As you can see, Bowden made more than a few missteps in his attempt to create a dialogue, at least with this biker—but in the spirit of ending on a positive note and giving his best arguments their due, here a few of his more unassailable suggestions, absent any smartass commentary:

Cycling is efficient. True conservatives love efficiency! It has been said that a cyclist is more efficient than a bird in flight.

Remind [conservatives] that cycling is cheaper than building more roads. The more cyclists, the more room for cars on existing roads. The more cyclists, the less concrete we need to pour. 

Make it clear that you are not suggesting that everyone can or will ditch their cars and ride bikes, but just that people who choose to ride should be able to do so safely, as taxpaying citizens worthy of full protection of their individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of that special kind of happiness one gets from riding a bike.

Sources: Bicycle Times (article not available online), Commute By Bike 

Image by swanksalot, licensed under Creative Commons. 

james o'brien
7/4/2011 4:24:07 PM

3 conciliatory, constructive comments, and one Hoo-ha. I like the odds for our survival as a country. Happy 4th of July to cyclists of all stripes.

tom bowden
6/29/2011 10:47:51 AM

Keith - thanks for pushing all the way through, and I'm happy to see that we agree on some big points, if not all the details. That's the point really - although some of my comments were tongue in cheek,I was trying to make a point that one can start from a position of emphasizing points of agreement rather than attacking points of disagreement. e.g. As for suits - no, you don't really have to wear a suit, especially if that would offend your personal sensibilities - but by the same token, if I wanted to work with environmentalists on reducing emissions (and I do), I might not want to show up for a meeting in a big stinking diesel hemi-double axle high wheeling pick up truck, and I think you would probably agree with that advice. As for climate science - there is a lot of well established climate science, but no one can seriously claim that it's simple - neither are quantum mechanics or general relativity, even though they are well established. The point is simply that it's still controversial and inflammatory with many people,even if they are totally wrong. So why make even having a discussion of the benefits of cycling contingent on a climate science litmus test? That's all I am saying. Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful response to my original article - I hope we can agree to disagree on many things, but continue to advance the cause of cycling in general.

6/29/2011 9:34:09 AM

I talked to a guy a few days ago who was addicted to pain pills. He told me what happened was he got run over by a car while out riding his bike. He didn't ask if the guy who ran over him was a Democrat or Republican. Truth be known, each person is an individual and lumping all liberals or conservatives into generilizations is dangerous territory. That territory, by the way, is located in the state of Prejudice.

6/24/2011 11:19:39 PM

While I agree that some of these are indeed "missteps," such as the climate-change comments, I think the presence of this commentary on a commentary is just widening the gap. Several of these quotes are taken out of context, and while it's easy to get an emotional response midway through reading something, it's especially important where bipartisan politics are involved to stay unbiased until you've finished reading and can look at the argument in full. For example, Bowden doesn't dismiss global warming and the problems caused by our "car culture." Conversely, he later lists several statistics that support the argument that fewer car-related fuel emissions would improve the environment. And for the "Conservatives don’t like other people to tell them what they should do" comment-- the rest of Bowden's paragraph reads like this: "And when you stop and think about it, you probably don’t either—that’s why you ride a bike, right? (To be fair, conservatives have done their fair share of telling other people how to live their lives, but pointing that out will not win you their support.)" To me, taking a comment as small as that, that later justifies itself, out of context just hurts the cause of both of these articles--which is unity and understanding between conservative lawmakers and cyclists.

6/23/2011 5:33:45 PM

Just like most right-wingers, constantly cries victim, whines about civility. Then acts like a complete, dishonest jerk.