The Reluctant Environmentalist
How cutting back to one car changed our family
Like most people, I’m fairly lazy and set in my ways, and if it weren’t necessary for me to bike, I wouldn’t. But my family recently downsized from two cars to one, and this has forced us to make some adjustments. This wasn’t a conscious choice; one of our cars couldn’t be fixed and we didn’t want to make the investment in a new car just yet.
So now I sometimes pick up my 6-year-old daughter from school, three miles away from home, and take her to the JCC for swim team, all on a bicycle. On one particularly cold Pittsburgh December day, I picked her up on a Trail-a-Bike (it’s sort of like a tandem, but better and safer). The teacher looked horrified when I took out a snowsuit and started to bundle up my daughter.
“Are you sure she’ll be okay?” the teacher asked, disparagingly.
Fortunately my kids can withstand the cold; however, the ride home was not easy. The sidewalks were filled with winter slush that was hard to see in the darkness, and the trailer part attached to my bike slipped a bit, seeming to wobble. It was a bit unnerving to me, but my daughter didn’t notice.
Though I'm the first to admit I didn't choose to start biking for altruistic reasons, I have realized there are plenty of plus sides to my vehicular loss. I'm reminded that Jewish tradition is aware that, like me, most of us are lazy and don’t do things unless they are necessary or we are reminded of them in some way. This is where Tu Bishvat, the New Year for trees, comes in.
Jews have actually built a day into our calendar to remind us of the importance of trees, and more broadly, our environment. The Bible tells us that "Man is a tree of the field," and the analogy can teach us much. As trees need to be fed, watered, nurtured, and gain sustenance from their environments, so do we humans. Tu Bishvat can be a time to reflect, not only on trees, but on our relationship to the world around us and our patterns of consumption.
There have been other changes in my family's lives, too. My teenage daughter can’t ask me to take her shopping whenever she feels like it. Which is rather nice. It forces her to vary her consumption activities, and makes her be more creative about her leisure time by walking, biking, or taking a bus where she wants to go.
While I didn’t plan to be in this situation, biking everywhere brings a certain freedom. I feel like a teenager again, back to a time without the responsibilities of car payments and insurance. It’s just the pleasures of the open road. I like the feeling of using my muscles to get where I need to go, and I feel like a pro with my fancy face mask and expensive dual-layered bicycle gloves. Here in Pittsburgh, where there are many students and others without cars for both practical and ideological reasons, I don’t feel like an anomaly.
Mostly, I like being able to pay attention to the world around me as I travel, enjoying the peace and quiet of the ride. In fact, recent research shows that girls who walk or bike to school do better on tests, perhaps because it gives them time to mentally prepare for the day. The researchers are on to something there. Many years ago I spent a year biking to work on a wonderful dedicated bicycle greenway in Minneapolis, one of the best cities for biking in the United States. I was in the best shape of my life, which thrilled me. I even got an idea for a book while biking that trail with a friend. Biking, rather than driving, is certainly good for me physically, most probably good for me mentally, and without a doubt better for the environment.
Having children definitely changes our patterns of consumption, but can also provide motivation for maintaining the world as much as possible, so that it is not altered beyond all recognition in the lifetimes of our grandchildren. I know that there is much more sprawl in this country now than in the lifetime of my parents; much of our landscape has been destroyed by far-flung building. If more of us wanted to live without cars, and tried to live in places where it is possible to get around by bike and public transportation, there would be a huge impact on land use in this country.
One of the most beautiful stories in the Talmud is about a man named Choni who watched another man planting a carob tree. Choni said to the planter, “How long does the tree require to grow [and produce fruit]?” The man answered, “70 years.” Choni said, “do you think you will live for 70 years?!” The man replied, “I found the world with carob trees; just as my fathers planted for me, I too am planting for my children.”
This Tu Bishvat, thinking about ourselves like trees can be a reminder that we are all capable of planning for the future, consuming less, and exercising more in the coming year. Even with families, it is possible to rethink our consumption habits. Maybe we can carpool somewhere, or combine errands so we use less gas and make fewer trips. Or ride our bikes when the weather is amenable. Still, I don’t recommend it in the slush--for those winter days, I'm going with Zipcar!