In Defense of a Drop in the Bucket

This is a guest post from my friend Steve Bein, author of the Fated Blades novels, which entwine present-day crime and suspense with Japanese history; his Year of the Demon comes out in October. Steve also has a deep interest in climate change issues, and here delves into one of the core problems of climate change action. — Luc

Bike commuters in Beijing

A few years ago, after six years of riding my bicycle to work year-round, I did the math on how much gas I’d saved.  I’m a college professor, so I do more than half of my work from home.  I go to campus three days a week, thirty-two weeks a year, or thirty-seven weeks when I can teach summer school.  My round-trip bike ride was five or six miles, depending on what route I took.  I drive a Toyota Matrix, which gets me 33 miles per gallon pretty consistently.  So, crunching the numbers, I calculated that I’d saved 34½ gallons of gas, a whopping half a tank a year.

I would have done better by never going to visit my family.  My mom lives 300 miles away, my father 350—call it two tanks of gas per visit on average.  I’d be a pretty inconsiderate son, but I’d sure be a lot greener.

I might mention that I live in Minnesota, where it gets cold enough that on most winter days I was the only one on a bicycle.  By all social standards, my behavior was irrational.  And once I’d done the math, I concluded that there was no pressing ecological reason to continue riding in the winter.  If I stayed home for Thanksgiving that year, I’d offset the next four years worth of commuting.

In short, all of those cold winter rides and sweaty summer rides had accomplished nothing.  Or if not nothing, at least pretty close to nothing.  A drop in the bucket at best.

The math looks a little different if you go back six years at look at the decision to buy a house.  One of the primary concerns was commuting distance.  I was committed to biking to work, and if I hadn’t been, I could have done what many other people do: spend thousands of miles a year driving to work.  This may yet be in the cards for me.  College teaching positions are few and far between, and since my partner commutes five days a week, fifty weeks a year, the conscientious decision is to live close to her work, not mine.  It’s easily within the realm of possibility for me to commute sixty miles one way—a 2200% increase in fuel consumption, based solely on where we bought our house.

And yet even this is just a drop in the bucket, isn’t it?  One person’s driving decisions aren’t going to affect climate change to any significant degree.  But here’s the thing: even if all of my efforts amount to no more than a few drops in the bucket, I have to drop my drops.  There’s a bucket of problem and a bucket of solution, and my drop is going to fall in one or the other.  There is no scenario in which I have no drops.

The philosophy of futility says that even if you erase your carbon footprint completely, almost nothing will change.  Get all of your friends and family to do it too and still almost nothing will change.  There’s some truth to this, ugly as it may be.  But don’t let that demoralize you, because it’s utterly trivial in the face of the fact that you will drop your drops somewhere. You can’t not.

A $100 bicycle defined the purchase of a $135,000 house.  That’s the truth.  Because of that $100 bicycle, we didn’t buy a second car.  That’s the truth too.  As I learned during my sabbatical, riding every day keeps me about ten pounds lighter.  There are other side effects, some good, some bad.  Because of the bike, I’m healthier.  Because of the bike, we found a one-car garage sufficient, and that means our house will be tougher to sell.  Because of my bike, my partner bought a bike.

John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  He was talking about nature, but it applies to bikes and cars and houses too, and to drops and buckets.

Photo by John Williams – IDEAS Project