This is an amazing story, for those who missed it, one that I’m adding to my growing list of evidence for my theory that a lot of politicians—especially politicians—got where they are because their status as privileged white men prevented so many people from noticing they’re dumb as rocks. A bicyclist wrote to Washington state representative Ed Orcutt (R) about a new bike tax that’s been proposed as part of a larger transportation package, seemingly for no other reason than to soothe the morons who think they’re being oppressed by those icky bicyclists with their environmental sensitivity and strengthened cardiovascular systems. The constituent felt, and I agree, that for the sake of the environment, cars should be taxed more to pay for bicycle infrastructure, because we should be encouraging people to get out of cars and onto bikes if they can. Orcutt, it turns out, is one of those bike-hating morons, because this is what he replied with in email:
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that each passenger vehicle in the U.S. generates on average 4.8 metric tons of CO2 every year, not accounting for emissions resulting in damage to the vehicle and local infrastructure, along with the actual production of fuel. The European Cyclists Federation, however, puts CO2 emissions from biking at about 10 times less than driving a car (PDF), even after accounting for the emissions required to make the bike and emissions linked to food the rider eats to power the device.
Emphasis mine, because the numbers only even are that low if you consider as “fuel” the food the bicyclist eats. Doing that is unnecessarily generous, because the reality is that bicyclists almost certainly do not eat more that average car-bound Americans. They just burn off more of the calories they consume. Considering how many more calories Americans consume than they used to, they have it to burn. As someone who used to get around primarily by bike when I lived in Texas, I can assure you that it didn’t really impact how much I ate, though it probably meant I spent less time worrying about it.
What makes this story interesting is Orcutt apologized, and his apology may be even dumber than his weird belief that the slightly greater CO2 emissions of someone who is meeting CDC-recommended minimums for cardiovascular exercise somehow hurts the environment more than a car.
Although I have always recognized that bicycling emits less carbon than cars, I see I did a poor job of indicating that within my e-mail. My point was that by not driving a car, a cyclist was not necessarily having a zero-carbon footprint. In looking back, it was not a point worthy of even mentioning so, again, I apologize – both for bringing it up and for the wording of the e-mail.
It’s not the dishonesty—remember, he said that bikes create more CO2 than cars, and denying that is idiotic since we have it in writing—because bald-faced lying is just par for the course with politicians like him, especially on the issue of greenhouse gases, where every word out of conservative mouths is a lie. It’s the part I highlighted. You see this kind of all-or-nothing thinking with conservatives a lot. (Which is why they insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that Michelle Obama insists that occasional treats are forbidden in the diet she’s supposedly forcing on Americans, and therefore claim she’s a “hypocrite” if she eats an occasional treat.) My theory is that they don’t really understand concepts like harm reduction or conservation or choosing your battles, because they’re so steeped in the language of “sin” that they can’t think of any issues outside of personal moralizing.
You can see that logic at work here. Liberals say that excessive greenhouse gases are bad for the environment, so we need to take steps to reduce them. Conservatives hear, “Greenhouse gases are BAD, therefore, you are a BAD person for emitting them.” Their only goal, then, is to “prove” liberals wrong. So they say things like, “Well, you breathe in and out, so you must be a HYPOCRITE.” You see this sort of thing all the time. A lot of conservatives are rock certain that everyone else secretly thinks like them, and so they’re always on the lookout for liberal “hypocrisy” they can use to “prove” that we’re secretly as bad as they are. The hope, I guess, is to shut us up. It hasn’t worked, but whatever.
To be clear, there is a lot of moralizing on this topic, and I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong. Encouraging people to adopt a conservationist attitude out of the goodness of their hearts, while no substitute for public policies that steer people to better behaviors, is a great help. If nothing else, the more people who adopt these attitudes, the more political support you get for policies that can lead to widespread change. You see that with bicycling—the more people who pick it up, the more political support there is for bike lanes, better laws, etc. that make it easier for more people to bike—so I’m all for it. But what’s happened here is that conservatives only focus on that and not on the harm-in-the-world aspect. Just as with Jesus’ ridiculous claim that a person who has a private lustful thought has committed adultery, you get morons saying that breathing in and out is the same thing as owning a car that is 5 times as big as you’ll ever need for ego reasons.
This is a serious problem, because as you can see, a lot of government is improvement-oriented, and if it’s stuffed with people who believe that anything short of perfection—say, by believing that it’s useless to reduce CO2 unless we set out to completely eliminate it—is a waste of time, nothing will get done.
Of course, getting nothing done is exactly what Republicans and their benefactors want, so there you go.