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#1 2008-09-26 22:29:34

MichaelBluejay
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Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

We all know that it takes less energy to bike than to drive, even when we factor in the energy used to produce and transport the food.

But a paper I just found posits an interesting thesis:  The environmental benefits of cycling are wiped out by the fact that cyclists are healthy and thus live longer, and they consume more energy during those extra years of life.  The paper is reviewed at TerraPass.

The paper notes that sedentary Americans who start cycling to work regularly will live an extra 10.6 years on average.  It would be 12.4, but we have to factor in the increased risk of getting killed from cycling in the USA.  And though that risk seems substantial, it's worth noting that the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks.  If you don't cycle then you get 0 extra years, while if you cycle then you get an extra 10.6 years even *after* you consider the risk of dying from cycling.  (This in fact is one of the arguments used by helmet law opponents:  Public health is better served by getting people to bike even without helmets, than to not bike at all.  And when helmet laws are passed, many people do indeed decide to stop biking at all, or to never start.)

Note that lifespan energy problem from switching to cycling doesn't apply to fit people.  Those who switch from regular exercise to bicycle commuting can't expect to live any longer since they're already fit.  However, most Americans don't do regular exercise, so the lifespan energy does apply to most Americans.

One criticism I've seen made is that the paper didn't consider the energy costs of medication and treatment of diseases caused by a lack of exercise in the people who are dying earlier.  While that's true, I'm extremely skeptical that that energy use amounts for much -- certainly not enough to change the study's conclusions.

An interesting footnote is that even if the energy use is a wash, by switching to cycling now we're shifting *when* we use the energy -- less now, more later.  That could be important as there's a pressing need to reduce greenhouse gases immediately, whereas by our golden years the world might be producing a lot less greenhouse gases by virtue of peak oil.

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#2 2008-10-02 13:34:42

bikinpolitico
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

This is an old report, and I find the reasoning pretty dubious. As you said there are other costs of car culture to society that are not factored in not the least of which is quality of life.

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#3 2008-10-02 20:54:59

doughead
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Registered: 2008-05-27
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

I don't want to ride on streets with a half million cyclists any more than I want to ride on streets with a half million autos.

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#4 2008-10-02 22:23:47

dougmc
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

Ok, then where do you want to ride?  Streets with a half million pedestrians?  Streets with 20,000 buses?

Even if gas goes to $20/gal, people will still need to get places, and they'll use the infrastructure already in place.  Maybe they'll give up their cars for bikes.  Maybe they'll walk.  Perhaps people will take fewer trips if they have to work more at it (pedal at 1/3rd the speed) or spend more on gas, but the roads will still be pretty full ...

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#5 2008-10-02 22:35:09

MichaelBluejay
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

Of course the paper didn't consider quality of life, because the point of the paper was to compare the *energy* costs of biking vs. driving.

In any event, most "quality of life" things typically use a lot of energy.  Most Americans consider cars, TV's, planes, appliances etc. to be defining aspects of QOL.  Whenever energy activists talk about reducing our dependence on foreign oil, adding an energy tax, or putting curbs on energy pollution, the response is always, "But using lots of energy is our way of life!"

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#6 2008-10-03 08:35:50

doughead
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

The point is that if we are talking about the future and not talking about a reduction of the population we are condemning ourselves and our small families to catastrophe and a big fat no quality of life for a rational person. Now we can discuss whether humans are actually rational or not, should we start with bicycle activists? Maybe we should wonder if the powerful in social politics even need to hear us?
Is the bee hive a model for "density"?
Is B. F. Skinner's "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" a prophetic guideline for our culture's future?

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#7 2008-10-05 13:12:14

timdiller
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Registered: 2008-09-28
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

I find the thinking behind the argument to be a little absurd. What is the point of an environmental benefit if not for the benefit of humanity? Can we not consider health and long life to be worthy public goals? Or are humans the enemy?
Here it is: <quote>One of the single best things you can do for the planet is to limit your time here.</quote> According to this point of view, perhaps Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin should be viewed as heros for substantially reducing the human footprint on the planet! War and disease are good because they keep the population in check. Do we really want to follow this line of reasoning?
Perhaps this boils down to the difference between two environmental philosophies:
1-We are placed here as stewards of creation and should use it with care and responsibility. (My personal point of view)
2-"The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth."

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#8 2008-10-05 14:29:16

MichaelBluejay
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

timdiller, yes, that's exactly the crux of the matter.  It's not the animals and plants that are causing all the problems, it's us.  So yes, the fewer the people on the planet, the better.  This isn't really a new idea, Paul Ehrlich explored this in _The Population Bomb_ back in the 60's.  And extending lifespan is just as bad as increasing the population on that score, since it results in more people-years on the planet.

I'm not saying that the paper justifies driving, because first off, the paper didn't say that driving was *better*, it said that the energy costs were a wash.  And even if the energy costs are equal, autos have other big problems like killing people, causing local air pollution, and destroying the walkability of communities.  And as I mentioned, even if the energy costs are a wash, the energy use doesn't all happen at the same time.  By biking we shift our energy use into later in life, which is important since we have an immediate need to reduce our current energy use because of climate change, right now.  Also, the energy costs are only a wash if sedentary people start biking to work.  If the people switching to biking are already exercising, they're not gonna live any longer by getting healthier, so they really do enjoy the energy savings.

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#9 2008-10-05 20:33:32

doughead
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

"The Earth does not care about us, we belong to the Earth."

