26 April 2007

Taking on Big Green

As a follow-up to my last post, here's a link to a slightly more polemical articulation of the point I was trying to make yesterday. The author zeroes in on the Sierra Club committing just the sort of consumption-first compromising I was lamenting.

25 April 2007

Earth Day and the governor's Hummer

I've been thinking a bit about The Environment lately. Granted, I'm always thinking about the little 'e' environment because ... well, that's what I do for my day job. But it seems recently like The Environment has suddenly gotten trendy, and I have pretty mixed feelings about that.

Last Sunday marked yet another Earth Day. I had intended to post a Happy Earth Day blog, but the fact is that I had trouble motivating. I've been pretty cynical about the concept of Earth Day ever since I saw the huge piles of trash generated by Cal's Earth Day celebration during one of my first years here. If, as the saying goes, "Earth Day is everyday," I'm not sure about the need to commemorate it once a year. After all, ecology has taught as that the earth is impacted by long-term and cumulative effects of human actions, not the fact that we rode our bikes to the Earth Day concert instead of driving. It's kind of like Christians who only go to church on Christmas and Easter. But I digress....

So The Environment is suddenly the issue that's on everybody's mind, and after decades of research and publicity, people are finally waking up to the reality that humans are major drivers of climate change. So why am I so cynical now that public acceptance of one of the political issues that's most important to me has reached critical mass? For starters, public opinion polls have consistently shown that people do care about the environment, and it bothers me that suddenly The Environment has been given legitimacy because the major media have started reporting on it slightly more intelligently. (For which I think Al Gore is rightfully given praise. Say what you will about him, he's persistent.)

But let's accept for a moment that environmentalism has, in fact, recently achieved greater mainstream support. Why should I have reservations about this? I think in part it's analogous to that feeling you get when your favorite, underground band gets discovered. It somehow cheapens the experience of listening to their music knowing that a lot of other people are now, too. But that's a pretty silly reason to stop liking a band that you enjoy listening to, and it's even sillier when it's about caring for the environment, an issue everyone should care about. I'd like to think I'm mature enough not to hate on people who just recently started caring about the environment, but to push the music analogy a little further, I'm concerned there's something deeper that's going on: When your favorite, underground band gets popular, is it because they sold out? That's what I worry is happening with the environmental movement.

Our own governator was on the cover of Newsweek a couple weeks ago touting the environment. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy when politicians embrace the environment as an issue, and even happier when it's a Republican. (After all, the conservation movement is all about being conservative.) What I've heard of his argument seems to be that we can have our cake and eat it, too. To brutally paraphrase his latest talking points about the environment, he argues that the environmental movement is too negative and proscriptive (true) and that we need to look for more positive ways to adjust our lives to protect the environment (true again). But his positive adjustments seem to involve not changing the way we live our lives but just doing the same things with better products. He pimped his ride into a "green" Hummer, and now he's saving the planet, too. I think it relies a bit too much on technology and too little on changing human behavior.

Maybe he has a point, though. If he's proven nothing else in the past couple years, he's proven to me that he's a much more astute politician than I gave him credit for. And he knows that technological innovation will always outpace changes to human nature. If the old argument was that we had to each cut our consumption in half, not a lot of people would get on board. And those who did were probably living in a tree somewhere, anyway, so their contribution might be negligible. But if he says we can save the planet by only reducing our consumption by 10% each, maybe a lot more people will change their habits a little, and the net result is a happier planet. That's certainly my hope, even if I do worry that it cheapens the message a bit. (If you're interested in a slightly more rigorous examination of consumption and the environment than my back-of-the-envelope math, I encourage you to calculate your ecological footprint. It's fun and educational.)

So, maybe my favorite underground band has blown up. As long as those of us responsible for educating the next generation of environmental stewards can keep the movement from selling out, maybe there's a bit of hope yet. Happy Earth Day.


