You bike, you pollute

July 25, 2006

Cyclist Floyd Landis -- who this past weekend became the third American, after Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond, to win the prestigious Tour de France -- and all you other spokeheads out there who think the sound of the wind rushing past your ears is a paean to a healthful pastime and a clean environment are making things tough for the rest of us. You may believe you're conserving energy because you ride a bicycle. But, according to a professor at the Wharton School in Philadelphia, you're mistaken. Your two-wheeling exercising makes you fit, which makes you live longer, which makes you, over time, use more energy than you save by pushing those pedals.

We can't be sure whether Karl T. Ulrich, whose latest version of his working paper titled "The Environmental Paradox of Bicycling" came out this month, is pulling your Spandex-wrapped leg, or if he just finally caught up with his undergraduate syllabus of works by Jonathan Swift and Thomas Malthus. Either way, he does have a point: The longer you live, the more fuel -- food, electricity, gasoline -- you will consume. So, for the moment, let's play along with this notion.

If physical activity boosts longevity, and longevity is the enemy of conservation, then it follows that the true conservationists are the sedentary (couch potatoes), the idle (handheld-game players) and the well-rounded (retired sumo wrestlers). Genes aside, it may be expected that these and other individuals -- heavy drinkers, smokers, drug addicts, risk takers, people with poor diets -- won't be around as long as the average cyclist. And since their dependence upon energy will be more short-lived, should we encourage their choice of lifestyles? Is this how we resolve what Mr. Ulrich describes as "a basic societal tension between the quest for longevity and the environmental costs of increased population"?

Of course not. As a society, we value a long and healthy life, with equal emphasis on each adjective. The answer is simple: We need more sources of renewable energy. That way, the couch potato can stay home and wait for the fetch-me call from the geriatric cyclist whose 10-speed has blown a tire.

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