Will 130 Million e-Assist Bikes Save Tomorrow’s Cities?

February 1, 2020

Bicycling with Deloitte to the Winter Farmers’ Market

I began a late January Saturday morning in Indianapolis by reading “Cycling’s technological transformation,” a fifteen-page segment of Deloitte’s much longer Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Predictions 2020. I had been alerted to the report by a summary published on social media by Carlton Reid, historian and journalist in the United Kingdom. According to the Deloitte report, cycling will be the second most important innovation in 2020, the roll-out of industrial 5G being first on the list and the continued rise of podcasting as third.

The Deloitte writers “predict that tens of billions of additional bicycle trips per year will take place in 2022 over 2019 levels” and “will double the number of regular bicycle users in many major cities where cycling to work is still uncommon.” A graph shows the percentage of journeys taken by bicycle in “the top 22 cities” around the world. Montreal is the only North American city on the graph and is one of 16 where the percentage of trips by bicycle is less than 10 percent. Even in those cities the total number of bicycle trips per year is several billion.

The subtitle for this report is “Making bicycling faster, easier, and safer.” The major emphasis is upon the development of “an array of diverse technological innovations,” the most important being electrification made possible by using light weight lithium-ion batteries. These easily charged batteries make it possible to improve lighting, lock bikes more securely, and help cyclists ride faster. The result is that cycling becomes “a more attractive option for first-mile, last-mile, and overall travel.”

I have been an aggressive road cyclist for a full half-century and commuted to my teaching post year-round even when the high temperature hovered around zero. I have been retired for more than twenty years, am widowed, and no longer own an automobile. My two classic road bikes, powered only by my legs and lungs, are my primary means of getting around town. In my flat, mid-western city, freeway overpasses seem to be the steepest grades anywhere near.

Arthritis is settling into place, however, and the value of e-assist cycling is becoming attractive. This next summer, I may acquire a new bike, an e-assist, small-wheeled, fast-folding bike that really can be used for the first and last miles of a trip. The Deloitte report shows that I will be right up to date with the latest trend.

In the meantime, it still is winter in Indianapolis, and at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning time for my weekly bike ride to the Winter Farmers’ Market, scarcely a mile from my front door. My winter road bike has fenders and a generator-driven light. I could ride on a wide, public trail—an engineer’s delight—all the way from my apartment to within a block of the market, but my preferred route is on public streets with OK paving and easy-going traffic. With backpack and front basket, I make the trip most Saturdays, but this morning I hesitated for reasons not discussed in the Deloitte report—temperature of 34 degrees; snow flurries; and wet streets.

After stepping outside to confirm that the streets were not slick, I layered on my rain clothes and rode to the market. On fall mornings earlier in the season, there sometimes are a dozen or more bikes fastened to the bike stands during the hour I spend at the market shopping, snacking, listening to the music, and talking with people. One recent morning the number of bikes was much reduced, but one of them was a beautiful Santana triple. Today two bikes were fastened to the stand when I arrived. Both were gone when I came back out, but another bike had taken their place.

Staff at the headquarters booth tell me that attendance averages about 1,500 during each three-and-a-half-hour Saturday morning. Like me, people spend their time wandering around among some fifty-five to sixty vendors. Most of them, I am confident, live within six miles of the market, the “shorter journeys” that Deloitte says constitute “nearly three in five private car trips in the United States.” So why don’t people bicycle to the market?

Recent conversations with family and friends provide one answer, that most people have not learned how to ride in traffic or equipped themselves or their bicycles for uses other than casual recreation. For them, new skills and new attitudes would have to be learned. If my wife, who had not bicycled as an adult, were still living, we would drive to the market every week just as most other people do.

I’m all for making bicycling faster, easier, and safer in the ways described in the Deloitte report. I hope that my city, Indianapolis, continues its efforts to improve streets and the cycling infrastructure to encourage an ever-greater number of people to bike instead of drive on short trips—a mile or two, maybe even five or six. Something else, however, also has to be done.