20 April 2007

Bike Rage II

My personal bike rage incident, continued from last time ...

The incident in question took place last fall. I was riding home in the dark, which is typical for that time of year, so I had my blinking headlight turned on. I was riding down a residential street a couple blocks south of the Rockridge BART when a pickup that was facing the same direction as me pulled out of a parking spot ahead of me and attempted to make a U-turn in the middle of the block. Of course the road was too narrow, so he was at a right angle to the street in the opposite lane as I approached. I slowed down, but he didn't seem to be moving, so I (foolishly) assumed he'd seen me and was waiting. But as I got closer, he suddenly put the truck in reverse and backed into my lane. I slammed on my brakes and stopped just in time as he came to a stop completely obstructing my way.

To understand my frame of mind at this moment, we need to step back to my morning commute just a few weeks before. A half-block from the scene of my incident with the pickup, some woman in a Saab ran a stop sign and came within inches of running directly into me. Then, when I gave her a piece of my mind, she had the gall to yell at me. Although her windows were rolled up, reading her lips wasn't too hard, especially with her accompanying hand gesture. That she had the audacity to curse me out after almost running into me just infuriated me more. So, on this chilly fall night, when this truck nearly ran into me, something in me snapped. I cut loose with a stream of obscenities, and I even coasted closer to his driver's-side window. I'm not sure what I was hoping to accomplish with this. He looked at me and started speaking, but his window was rolled up. With the incident involving the slag in the Saab fresh in my mind, I assumed the worst, so I started giving back as good as I assumed I was getting.

Me: You $%$&!@!, watch $^!^#%@! where $$%&#&@! going!
Him: (inaudible behind window) wom wom wom wom
Me: $%#%!$!@!!
Him: (slowly rolling down window) wom wom wom ...eally sorry. I'm so sorry, I didn't see you there. Are you alright?

Well ... didn't I feel like an asshole. Traffic was starting to back up behind us on either side, so I sheepishly muttered something about being ok and rode around the back of his truck. In retrospect, I wasn't particularly conspicuous in the dark (on a poorly lit street) with nothing but a little flashing LED to light my way, and I sympathize with the guy in the truck.

I'd like to think that since then, I've been chastened and had a cooler head during my commute. But that probably isn't true -- especially during my evening commute when my blood sugar is low. Nevertheless, I would hope I could stop short of physical violence if I had a run-in with a minivan driving soccer mom from Redwood City. I'm no fan of mobs, which is one of the reasons I've never participated in Critical Mass, and maybe that will be my saving grace.


18 April 2007

Bike Rage

I've been thinking a lot lately about how my life is going to be different next year. One of the big differences associated with small-town livin' is going to be that I'll probably live close enough to work to walk. This means no more bike commuting. I'll miss the exercise and the feel of the wind through my hair, but I can get these things by riding my bike recreationally. One thing I won't miss is dealing with traffic while riding my bike.

Bike-car interactions have been much in the news around here these days because of an incident that happened during Critical Mass at the end of March. For those not familiar with it, Critical Mass is a once-monthly, anarchic bike ride through San Francisco (with a companion ride in Berkeley/Oakland) to raise awareness of cyclists and to argue for increased bike safety. It's more of a concept than an organization because it's decentralized (you don't have to be a member to ride) and the routes aren't announced until just before they start. In fact, you may have a Critical Mass in your own town.

It's an organization that I'm generally predisposed to support. As a cyclist, I have had more than my fair share of boneheaded drivers doing boneheaded things that have put me in physical danger. Anything that 1) raises awareness of cyclists and 2) shoves a big middle finger skyward toward a car-obssessed culture is worthy of my support. Unfortunately, as is typical of any radical group with no central organization, Critical Mass, too, gets its share of boneheads.

