The bicycle

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the human race.” ~H.G. Wells.

It’s about ten and a half kilometers from my house in the suburbs of Ottawa to my office downtown, a trip that I like to take on my bicycle when the ground isn’t covered with two feet of snow. It’s days like today, when the sky is grey and the ground is frozen, that my mind drifts to summer days of pedalling down the River Pathway bike trail, to the sights and sounds of nature, and the flocks of baby geese and their mamas sitting by the water.

Last year I bought a fairly mid-range bike that quickly glides along the path and is light enough for me to carry with one hand. The trip downtown can easily be made in less than half an hour, making it much faster to hop on my bike every morning than subject myself to the throngs of SUVs and minivans stuck in rush hour traffic. The beautiful scenery and steady stream of endorphins relax and energize me all at the same time, and I often find myself smiling at the thought that I am not one of the thousands of agitated drivers slowly putting along in first gear.

My dad has been an avid cyclist for nearly as long as I can remember, ever since a sabbatical a few years ago left him feeling quite bored and restless. He spent hours riding around town while we were at school, and every day returned with stories of adventures and discoveries and bonding with fellow cyclists over challenging weather and flat tires. Bicycling changed the way my dad experienced the world. It was good for him, good for his soul.

The Bike Movement has been growing steadily across North America and it’s not hard to see why. For some, it’s part of a decision to be healthier, to burn some fat and build some muscle. For others, it’s a convenient way to beat rush hour traffic. Sometimes it’s a financial necessity. For many, cycling is (admirably) part of their effort to decrease fuel emissions, reduce roadway congestion, and lower their carbon footprint.

But the more I pedal instead of drive, the more I realize that bicycling isn’t simply a recreation issue or a health issue or an urban planning issue. It isn’t even just a ‘green’ issue, at least not entirely. When it comes down to it, bicycling is a justice issue.

The effects of motor vehicles on our environment should be pretty much common knowledge by now: in Canada, road transportation made up nearly 25% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.1 Even more shocking? A recent Canadian census estimated that somewhere around half of Canadians live within 8 kilometers of their school or place of work – a commute that can easily be done by bike.2 And because of the mechanics involved in engine “warm up” time, these short trips are the worst polluters by a long shot.3

But think about this: we are now beginning to discover that many global issues are caused or made worse by climate change, including such basic needs as food, water, health, and shelter. Let’s take agriculture as an example. Climate change – caused in large part by pollution from cars – is causing a huge increase in heat stress, droughts, and flooding, making it much more difficult for farmers to grow the food that they need for their families and communities. And if we don’t do anything to change this, it looks like the problem is only going to get worse, with climate scientists predicting that farms relying on rain to grow their crops (instead of more sophisticated and expensive irrigation systems) could see a 50% decline in the amount of food that they produce.4

There is no distinction between a people issue and a planet issue, or a local issue and a global issue. They are one and the same. What I do in Ottawa affects the life of someone in Arnprior and Toronto and Idaho and Mexico. My commute affects communities around the globe. Small decisions matter.

The other day I asked my dad why he bikes, what gets him in the saddle even in sweltering heat, deluges of rain, and sub-zero temperatures. Bottom line? he said, Cycling equals a simpler and more wholesome life. No pollution. You’re not stuck in traffic. You’re not feeding this unfettered oil-based capitalism where profit is the only thing.

So, it’s mainly about the environment? I asked.

The environment is a big part of it, for sure, he replied. But mostly I love the sense of community. Bicycles lower barriers and people are more relaxed interacting with you. I can pass someone and look at their face, and often get a smile and ‘hello’ in return. In the locker room at work, there is a real sense of community and camaraderie and common purpose. It’s beautiful.