The Deloitte editors conclude their report with a full page entitled “The Bottom Line” in which they state that improving bicycling technology “is only part of the picture . . . The other, equally important part is to support policies and programs that promote bicycling.” They focus attention on two topics: (1) How riding a bicycle, even an e-assist bicycle, can improve health; and (2) How employers can become “involved in shaping healthier commuter habits.”

The report acknowledges that even with these changes in attitude and policy, bicycling will continue to be “only a small fraction of urban transportation modes. Even so, “in terms of impact . . . bicycling can be immensely important” to improving the quality of life in cities like Indianapolis and the well-being of our planet home.


Reading and Writing During 2019

December 31, 2019

In his little book, The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life, William Martin offers a description that suits me well: “that quiet older gentleman who sits and drinks his coffee as he writes at the corner table by the window.” Again, in Martin’s words: “That is fine with me” (p. 108).

The purpose of this report written on a cold, windy New Year’s Eve afternoon is to highlight the reading I’ve been doing this year during these long hours sitting by my window. A report on my writing during 2019 may come sometime after the new year begins.

Despite my aging eyes, I still can read extensively and write about what I read. Occasionally the books are on the history, theology, and practice of Christian worship, which was the focus of my academic career, but these books no longer hold my attention as they once did. Instead, I am drawn to books dealing with the intersection of religious practice and public affairs, and to others focused upon the environment, cycling, and biographical studies.

In order to remember and reckon with what I’m reading, I have to take notes, and the more challenging the book, the more important it is to write a careful response. Sometimes these reviews summarize a book’s thesis and plot line as they are colored by how the writer has affected me. Often, these summaries are written as blog posts, about 750 words in length, and sometimes as review essays ranging in length from three or four pages to ten to twelve pages.

I began my blog—keithwatkinshistorian.wordpress.com—in 2010 and one of its primary functions has been the dissemination of these occasional writings. Now and then, one of my review essays appears in Encounter, the theological journal published by Christian Theological Seminary. Although I have been busy enough throughout 2019, this year’s list of reviews is not very long. The yearly average of blog posts since 2010, many of them literature reviews, is 47. In 2018, I posted 19 times, but in the year now closing, the number is down to 11, fewer than one a month. My original plan was to post two 750-word essays per week. Just when I think that it’s time to discontinue the blog, someone writes a response like one I received this week.

A woman who had been one of my fellow travelers on a two-week bicycle trip from Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon and Return in 2010 wrote a comment about one of this year’s blogs in which I posted a summary of a solo cross-country bike ride I had taken in 1999.  Read more. . . .Reading and Writing During 2019


Restoring Value to the Food We Eat

July 9, 2019

Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food, by Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle (Island Press, 2019)

Bob Quinn is a third-generation wheat farmer from Big Sandy, Montana, about eighty miles northeast of Great Falls. He earned a PhD in plant biochemistry from the University of California, Davis, became a leader in the organic food movement, developed a group of closely inter-connected food-related businesses, created an ancient-grain business, and sponsored Montana’s first wind farm.

Early in the book he states his premise, that “economics is not just about what happens in faraway boardrooms or on the floor of the stock market. The real measures of economic health are in the fundamental goods that not only make our lives possible but also make them worth living: thriving communities, meaningful work, healthy land. At the center of this fundamental economy are our staple foods, our daily bread. If we hope to recover honest value in American society, we must redeem the original commodity, wheat” (p. 11).

Late in the book Quinn restates his thesis: “a regenerative organic food and agriculture system is the only way out of the chronic disease problems plaguing this country.” The reform he describes “could dramatically reduce the incidence of four of the top seven causes of death in the United States, lift thousands of Americans out of poverty, and fight climate change—all the while slowing the growth of marine dead zones and reversing pollinator decline” (p. 219).

Quinn is committed to the health and vitality of rural communities such as Big Sandy which in the early 1960s, when he was growing up, was a vibrant community with a population of nearly 1,000. It was, he writes, “a hub of activity” with many of the business and community institutions that people needed for their normal activities and services (p. 16). He shows how new chemically-dependent farming policies and practices have made it difficult for such communities to survive. One of his purposes as farmer, business and community leader, and author is to restore vitality to rural communities all over the country, and especially in places like central Montana.

