Friday, March 6, 2009
Is sustainability only for the privileged?
The snow is gone now (wasn't I just writing about surviving the long dark winter?), but until recently, if I wanted to bike, it meant dealing with a lot of snow, slush, and ice.
I rode in it a couple of times, but not nearly as much as I thought I would. For one, I don't have studded tires, and we have had an extremely icy winter. Jack and Adam of Team RocBike have both written about the joys of studded tires, and next year I may finally take the plunge.
But there's another reason I haven't ridden, and it's got me coming up with the counter-intuitive notion that bike commuting is actually a form of privilege. Hang with me here...not for many people, of course, I know that. Many people cannot afford cars, and while Rochester's public bus system isn't as awful as I thought it would be, it's often not very convenient or time-efficient.
So I'll own my privilege...I am solidly middle-class, and I could afford a reasonably nice car if I were willing to go into debt for one (which I'm not...my current car is 13 years old, has 135,000 miles on it, and is literally rotting/rusting away.) But I do have other trappings of a middle-class lifestyle--professional job, kids with multiple commitments, and pursuing a higher degree to boot.
In winter weather, when it comes to bike commuting, the sad truth is partly that I just haven't had the time. When I have to work all day, then pick up my daughter and deposit her somewhere, then head to class for the evening...not to mention fitting in necessities such as purchasing and eating food along the way...there's not a lot of leeway in the schedule.
Which is what got me thinking of bike commuting as a form of privilege. There are lots of women with a similar schedule to mine--for them, it might be working in a low-wage service job, picking up the kids from day care, then coming to class at the community college. Different details...same challenges. Honestly, I can't imagine trying to convince any of them that bike commuting is a practical alternative.
And there are a lot of other things promoted by sustainability advocates, including myself, that are probably not practical for folks struggling to put food on the table. Things like eating local, organic food, tending to chickens, buying environmentally-safe cleaners. Some things are too expensive, others too time-consuming, and still others practically inaccessible due to their lack of availability in some neighborhoods.
It would be great if we lived in a society where these things were more practical. In my mind, such a society would pay a living wage, would provide free or very inexpensive education at least up through the bachelor's degree, free child care, and a public transportation system that was multi-modal and had multiple routes. But we don't live in that society.
I think those of us with privilege have to be very cautious about chastising others for not living a sustainable life when societal structures are designed to foster just the opposite, and focus more energy on changing those actual structures.
What do you think?