Sunday, December 25, 2005

Bean Power and the HPV Revolution

Bean Power and the HPV Revolution

Remember the other way I said that I traveled by bean power? Well, it is true. I put the beans in my tank, and then I use the energy contained in this heavy fuel to turn the cranks on the most efficient mode of transport ever developed by homo sapiens—the velocipede, known in our common vernacular as a bicycle. If it helps you to take this machine more seriously, you can call it an HPV, or Human Powered Vehicle.
Now, the bicycle is a truly righteous form of transportation! The frame is made of the most recycled material in the industrial materials stream-steel. (What’s that you say? Your bicycle is not made of steel? What can you be thinking? For an exhaustive discussion about the superiority of steel for bicycle frames, go to and let Grant Petersen straighten you out. Seriously, though, it don’t make no difference what the thing is made of as long as you ride it.) The bicycle cannot be beat for efficiency. I am talkin’ maximum amount of expended energy converted into forward momentum—99% of energy put into the cranks turns the rear wheel. It takes one fifth as much energy per mile as running, and it is far more dignified! In addition, the bicycle is beautiful, healthful, quiet, honest, and sustainable. It is non-violent, taking away the occasion of oil wars, and it is a sociable machine, reducing isolation and putting the rider into her environment, rather than isolating her from it. In addition, the bicycle is a major contributor to the shapeliness of buttocks, which is why I really ride one. You just can’t exaggerate what a wonderful machine the volocipede is!
Though early “push-bikes” can be reliably dated from the early 1800’s, where the rider pushed his feet directly against the ground, it wasn’t until the latter part of that century that pedal power really got going. In the 1890’s the ‘Golden Age of Bicycles’ came in with Dunlop’s pneumatic tire, freewheels, coaster brakes, and the development of the “safety bicycle.” Over the years these machines have gotten more gears, better brakes, lighter weight, etc. In mechanical terms, however, even these early bicycles were so efficient that the improvements that have been made are mostly significant in terms of rider features and reliability.
The automobile totally messed up the bicycle in the United States, providing an arguably faster, flashier form of transport, and simultaneously making the roadways less safe and pleasant for the humble bicycle. Cars suck, as the saying goes.
After the take over of the automobile, say by the end of World War One, bicycles were largely regarded as a children’s toy in the U.S., but that changed during the “Bicycle Boom” of the late 60’s. Derailleur gears and the social revolution and ecological consciousness of the 60's and 70's made bicycling hip, chic, cool and stylish. Americans took to riding bicycles in significant numbers. However, even though there were many more Americans on the whole in the 1960’s than the 1890’s, there were many more adult cyclists in the "Golden Age" than in the "Boom." It was the first democratic transportation device! As the longbow was to warfare (suddenly a peasant could kill a knight before the knight could get within a sword’s length), so the bicycle was to transportation (before the automobile). It was cheaper, faster and all together less hassle than a horse and carriage. Women rode bicycles, at great benefit to their health, and female cyclists spawned the practical clothing movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, a milestone of empowered womanhood! I love bloomers!
What would Jesus drive? Well, a donkey comes to mind, walking is always a staple of the spiritual wanderer, but a bicycle wouldn’t be out of the question! Keith Helmuth suggests that John Woolman would cycle were he around today. ("If John Woolman Were Among Us")
Anarchist transport, that’s what! You consider yourself part of the counter-culture but you still let the Department of Motor Vehicles tell you if you are fit to drive? You pay redicudollars for car insurance? You can’t fix your car when the microchip gets out of whack or the carburetor starts leaking? You got a monthly car payment equal to a week’s wages? You ain’t no counter-culture revolutionary, you are a SUCKER, that’s what. You gonna be an anarchist, you gotta go with anarchist transport, and that is a bicycle—no license, no physical exam, no insurance, no payment plan, easy to fix. That’s how you give the Man the Finger in style!
Now, this is not to say that the bicycle isn’t legit. The bicycle is plenty legit. In 1968 the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic determined that a bicycle is a vehicle, and a person controlling a bicycle is a driver. You got rights and responsibilities. You got a right to be on the road and take the lane, and you got a responsibility to follow the rules of the road. Anarchy doesn’t mean that there aren’t any rules, you know. It means that there aren’t any rulers. At least the responsibility for cycling safely is reinforced by the laws of physics—on a bicycle the person you put most at risk by driving unsafely is usually yourself.