While doing undergraduate studies in botany at Montana State University in Bozeman, he was introduced to ecology as an area of growing importance. During his graduate studies he deepened his knowledge of plant science and also learned major ideas and values of the way of farming that predated the industrialized agriculture introduced following World War II, and that his own family had practiced for many years.

When he decided to return to Montana and farming, Quinn came to understand that farmers like his father were caught in the changes that came about because what they raised—mostly wheat—had become standardized commodities rather than food. Increasing the volume of grain they could raise by using chemical fertilizers and herbicides, became their goal. The nutritional quality of what they raised lost importance and actually declined. Political objectives and economic policies were intended to reduce rural populations significantly, and the new farming methods impoverished the people so they fled—as had happened in Big Sandy.

As Quinn began his own farming career, he found his father to be simultaneously colleague and debate partner. Their debates helped both men understand what was happening and encouraged them to resist the new agriculture and seek to develop ways of farming that were adapted to their climate, soil, plants, and livestock and could thrive under those conditions.

Quinn established relationships with several farm-related organizations and became increasingly committed to values promulgated by the organic food movement, inspired by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. In order to advance and protect organic farming on the scale required by wheat growers like himself, he became politically active, shaping legislation that would define and protect the kind of farming and food that he believed in.

Along the way, Quinn began studying the energy inputs needed to grow food, comparing them with the energy outputs of the crops they raised. As a result, he found a plant adapted to his climate and soil that he could grow and turn into biofuel that would reduce these fuel imputs. Realizing that wind farms would work wonderfully well where he lived, he created necessary legislation and business leadership to establish such farms in his wind-swept part of the world.

When he was in high school (1964), someone at the county fair gave Quinn a few grains of kamut, an ancient wheat. Years later, when he was well established in his main career, he explored the origin and properties of this wheat. Discovering that it possessed highly desirable properties that had disappeared from commodity wheat, he developed seed stock and networks of farmers to produce it on a large scale. He also developed business relationships to market it around the world (one of which is Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods of Milwaukie, Oregon, whose products, including this wheat, I can buy three blocks from my home in downtown Indianapolis).

Grain by Grain is a personal story of one man’s career as farmer, environmentalist, community leader, and business leader. Quinn writes well, includes much factual material and ethical conviction, and commands the reader’s interest all along the way. The way of life for America’s farmers and food suppliers that he describes is radically different from patterns prevailing today.

Yet near the end of the book he gives a reason why we can believe that Americans may rise up to reverse what he describes as the plundering of the American people by corporate powers. “As value subtraction comes home to roost in our bodies, it may be that concern for our health is what will finally motivate us all to do something about it” (224). In the final six pages of the book he provides evidence that this transformation is now beginning to take place.

Liz Carlisle, who also grew up in Montana, is a lecturer in the School of Environmental Sciences at Stanford University. In the book’s prologue she describes how she became acquainted with Quinn and his work and offered to help him write a book about what he was doing. She helped him with some of the research and writing but left “her first-person voice aside” so that readers would “get to know this green economy cowboy” for themselves (xvi).


Coming of Age at the End of Nature

February 28, 2019

Reviewing Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet, edited by Julie Dunlop and Susan A. Cohen; Foreword by Bill McKibben (Trinity University Press, 2016)

As a man in his late late 80s, I had the good fortune of starting my life in a world that in retrospect seems to have been greener and happier—with salmon still swimming upstream in western rivers to spawn, Monarch butterflies migrating in vast numbers every season, and western forests free of bark beetles that infest and decimate. Forest fires of limited scope were part of the natural cycle that maintained the health of forests and the well-being of all creatures, including humankind, who depended upon them.

My grandchildren’s generation, now in their 30s, is living in a world that has suffered what may be irreversible change in the half century since I was their age. Any way we look at planet earth, we stare at sights we do not want to see.

In Coming of Age at the End of Nature, twenty-two members of this generation tell everyone who reads this collection of vividly-written essays what they see, feel, and want as they live their lives on a plant that has already changed and may continue to deteriorate during years to come.

