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?

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Perfectly said. Thank you for stating the reality of what can be an "oppressive perspective" on a progressive lifestyle. I appreciate your honesty; those who hold strong to their lifestyle while chastising others should read this.

Jody said...

I don't think chastising ever works to convince anyone of anything. I ride when I can & when people ask me about it I tell them that it is possible. Some of them believe me. Most don't.

And yeah, you're not going to convince someone who's trying to live three lives in the space of one that they can find the time and energy to switch from a car to a bike as a primary mode of transportation. You're probably not even going to convince most of them to cook their own dinner with those time constraints.

It's just the way our culture/society is set up right now. It's the privilege provided by our relative level of wealth and the availability of cheap oil. When the oil runs out or the relative wealth dries up things will change. People will have to live close to work, school, market, food sources, support systems, etc. If you could live close to ALL your needs biking would be a realistic possibility for most people.

If our society is not sustainable, then it won't be sustained, whether or not I convince the guy in the next cubicle to ride his bike to work.

So if you ask "Is sustainability only for the privileged?" My answer is, if it's only for the privileged then it's not actually sustainability. We're all in this together. Society is going to have to come up with solutions that will actually work for everyone. If alternate forms of transportation are actually going to be realistic options for everyone, a lot of things will have to change.

A lot.

Julie said...

Thanks for your comments! Jody, very well-said...believe me, I question myself about 'fitting 3 lives into 1' as you put it...fortunately, I do live very close to work and school, which helps a lot.

And you are so right about sustainability not truly being that if it doesn't work for everyone, and for our society as whole.

Molly said...

Julie, I am so glad to see that you are blogging again. I love your perspective.
This post touches my deep sense of fairness and low tolerance for preaching. The best thing I can do in this world is to work on what I have been given to do in this moment, and to do it carefully, lightly and with clear intention. Easy to say, so hard to do.
Keep it up. I love reading what you are thinking.

Heather said...

You are right in your observation of the problem. In Canada, where we are a bit more socialist than the US, good public transit, subsidized day care, community gardens in cities, etc are more of a reality. But still, the expectations of what one must do to have a middle class lifestyle are simply insane in terms of sustainability.

mel said...

How did I miss this? I've been thinking a lot lately on some big, tough questions - and this is definitely one of them. I'm doing everything I can to live lightly, and trying not to judge in the process. And I can I can "afford" to spend my time musing on these things, that's a privilege too. If I were working two jobs and still wondering how to feed myself, these certainly wouldn't be the things running through my head. I think part of the issue is that we lost our way somewhere along the line in developing conveniences for ourselves in order to have a better life, and now these conveniences, many of which have become very unhealthy, are now the norm, and living a different way is more of a luxury because it requires knowledge and ready resources that have been lost along the way. It all seems a little cyclical to me, and sad. I've been struggling too with knowledge and what do I do with it. There seems to be some responsiblity innate in all this. If I have the time and energy to ponder all these things, don't I have the responsibility to try to help others have a better life? and how exactly do I do that? Oh, there are years of musings there, I'm afraid. But I'm (trying!) to take some practical steps to work it all out. Thank you for the thought provoking post(s) I love your posts in general, just haven't been much for commenting lately - bad blogger me!

PS - as if this comment hasn't gotten long enough! Do you know of Cafe Mama? Think you would enjoy her - great writing too, and a very bike-centric life :)

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