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Perspective

A commuter's Earth Day confession

By JIM VERHULST
Published April 22, 2007


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Forgive me, Mother Earth, for I am sinning. After 25 years of commuting by walking, taking the bus or - mostly - riding my bike, I am now driving my old Volvo wagon to work.

I feel no guilt.

My carbon footprint has grown a size, but I don't care.

My wife and I recycle. We have a certified Florida natural organic garden instead of a water-sucking lawn. She likes to garden and I hate to mow. It works for us. We compost kitchen scraps. We grow our own herbs, sugarcane, pears, antique roses and the occasional pineapple and banana. We get free loads of mulch. We collect rain in barrels. We use compact fluorescent bulbs in the kitchen and set the A/C to 80 degrees. We have made every one of these choices quite consciously to conserve - not just the environment but the cash in our pocket.

We don't pay for a lawn mower and its gas. We don't pay to water the lawn we don't have. Fertilizer is free when it's your own compost. Herbs and roses we grow are ones we don't have to buy at the store.

We've never viewed any of these choices as sacrifices because we enjoy the fruits of each one. Well, maybe not the thermostat at 80, but ceiling fans help.

However, being a one-car family, which we were for a quarter century, was strictly an economic decision, not an environmental one. That it was good for the globe was incidental. We planned our lives around living with one car for a simple reason, really: We couldn't afford two.

Then our one car got old and expensive to repair. So we bought a bright shiny Prius hybrid, and I became a self-parody, taking the recycling to the drop-off center in my "green" car wearing my scruffy 20-year-old clogs I bought in Sweden.

Amid all this, we discovered that our Volvo wagon wasn't worth much on the used car market. So we kept it, at first as a lumber store runner. Then letting our oldest son drive it simplified the drop-off, pick-up shuffle we had learned to coordinate over the years with an active family of four often scattering to the four winds for different activities at the same time.

And when that oldest son headed off to college last August, he left behind the Volvo but took with him the pretty good bike I had used for my commute. Suddenly, Lord knows why, the Volvo quit breaking down. After all these years, I had a car but not a commuter bike.

I am a serious, recreational bicyclist. I ride between 100 and 120 miles a week during my lunch hours. Riding that same bike to work requires owning a cycle high-end enough to last but not so costly that it would pain me to commute in the rusting rain and leave it outside at work to corrode. I have an expensive racing bike, but it always stayed home safe and dry in the garage. I wasn't about to ride it to work, rain or shine. Just shine. Or maybe not even then.

Buying a new bike that would suit my specific commuting needs would have cost about three years' worth of the gas I'll burn driving to work. Therefore, I drive - 21 miles each week, total - and keep that sweet bike I already own safely tucked in the back of the Volvo for those lunchtime rides. So far, it's been the cheapest way to do things. More fun, too. To be honest, it's so nice to climb into a car at day's end instead of changing into bike clothes, packing a bag and loading up for the ride home.

Short of pulling on a hairshirt and gathering berries and grubs before retiring for the night to a mud-daubed hut, all of us can reduce our carbon footprints. But the things we do have to make sense to us both financially and practically and not be too painful. Or we won't do them.

That's as it should be. I run around the house turning off lights, not to save the world but to save my pocketbook. I'm cheap. Acting in the interest of the environment should be economical - and maybe fun - not drudgery and greener-than-thou one-upsmanship. After all, the ultimate green man or woman would simply hold his breath, keeping all that evil carbon dioxide in his lungs until, well, you get the idea.

The importance of being earnest has its limits. The more that saving the world can intersect with self-interest, the better off we'll all be. If we can save money while aiding Mother Earth, we'll be far likelier to do it.

If gas prices keep rising, I might just head to the bicycle shop and become a little greener again. Not because it would be the right thing. But because it would be the cheaper thing.

[Last modified April 21, 2007, 19:29:05]


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