So back to where I started, last month during Critical Mass, a woman from Redwood City driving a minivan (can you picture a person more culturally in opposition to a Critical Mass rider?) got caught up in the ride and was soon surrounded by slow-moving cyclists. What happened next is a matter of great speculation. Eyewitness accounts vary, but most of the stories have the woman hitting one of the cyclists (accidentally by many, but not all, accounts) and things quickly escalating. The end result was the woman's car was dented, scratched, and had its windows knocked in. And of course, her children were terrified.

It's rare that I find myself siding with the suburban mom in the minivan, but I'm afraid the good folks of Critical Mass (at least the ones at Polk and Gough at the time of the incident) did not do us cyclists any favors. Cyclist-motorist relations are already tense in the city (less so in the less congested East Bay), and regardless of who was in the wrong, this has only made things worse. The SF Chronicle has been deluged with letters weighing in on the topic, with most people criticizing the ill-behaved cyclists. Which got me to wondering: Am I just another one of those ill-behaved cyclists?

You know how mellow people are sometimes the most vulgar, aggressive drivers? That's me on my bike. Only it's worse because the stakes seem so much higher -- there's little separating me from the car or the pavement. I've certainly fantasized about giving a beat-down to drivers that have cut me off or almost run me over, even though I haven't been in a fight since I was eight. I don't know how I would react in a situation like the one during the last Critical Mass. Would I have jumped in? I know that my instincts and my better nature may not be trustworthy in that context. I'd like to think that good sense would prevail, but in my next post I will offer as Exhibit A an experience I had last fall while riding home from school that might suggest otherwise.


13 April 2007

Swearing in English

I'm not the most diligent Harry Potter reader. I usually get caught up with each book just before the accompanying movie comes out. So with the Order of the Phoenix coming out soon, I decided it was time to get reading. But this post isn't about Harry Potter. It's about swearing. (yeah!)

I love how we share a language with the English, and yet we don't. I realize that this isn't particularly ground-breaking, everyone knows the English call an elevator a lift, but what really intrigues me is how different our two languages (dialects?) are when it comes to swearing. The English seem to have a much broader array of swear words and insults. They also seem to swear more, but maybe it's just the movies I watch. Anyway, the Harry Potter books are littered with English slang, and one word that keeps coming up is "prat". I love this word because it has such a solid, Anglo-Saxon bite to it. It's the type of word you can hear an English person muttering under his breath after the prat in question has left the room. I'm not sure what the American equivalent would be; probably something like "punk" or "tool". I was sharing my amusement over this word with Anne, and we got to wondering, what is the female equivalent of a prat? "Bitch" seemed a little too coarse, and the only other female insult I could think of was "slag", which is definitely not right. We were stumped, so if you have an idea, I'd love to hear it. Also, for the record, "git" appears to be stronger than prat, because it's only been used once so far, and it was in italics to emphasize the venom behind it. As yet, I have no data to say where "wanker" falls on that scale.

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11 April 2007

Back in action

After a lengthy hiatus, my blog is back in action (at least for now). It's been a pretty busy couple months, what with dissertation writing, teaching, and job hunting. As many of you probably know, the biggest news around here is my new job. Anne and I will be heading for Vermont at the end of July so I can start at Green Mountain College this fall. I'm very excited because it's just the kind of job I was looking for. I'll be doing mostly teaching, and I'll have a lot of chances to develop my own classes and get students out doing field work. It's a little scary to think I'll be a professor in charge of my own classes in just five months, but I guess there's no point putting it off any longer.

One of the interesting side effects of getting a job has been an intensification of my dissertation writing. During my interview, the dean of the faculty told me there was a pay difference between instructors (w/o PhD) and assistant professors (with PhD). That lit a bit of a fire under me, and I've been analyzing data and writing feverishly since I got back from my interview. I just turned in a draft of my last "data" chapter to my advisor today, so I thought I would turn my writing attentions to my long neglected blog. Not much to write about today except the new job, but I've got a few ideas kicking around that I'm hoping to dribble out while I'm revising. We'll see how that goes....

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