You see, changing the world is no easy task. What is easy, is getting bogged down by the weight of the world’s problems, overwhelmed by injustice and inequality. And big problems like the ones we’re fighting certainly demand radical solutions. But maybe the most radical solution starts with the bicycle. Maybe big problems can be solved when we start to think small. Local. When we invest in our communities. When we realize that every choice we make, moment by moment, day by day, can either make the world a better place or keep the world turning just the way it always has been. The most radical world changers, the ones who look at their planet and see a broken system and who nevertheless decide that they will challenge that system head-on, those are the ones who know the power of even the most simple, small, seemingly inconsequential action.

And when local communities are strong, when we start to realize that it’s not just us in the world but that we are all connected together, when we get to know our neighbours and when a stranger stops to help change a flat bicycle tire, beautiful things start happening. We start thinking about others, about being selfless. Our world begins to change.

So the next time you feel that you are too small and the problem is too big, remember this: it all starts with the bicycle.

1. Environment Canada, “Canada’s Emissions Trends,” p. 15. Available online at: http://www.ec.gc.ca/ges-ghg/985F05FB-4744-4269-8C1A-D443F8A86814/1001-Canada%27s%20Emissions%20Trends%202013_e.pdf. Last accessed 27 February 2015.

2. Statistics Canada, “2006 Census: Analysis Series: Table 2: Median Commuting Distances of Workers (in kilometers), Canada, Provinces and Territories, 1996, 2001, and 2006,” Available online at http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/2006/as-sa/97-561/table/t2-eng.cfm. Last accessed 27 February 2015.

3. National Geographic Green Guide, “Buying Bikes: Environmental Impact,” Available online at: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/green-guide/buying-guides/bikes/environmental-impact/. Last accessed 27 February 2015.M
4. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Climate Impacts on Global Issues,” Available online at http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/impacts-adaptation/international.html. Last Accessed 27 February 2015.

Do My Best

We’ve all heard it, we’ve all used it, and we’ve all said it: “Do my best.” This came true to one man I met in Portland in 2013.

In 2013, I was working on a travel blog and I happened to make my way down to Portland because of road trip my friends and I had planned. While my friends were out spending time at a mall, I decided to take some personal time, which meant working on my travel blog. I decided to interview a homeless person. I made my way downtown and saw a friendly homeless couple. We started chatting a bit but what was supposed to only be a five minute conversation turned into two hours.

We covered many topics, such as how they wished normal people looked at homeless people as human beings and not something that everyone should look down on. But the most memorable topic we covered was why they were homeless. He told me this, “I lost my job, my house burnt down and I lost everything in a week, and I’m here now, but one day I will get back on my feet because every day, I do my best, that’s all I can do. I do my best”

Before I left, I asked him one more question, “What would you do in my shoes.” He said, “Just do your best, if I were you I would do my best, that’s all you can do.”

Even thought you might already know this, the poor aren’t lazy. They are doing the best they can with what they have, just like everyone else, just like the man I spoke with.

Consider this, more than 3 billion people live off of less than $2.50 a day. They are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, they are doing their best survive just like us. But we don’t survive like they do. We have access to clean food, water and shelter. We have to survive passing test, doing our job correctly and succeed in our social life. That’s how we do our best. How about we give people a hand and do our best to help them out. Maybe it’s by doing a fundraiser, or hosting a 30 Hour Famine or doing a bake sale. If we do our best, we help change lives and eventually change the world.

So as your reading this, I want you ask yourself this question, are you doing your best to become the person you want to be? Are you doing your best to help make this world a better place? Are you doing your best?

Consumptivism

Consumptivism: kənˈsəm(p) təˌvizəm/ – The art of aligning what we believe with what we buy.

I read an article last week that really made me think. It talked about the inconsistency between advocating for the poor while buying products that keep them poor. The article argued that living this way is like “protesting a politician while donating to his campaign.” This illuminates the insanity of saying you believe something while behaving in a way that betrays that belief. As someone who has committed the last 5 years of my life to ending extreme poverty and mobilizing young activists for this cause I’ve been wrestling with the ways that my behaviour doesn’t align with what I say I care about and believe.