Part I, “Living on Eaarth,” borrows the word coined by Bill McKibben in a book he published before some of the essayists were born. His point was that so many irreversible environmental changes had taken place that a whole new term needed to be used to name the place where we live. The essays in this part of the book are gritty accounts of disheartening experiences—working in Haiti, foraging for food on city streets and alleys, serving as a forest ranger who has to tell tourists that the vistas he shows them have been unchanged for a thousand years despite his knowledge that disease and terrible fires are moving irresistibly from one valley, over the ridge, to the next, in a process that seems unstoppable.

Part II, “Thinking Like a River,” adapts Aldo Leopold’s phrase, “thinking like a mountain,” to encourage “long-term, holistic ecosystem conservation” (p. xvi). One theme that comes into focus quickly is that we need to find new ways of understanding our place as human beings in the larger and more complex natural world. There is no way of restoring the world to the way that it used to be. Eucalyptus trees have adapted to the American Southwest to a remarkable degree, as though they had always been there. It doesn’t make sense to destroy them for the sake of restoring plants that originated in this part of the world.

There is no way to undo the destruction of indigenous peoples nor can all of us of European, Asian, and African descent be returned to the places where our species originated. The distinctions we make between ecology and culture, or nature and culture, are misleading.

Jason M. Brown, a native of Orange County, California, writes that ecology is not a place or a thing we have control over; “ecology is the space between things, including us” (p. 73). In the next essay, based on his experience living in Bangkok, Cameron Conaway writes that “so often we move through life without really being present where we are” (p. 76), and life becomes whole again when we become focused on the life we really are living.

Amy Coplan deplores the separations between ourselves and much of what we depend upon, the sources of our food for example. “Nature is not a wilderness ‘out there. Nature is embedded in everything we do. Nature is us, and we are nature” (p. 87).

Part III, “Mindful Monkeywrenching,” contains essays in which the writers “offer creative solutions to diverse problems, both personal and societal” (p. xvi). An example is Emily Schosid’s essay (next to the last in the book), “Could Mopping Save the Planet? How Day-to-Day Chores Can Bring Big changes.”

In the final essay, Danna Joy Staaf returns to the generational theme with which this review begins. Her essay, “True to Our Nature,” is a letter to her dear offspring. “One of you is two years old; the other of you is still whiling away the months in my womb.” In the first paragraph she talks about creativity, which is one of the foundational features of life, but then writes: “The flip side of life’s generative impulse is, of course, wanton destruction” (p. 208). She soon introduces a hopeful third feature: “Unlike the rest of creation, however, we have the urge to overcome our violent side” (p. 210).

Herein lies one reason why even old men like me have reason to hope. We can believe that the destructive aspects of life of Eaarth will be overcome by new processes of creativity coming to life in the generative still being born.


Climate of Hope

February 6, 2019

Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet, by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)

Carl Pope, long-time leader of the Sierra Club, and Michael Bloomberg,business leader and “unrepentant capitalist” begin this volume by acknowledging that they are an unlikely pair of collaborators in writing a book like this one. Despite their significantly different backgrounds, however, they are united in the conviction that it is possible to win the battle against climate change. As the book’s subtitle indicates, both men believe that cities, businesses, and citizens can take the lead in meeting the greatest challenge that has ever faced the world.

What brought them together were their parallel efforts to move beyond coal in generating the nation’s electricity. During Pope’s years leading the Sierra Club, this environmental organization responded aggressively to the George W. Bush administration’s proposal that it support the building of 150 new coal-fired power plants. Because of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, only 30 of the proposed plants were built.

In 2001, when Bloomberg became mayor of New York, this city, along with many others, was entering a new era of vitality and growth. Studying the dynamics of urban life, the new mayor identified four reasons why “cities are well-positioned to fight climate change: (1) because of the density of urban environments, the per capita carbon footprint is significantly lower than the nation’s average; (2) because cities are where the action is, they are “the primary drivers of climate change [and] must take the lead in tackling it;” (3) “mayors see fighting climate change as a spur to faster economic growth;” and (4) mayors “now realize that promoting private investment requires protecting public health—and protecting public health requires fighting climate change” (pp. 20-23). As mayor, Bloomberg inspired a coalition of New York businesses and institutions to take the lead in transforming their city.

