Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Why I'm not attending Velo-city in Adelaide in 2014. Sorry, I'm not that sort of "environmentalist"

In the last few years I've received several invitations to attend events a long distance from where we live. In the past these included invitations to visit the USA and Brazil. In May I received an invitation to be a keynote speaker at next year's Velo-city conference. I am told that "the conference is expected to attract more than 800 delegates from Australasia, Europe, Asia Pacific and North America" and I'm absolutely certain that it will be interesting for the delegates. However it's impossible for me to square the enormous use of fossil fuels which would be required to transport me half way around the world and back again just to make a presentation lasting a few minutes.

I wrote the following reply to Stephen Yarwood, Lord Mayor of Adelaide, and Michelle Everitt, his Executive Assistant:
Dear Stephen / Michelle,

Thank you for your invitation to attend the Velo-city conference as a keynote speaker in May 2014. I'm very sorry that I've taken so long to get back to you about this, I'm really flattered by the invitation but the reply is difficult to write.

From all that you have written and all that I already know about Adelaide, it looks like a very pleasant place to visit. I am absolutely sure that if I was to visit I would enjoy my stay enormously. However, I am unfortunately not going to be able to come. Given your kindness in inviting me, I owe you an explanation of why:

I try to live my life according to my beliefs and with as little hypocrisy as possible. My cycling advocacy comes from a deeply held belief that cycling is at least a partial solution to many of the problems that human beings currently face. In one stroke, cycling helps to reverse obesity, give children/older people/those with disabilities more freedom, improve air quality in our towns, save lives due to enhancing health and reducing the shocking amount of violent death which occurs on our streets. Cycling also reduces dependency on foreign oil and therefore reduces the number of lives lost in conflict for that oil and, perhaps most important of all, it also reduces the carbon footprint of everyone who chooses to cycle instead of use a vehicle powered by fossil fuels (directly or indirectly) for their journeys.

This is where the problem arises. In order to attend Velo-city in Adelaide I would have to fly a round-trip distance of 32000 km. Making this trip would equate to several times my usual annual impact on the planet simply to make a presentation lasting a few minutes. I cannot possibly square this with my conscience and I must live within my own moral guidelines. I suggest that others don't fly long distances and while it would no doubt be very convenient to excuse my own excess by saying that it's for a higher purpose, I have to apply the same morality to myself as I would to others.

I wish you all the success in the world with improving the cycling modal share of your city and I hope you can learn from the best examples in the world. These are to be found in the Netherlands. There's no other country that comes close. If it would be helpful, I could perhaps record a video exclusively for you to show at the Velo-city conference in lieu of my own attendance in person.

Yours,

David Hembrow.
I have already had the discussion with one email correspondent about how my presentation could cause "100 people to do 1% less driving each" and that this "equals your journey's damage", but I don't buy that.

It simply does no good for each of us to live beyond our, and our planet's, means. Gandhi once supposedly said that we "must be the change we want to see". Whether he said it or not is actually irrelevant. It still makes sense. If we all live as hypocrites how can we expect to make the world into a better place to leave for our children ?

I urge all readers not to excuse themselves. If you believe that global warming is an issue, don't take unnecessarily long journeys either for leisure or for work. If you believe that such a journey is necessary, consider why you believe that to be the case. The only practical way of reducing your personal energy consumption and your personal footprint on the planet due to travel is to travel less. Switching between modes (i.e. train rather than airliner) helps far less than reducing distances.

We all need to consume fewer resources and we all need to stop treating our own usage as something exceptional and excusable.

Rough comparison of energy consumption of modes of travel from "Instead of Cars" by Terence Bendixon. It's an old reference (1977) but not much has changed. Airliners are now somewhat more efficient than shown here, cars are a little more efficient, other modes much the same as before. The difference between travelling by train vs. aircraft comes down to a factor of about 3. Whatever you do, don't imagine that you do the world any good at all if you travel on a passenger ship instead of by air.

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