Perhaps the area I wrestle with this the most is in buying products. Buying something is much more than just an economic exchange; it is a value statement and a sacred act with profound implications that we don’t often consider. One of my favourite authors, Ravi Zacharias, often says that “money is congealed life”, meaning that how we spend money is an extension of who we are and reveals what we really value and believe about ourselves and the world. If you want to know what someone cares about just look at their bank statement.

So here is my question. Do the things you buy affirm and align with what you say you believe and care about or do they conflict? If you consider yourself an activist and are passionate about changing the world does that filter down into the decisions you make at the mall or on Amazon? After thinking about this for about a week I posted something on Facebook that has created a bit of a stir. I said: “It is impossible to love someone while actively participating in their oppression. Cheap for you comes at great cost to those who are vulnerable and easily exploited.” This whole realm of conscious consumption and supply chain ethics is a complex one but worthy of careful consideration for those who desire to lead an authentic integrated life where there is integrity and alignment between belief and practice. Changing the world is not about causes, issues, and policy it is about people and loving people enough to fight for their liberation and flourishing.

This is where things get real and practical: there are always people on the other end of the products that we buy! Your purchases directly connect you to those people and either contribute to their empowerment or to their oppression. If we say that we care about people and are against their oppression and exploitation then we have to be courageous enough to start asking ourselves how the things we buy affects the people who produce them. This isn’t easy and it can get really frustrating. I have a friend who committed to only buying products that were made in Canada for a year and it was incredibly frustrating and difficult, especially since many products that say they are made in Canada use materials that are sourced overseas with no transparency. But we can’t simply plead ignorance and bury our heads in the sand pretending like our consumption doesn’t affect real people.

I am profoundly aware of how far I still have to go in this area and my own hypocrisy as I type this on a computer that likely contains metals unethically mined in DR Congo where I lived as a boy.

So what do we do? Here is my suggestion for a way forward: become a Consumptivist (yes I made that up but roll with me). Consumptivists combine their activism with their consumer power to create a ripple effect that impacts their own lives, the lives of the people and communities that make our stuff, and changes the way companies behave. Here are a few ways to get started…

1. Humanize: Restore the human element to our consumption by constantly reminding yourself that “someone made this” and asking the question “how does this purchase affect their life?”

2. Simplify: Live a simpler life by buying less stuff, selling stuff you don’t need and refusing to buy into the culture of more. Carefully define need and want and focus on buying things you actually need with the occasional indulgence.

3. Analyze: Have a look at your bank statement over the last 3 months and see what your spending says about your priorities.

4. Vote with your $$$: Buy products from companies who are transparent about their supply chain and where their products come from and how they affect who made them. Don’t buy products from companies who are not transparent about where their products come from. Companies can and will change quickly if their current practices are no longer profitable.

5. Educate: Learn about the importance of Fair Trade and share what you learn with your friends. Use resources like Made in A Free World, the Free 2 Work app, the Better World Shopper app, and others like these to guide your purchasing decisions.

6. Pay the price: We can’t keep demanding cheaper prices on the products we buy from companies while punishing them for using unethical means to provide them to us. Cheap is costly! Someone pays the price for cheap goods and if it’s not you it is almost always the producers on the other end who are easily exploited because poverty makes them vulnerable. We have to be willing to pay more and adjust our budgets to make this possible.

7. Advocate: Use your voice to advocate for people who are exploited by unjust labour practices and exploited by corporate greed. Check out World Vision Canada’s No Child for Sale campaign at www.nochildforsale.ca for resources and opportunities to get involved and start a fundraising campaign of your own to help victims of child labour and exploitation in Thailand.

8. Don’t go solo: Invite others to become a consumptivist with you! You will need the support and accountability when making hard choices and when you’re tempted by convenience over doing what’s right.

I would love to journey with you on the road to becoming a consumptivist and share more of my journey. You can find me on Facebook at or join our community of young activists

Graeme