Pope and Bloomberg are persuaded that “by changing the way we think and talk about climate change, we can lower the temperature of the debate—and accomplish a whole lot more. Cooler heads can produce a cooler world.” They also believe that the “changing climate should be seen as a series of discrete, manageable problems that can be attacked from all angles simultaneously. Each problem has a solution. And better still, each solution can make our society healthier and our economy stronger” (p. 3). Read More … Climate of Hope 2


For the dance of the future climate calls the tune

January 10, 2019

Responding to A Great Aridness: Climate and the Future of the American Southwest, by William deBuys (Oxford University Press, 2011)

 For seven years beginning in 1995, I lived in Sun City West near Phoenix and by bicycle explored much of Arizona’s Central Valley of the Sun and the canyon country north of the Mogollon Rim. In more recent years I have bicycled extensively through the “Sky Islands” east of Tucson and the border region near Sierra Vista, Bisbee, and Douglas. This desert wonderland fascinates and troubles me, which is why A Great Aridness, which I found in the Indianapolis Public Library was a book I had to read.

The jacket photo is arresting. Photos, graphs, and maps accompany the closely printed text of the book, which with notes and index, is 369 pages long. I agree with the publisher’s statement that deBuys writes “with an elegance that recalls the prose of John McPhee and Wallace Stegner [and] offers an unflinching look at the dramatic effects of climate change occurring right now in our own back yard.”

The author explains that the “book had started out, years ago, as a general environmental history of the Southwest, but environmental change intervened. The dynamics of the past never lost their fascination, but the galloping dynamics of the present overtook them, and I resolved to follow the action” (p. 317).

Each of the eleven chapters and the introduction is based on an event—a murder in 1919 at Cedar Springs in Navajo Country, a canoe trip over Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon, and a drive along Highway 79 through the Sun Corridor from Tucson north to Florence Junction. The purpose of each chapter, however, is to discuss in considerable detail some aspect of the climate challenges now facing the Desert Southwest. The most frightening, especially given recent fires in California, is deBuys’ description of the Rodeo-Chediski Burn along the Mogollon Rim in 2002. He includes a persuasive explanation of the fact that our actions intended to improve an existing condition often make it more dangerous.

The author draws extensively upon his research into the history and climatic science related to the events and places that he describes. He deftly describes locations, such as the observatories on Mt. Graham and the steel beams and barbed wire fencing on the border near Apache Pass. Several chapters describe the author’s trips to these locations with people of expert knowledge, sometimes at considerable risk. Although the book bristles with information, ideas, and strongly stated opinions, it pulls readers along from beginning to end.

In coming years, deBuys writes, the Southwest will become hotter, drier, and more vulnerable. He offers three “big ideas”—no big thing happens for just one reason; the human contribution to change in the natural world more often catalyzes than dictates the outcome; and the enormity of the human capacity for adaptation (pp. 15-16).

The chapter on border crossings is especially pertinent, given current political debates in the United States. The border “is an inherently violent ‘structure’ [marking] one of the steepest sets of social and economic gradients on the planet: material wealth and a white-dominated society on one side, poverty and a brown-skinned world on the other. . .As long as they exist, there will always be a current between them, and people will move along that current, irrespective of the risks” (p. 222). deBuys describes the immense cost of building and maintaining these physical barriers, the serious environmental impacts associated with them, and persuasive evidence that they don’t work.

As climate change intensifies already serious problems, he writes, pressures along the border will intensify, raising questions similar to those debated seven and a half centuries ago at the Sand Canyon Pueblo: “do we find ways to accommodate the new waves of homeless, or do we fend them off? Lately the United States has pursued the latter strategy at exorbitant cost while distorting its legal traditions to an unprecedented degree. . . .“If the test of character for individuals is to remain true to their ideals even in times of trial, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that the same may be true for a nation” (p. 235).

