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

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How Not to Talk to a Bicycling Environmentalist

6/23/2011 3:17:33 PM

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. 



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