I learned to ride a bike when I was five years old. My dad had this tiny folding bike with ten inch wheels and solid, white, non-pneumatic tires. He would hold the seat and run along side and then he’d let go and you’d keep pedaling like mad until you realized that the old man wasn’t holding the bike up anymore, and you’d promptly crash hard. My big sister and I realized after a single hard crash that we had ridden independently quite a ways before we contacted pavement, and so we got on and rode unaided after that. However, after the inevitable skinned knee, my little sister felt betrayed and was delayed some weeks after this ordeal before she joined the rest of the family in two-wheeled bliss. (My sisters will of course remember this totally differently, and may respond to this blog accordingly, as they wish.)
[I wanna put in here that there is a way better way to teach kids to ride bikes, and I’ll tell you what it is. If the kid has already had training wheels on, that is o.k.—it teaches pedaling. You take the training wheels off, since they don’t teach anything about balancing and countersteering a bike. Then you put the seat down so that the kid can easily touch the ground with both feet. Then you take off the pedals. This arrangement allows the kid to sit on the seat and paddle the ground with her feet for forward momentum. Eventually she will get to coasting longer distances. If you observe her rolling down a driveway or other decline without crashing, she is ready to have the pedals back on and learn to provide her own forward momentum without relying on Gravity Drive. It is a kind of “no tears” way to learn to ride a bike, and hopefully will result in a lifelong love for and fascination with this mode of transport. I believe that the ability to ride a bicycle and do basic maintenance can contribute greatly to a kid’s sense of agency, which might otherwise go undeveloped in our pushbutton world. Also, no kid who rides to school will get diabetes or depression.]
What about metal, paint, rubber, plastic, etc. in the bicycle? It isn’t a zero-footprint technology, is it? Also, I have had concerns about labor rights in the manufacture of bicycles since so many of them are made in places with less than stellar records on labor, like Taiwan, Hong Kong, China.
Remember the theme of this three-part series? Righteousness is a trap, and yet giving up when we know that we aren’t really ‘living in that Life and Power that takes away the occasion of all wars” also isn’t an option. It is what Harvard theologians call ‘praxis.’ It is why the Quaker book is called “Faith and Practice.” We step forward in Faith, and change our Practice. When we do so, we are changed, the covenant community is changed, and the world is changed. In that new light, we return to stillness and seek further guidance. What once seemed safe and clear may become blurry and less obviously the Way. This is what has happened for me with biodiesel. Once it seemed like all that was being asked of me, and now I can see that it is a stopgap—that it represents a less than full surrender. The bicycle is an honest vehicle, using only the energy that I put into it. The “something for nothing” mentality is the single most destructive legacy of the European diaspora. From alchemists trying to turn lead into gold, to colonists claiming Peru for Spain, the driving tenet of Western Civilization has been “something for nothing.” Slavery of Africans was one experiment in something for nothing, and the transition from slavery to industrialism driven by fossil fuels was immediate in this country, perpetuating the adolescent notion that there is such a thing as profit. Profit means that people were exploited and/or the planet was stripped of something. These two things make the illusion of prosperity in America possible. Furthermore, when five percent of the world’s population uses 25% of its resources, you have a formula for resentment, and a mandate for war against the peoples of the world and the biosphere itself. How else to perceive global climate change?
Enter the humble bike. Sure, it has a footprint. The footprint could be smaller than it is, if we used greener construction methods. (Chris King Headsets are the very best available, and as green a company as you could wish. Still, a steel frame will last a lifetime if properly taken care of. A good Brooks saddle will go 50,000 miles for sure. If every able-bodied person who can safely operate a bicycle on the public road did Katie Alvord’s experiment (Divorce Your Car), the ecological benefit of reduced car travel would hugely offset the ecological cost of bicycle manufacture. In this experiment, you get a map of your town and find your house. (Kids love this exercise, by the way.) You set a map compass to five miles, using the map scale. Then you put the sticky point at your house, and mark a circle with the pencil point describing a five mile radius around your home. Noting what is included in that area, you then commit to ride your bicycle to those places that are within the circle. If you want to have other provisos, such as ‘If I don’t have to get anything too big or too heavy,’ or ‘only during the day,’ or ‘unless it is raining,’ go for it. It’s not about living up to anyone else’s standard, but making it fun and easy for you; bringing your life in to right order as you perceive it.
