I was reminded today, in a roundabout way, how much environmentalism and ethics are tied to economics. Despite our best intentions, some of us are unable to afford to take certain steps toward ecosensitive living. Bear with me a little as I explain what I mean.
Earlier today I read an article from the Toronto Star about 'guerilla bike activists' in Toronto taking matters into their own hands. The Other Urban Repair Squad, a group of urban cyclists turned vigilante, tired of the city's lack of progress in its bike lane installation plan (they are, in fact, two years behind schedule), is using bright pink paint to stencil in their own bike lanes and symbols on streets scheduled to have them.
I say good for them! While I am generally wary of vigilante activism, there are times when the level of frustration with governments' lack of commitment and follow-through on social and environmental issues reaches a point where I say to hell with it. Let's push them a little. Let's bypass some of the bureaucracy that is partially responsible for the many delays. Besides, no one gets hurt.
For many years I managed to get by without a car. I relied on walking, cycling, and public transportation. Then a job transfer forced me to move to a much smaller town with a less developed public transportation system. And the office in which I work is in an even smaller community just outside of town. While I have managed to cycle to work in the warm seasons, it takes between forty and sixty minutes to cycle each way. Plus part of the way consists of a rural route with a gravel shoulder stretch which is definitely not suitable for winter cycling, especially when I can't afford to buy proper winter cycling gear.
Thus, along with relocation, I was forced to purchase a car. I wanted to get a fuel efficient car like a Mercedez smart car, or a hybrid like the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, but my budget didn't allow for that. The one I did buy, a Toyota Echo, though not as good as the above, is still pretty good, and I don't commute very far--less than twenty minutes each way.
Reminded by the guerrilla bike activist article in the star today, and reflecting on my current situation, I decided to take the ecological footprint quiz again--I had taken it years ago. I wanted to see what the impact of my current lifestyle is on the environment, especially with the move to living in a floor of a house, rather than a city apartment, and to a car commute rather than the pedestrian and public transportation commute. My current footprint, measured in global hectare usage, is 2.4.
If everyone lived the way I do, the notes below my score tell me, we would need 1.3 planets. The "average ecological footprint in [Canada] is 8.8 global hectares per person". And the biologically productive global hectares per person worldwide is only 1.8. Which categories, you may ask, brought my score to 2.4? While mobility and food were low, and goods/services a little higher, shelter was the highest. While the quiz is rudimentary, it provides a useful snapshot of where we each stand in relation to what the earth is capable of providing.
Although a small part of my overconsumption comes down to weakness, lack of commitment and resolve, much of it comes down to economics, to how much money I have and what I can afford. Seven years ago I made the choice to adopt a vegan diet. Let me say here that my choice has very little to do with health issues, though becoming vegetarian fourteen years ago did. I became vegan for ethical reasons. That choice alone drastically reduces my footprint (I'll elaborate on that some other time.) Eating local and organic products, however, which would lower it still, is another matter. I cannot make that choice. While a vegan diet is generally much cheaper than an animal-based diet, organic and local foods are much more expensive. I often simply cannot afford to eat locally or organically.
Much of this comes down to systemic issues, to politics and culture. Much government funding goes towards large corporations and mass production, rather than towards local groups and individuals. Much funding also goes towards the transportation of foods from all over the world. And of course, like it or not, class issues come into play. For a simple illustration, take the time to visit grocery stores found in different neighborhoods. You'll notice very quickly that not only the most variety, but also the best and most healthy options are to be found in the wealthier neighborhoods. The largest selection of the most unhealthy, most artificial and highly processed foods are to be found, at the lowest prices, in poor neighborhoods. It costs to care.
I can choose to be vegan, but my wallet determines to what extent I can eat fresh, local, organic food. I can choose to walk and cycle more, but I am restricted to an extent by the amount of proper gear I can afford and the cycling infrastructure that exists where I live. I can choose not to get a hummer, SUV, or muscle car, but the most efficient vehicles are once again out of my price range.
Despite our best intentions, the bottom line is often the dollar. The less money we have, the less choice we have in our pursuit of healthy, ecosensitive, ethical lifestyles. It costs to be healthy. It costs to be ecosensitive. It costs to be ethical.