That would be the operational sentence.
And yes war, famine and disease are in the whole very good things if there is any such thing as good and bad.
The advent of agriculture 12 to 14 thousand years ago set us on the path to population explosion and the surplus based politics that we have lived with all of our lives. Nothing grows forever so killing the enemy and the unborn may be your human duty. One of the reasons that our medical system is so expensive is the massive amounts of money spent on dieing people in the last weeks of life. Yes medicine should be rationed.
Let's smoke that in our "sustainability" pipes.
We are stewards of nothing, nature bats last, we are definitely not in charge.
The "environmental" movement is full of Victorian vanity. the earth will take care of itself, culture and society is another matter.

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#10 2010-01-21 23:41:49

rich00
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Posts: 166

Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

I don't agree with the perspective of this argument that a cyclists longer lifespan negates the environmental benefits. With that logic, we should all aim to die young to "help" the environment. Ummm, yeah.... okay....no thanks.

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#11 2010-01-22 02:05:14

MichaelBluejay
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

The argument doesn't lead to the conclusion we *should* aim to die young, but that we did, there would be an environmental benefit. That's pretty hard to argue with.   Human population has doubled in just 40 years, and that's why we have climate change, excessive pollution, energy crises, aggressive strip-mining, and everything else.  People are what's driving the problems, and the more people, the greater the problems.

If there were half as many people (spread out evenly), there would be half as many cars, half as much chemical toxins, etc.

No one suggested that our *plan* should be to die early, but the sooner we start realizing that the one environmental problem that drives all others is population, the better.  I don't intend to limit my lifespan, either, but I did commit to not having kids.

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#12 2010-01-22 10:16:55

damicoaustin
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

I wonder if they only looked at energy use from the perspective of bicycling instead of driving. The problem with this is that you're isolating one outcome without looking at the possible affects of more people bicycling on other outcomes. Would bicyclists tend to be more environmentally conscious in other aspects? I would tend to believe so.

A substantial mode shift to bicycling--I believe--would result in a population more apt to take care of the planet in many other ways. Michael, this also goes back to your past posts about energy consumption (calories) of bicyclists. But again, even if you're consuming more calories that doesn't mean the types of calories and the way they are produced are going to have a negative impact overall.

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#13 2010-01-22 12:17:44

dougmc
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

Ultimately, the best any of us can do to help the environment is to kill ourselves.  (Well, if you can dedicate your life to convincing others to curb their wasteful ways (or kill themselves), that could easily lead to a larger benefit than killing just one person.  But that only works for a few Al Gores -- we can't *all* do that.)

Even better than killing ourselves would be killing lots of people, preferably in a way that doesn't damage the environment (so starting WW3 would be out.  But a new genetically engineered plague might work nicely.)

Alas, most of us aren't quite *that* dedicated to helping the environment (and those that are, er, were, aren't around anymore) so we'll have to settle for less drastic measures.

As for population growth leading to climate change and such, it's certainly a large part of the problem, but there is more to it.  We're likely to use all of the oil we can easily reach, and having six billion instead of three billion (for now) people simply means we'll use it faster.  All that CO2 is going to go into the same sized atmosphere and so in the end, the CO2 levels are likely to be similar -- it'll just happen later.  (This assumes that there's no technological breakthrough that allows us to sequester carbon, or removes our need to burn oil for fuel, but then again, with double the population, our rate of technological development is likely to approximately double as well.)

But yeah, too many of us.

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#14 2010-01-22 18:50:32

Criminally Bulgur
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Registered: 2010-01-22
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

<i>The problem with this is that you're isolating one outcome without looking at the possible affects of more people bicycling on other outcomes. Would bicyclists tend to be more environmentally conscious in other aspects?</i>

This would seem to be the key.  A "cycling culture" would have systemic effects that don't come across in a simple, person-to-person comparison using just one variable : e.g., in a city built to a cycling-commuter friendly scale (i.e., denser) and with light rail connecting the suburbs to the urban centers, even the non-cyclists would burn less fuel when commuting.

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#15 2010-01-22 23:38:17

rich00
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Registered: 2010-01-18
Posts: 166

Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

The luxuries of today's modern society, (mostly oil based transport and excessive wasteful electrical consumption) are the problems threatening the environment.

The choice of living a life that is sustainable is available, however *inconvenient* it may be.

A large portion of the world's population doesn't have any negative impact on the environment.


The problem is that in first world countries, the ability to speed around at 80mph in 3000lb vehicles, any other cheap unlimited energy use, economic profit importance over consequences, those are the threats, not all human population.


The funny thing is, as humans, we grow accustomed to everything we experience. So, even though we have all these great conveniences, we take them for granted and they don't make us happy after the fancy wears off. So we keep wanting more, more power, more speed, more luxury, yet in the end what do we really gain? A polluted environment, poor health, and laziness.

Is it worth it? Do you want to be responsible for contributing to the destruction? Is it worth cutting 10 or 20 years off your life so that you can experience these luxuries?

It's time we start living sustainably, and this has nothing to do with a social fad. This has everything to do with life.

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#16 2010-01-23 02:12:04

MichaelBluejay
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Re: Biking's environmental benefits negated by longer lifespan

A large portion of the world's population doesn't have any negative impact on the environment.

That's extremely debatable.  The more people there are, the more demand there is for food, land, timber, at the very least (and everything else at the very most), and that demand is what's causing our problems.  I've spent time in India, where the overwhelming majority of the country lives in poverty, and the standard of living of many couldn't get any lower, yet India certainly has crippling environmental problems -- and would have most of them even if driving hadn't started becoming more popular there, among those who can afford it.  As just one example of many, the poor burn anything they can find for heat and light.  Don't think that doesn't cause lots of nasty air pollution or release lots of carbon.

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