After a long hiatus from cycling, I did this myself about five years ago. I didn’t even own a bicycle! Hard to imagine, given the current stable of eight! (I have a tendency to adopt and adapt orphans.) I lived barely five miles from work, so I started to ride there every day on a Specialized Crossroads that I bought new on a last year’s models sale. Only under rare and extenuating circumstances is it necessary to buy a bicycle new, and this wasn’t one of them. It was a mediocre bicycle, barely prepared by the bike shop which shall remain nameless. Derailleurs needed adjustment, headset was loose after the first ride, and there was so little spoke tension in the wheels that they were out of true immediately. Nonetheless, I began to ride regularly.
Now, I have been having some fun with this “Righteousness” thing, and I hope that you, the esteemed reader, realize that I’ve been tongue in cheek about that. I wrote before about John Woolman’s assertion that “Love was the first motion.” From the point of view of a panentheist (‘that of God in everything, and everything in God’), this is an all-encompassing, cosmic love characterized by awe. Brian Swimme has written, "The universe shivers with wonder in the depths of the human." Creation myth after creation myth (Genesis not excluded) tries to give us our context as humans. One of the strong consistencies in these myths is that once the human is created (always in some way a penultimate part of the story, just as the creation of fungi is the penultimate moment in mushroom cosmologies), the human expresses awe and gives thanks to the creator and the creation. This humble awe and appreciation is our fundamental relationship to our universe. This is the cosmic Love that is indeed the first, primary motion.
Now that you are feeling all touch-feely, let me tell you what I believe that the second motion was, for Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Teresa of Avila, John Woolman, and any other mystic you can thing of. The second motion is a lived system of ethics that grows out of and honors the Love. Faith and Practice, dig?
My point here, is that we must keep the first and second motions in mind at all times. Otherwise, our attempts to live in right relationship with the Earth become dogmatic, rigid, self-righteous, and (horrors!) boring. Jesus chastised the Jews again and again for having fallen into a legalistic system of piety, rather than an authentic living expression of divine love. This is the meaning of sin as a term taken from archery, meaning "to miss the mark." When an archer misses the mark, she goes and fetches (not fletches, now; that comes earlier) her arrow and shoots again. Very much more alive and dynamic than, "Now you've got a black mark on your everlasting soul, and St. Peter will make you sweat for it." So, when you are doing your ecological footprint at, don't forget why you are doing it. Love.
"Is there Life in it?" is an old Quaker query used for discernment. I think that oaths and committments and resolutions are onerous when they don't have life in them. They may even be considered a form of violence, even if self-inflicted. However, they can also be a helpful tool for us in our praxis and living into "Pure Wisdom." (That's John Woolman, not Buddha). For me there is energy around this question of transport. I realize that the electricity running my ancient Macintosh comes from coal, nuclear, natural gas, or dead rivers, and that the solar panels on my roof will take five years to recover their own ecological footprint, but at this point the transportation issue is more alive for me. (I do have plans for a new, efficient refrigerator.) So, for 2006, I renew my old pledge, but with a radius of ten miles (because there is nowhere that I regularly go within five.) Exceptions will include large loads, really hairy weather (not just light rain), and night riding. For those things, I will burn biodiesel and straight vegetable oil.


Anonymous Mica said...

I'm trying to catch up by reading from current to past. I wanted to say that my 3 year old, Andres just mastered a 2 wheeler and scoots around without problems. He never cried or even fell. The wheels that don't work well. We couldn't tighten them enough to stay on the ground. Within a few days he was riding with the training wheels inches off the ground and he didn't know it. I think the idea could be marketed.

6:48 PM, February 02, 2006  

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