In his concluding chapter, written at the Zuni Pueblo, deBuys discusses a report issued in 2008 by the London Geological Society, which suggests that we are entering a new geologic era—the Anthropocene—that is replacing the Holocene epoch that has endured since the melting of the last great ice age. In the earlier era, humans were able to alter ecosystems. What is happening now “is something new under the sun: a cumulative and determinative human effect on core planetary processes, primarily climate” (p. 306).

This book closes with sense of urgency. World civilization has to make dramatic changes if we and the world as we know it are to survive. “Taken together, the fateful combination of present inactivity, rising energy and resource consumption, and climatic vulnerability make it difficult to envision a safe landing for humankind. Still, we know where to begin if we would soften the crash” (p. 315).

Ancient societies were forced to “dance with the facts of place” and so must we, wherever we live. “Climate is not the only such fact, but it is central and implacable. It calls the tune” (p. 312).


Outrageous civil resistance, conducted with wit and civility

November 27, 2018

A response to Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, by Bill McKibben (Blue Rider Press, 2017)

In this, his seventeenth book on the environment, Bill McKibben adopts what is for him a new style of writing. He gives us a fable, a wild story of five people in Vermont who interrupt regular TV and radio broadcasts with their own outside-of-the-law, call-in talk show.

It happens in Vermont, during another winter without much snow. The story’s political climate is shaped by the Trump White House. The characters include a governor who is convinced that Vermont needs to go big time, one sign of which is a new stadium with retractable roof. For many in the business community, going big time means replacing local businesses with national chain stores and local craft beers with national brands.

Not so for Vern Barclay, who has spent much of his long life hosting talk shows on local radio. Sitting outside on a winter day that was too warm, he mused. “Goodness didn’t demand the one-way arrow toward Progress and More. It was, he thought, a blessing to have lived out his life in a place that spun slowly like that yellow leaf, an eddy in the American rapids, a place that was shrinking when most of the country was growing growing, ever-growing” (p. 78).

He partners with a young, slightly autistic techie and a life-long Vermont woman who teaches classes on how to live in Vermont to new-comers—mostly retired executives, lawyers, and academics who are choosing Vermont as the place where they could finish out their lives. They are joined by a young woman biathlete, an Olympic gold medalist whom Vern had coached. Before the story ends, Vern’s 96-year-old mother who lives in a nursing home is part of the team.

Their campaign’s edgy theme is that Vermont should withdraw from the Union and reestablish classic Vermont values and patterns of personal and community-based ways of life. Vern directs their efforts. Young Perry digs up information and uses his hi-tech skills to get them on the air and avoid being traced to their hide-away at Sylvia’s house. Trance, with her Olympic-based public persona, becomes the focal point of their climactic confrontation with Vermont’s law enforcement system and the F.B.I.

By story’s end, Vermonters all over the state are involved in the debate and, following Vern’s urging, are planning to discuss secession in the town meetings that soon will take place in communities—little and large—all across the state. While Vern continues to urge that the people renew their distinctive, localized, freedom-loving way of life, he edges away from his advocacy of secession. “He knew precisely how fallible he was—he sensed he was on the right path, he really did think the country was too big, out of control. But it was one thing to argue that, and another to act on it; and the pleasure he took made him all the more suspicious” (p. 169).

McKibben begins his two-page author’s note at book’s end by writing that an “advantage to writing a fable is that you get to append a moral to the end.” For this book, it is not that everyone should secede. “Instead, it’s that when confronted by small men doing big and stupid things, we need to resist with all the creativity and wit we can muster, and if we can do so without losing the civility that makes life enjoyable, then so much the better.”

As an example of how this idea plays out “in the age of Trump,” he cites the action on the first day of his presidency which “saw millions of (mostly) women in pink pussy hats on the street, followed in subsequent days by sights of conscientious Americans flocking to airports to protect immigrants, or thousands of New York bodega owners shuttering their shops for a day in protest of the new regime’s Muslim ban” (p. 219).

In his comment about the book published on the jacket, Bernie Sanders states two hopes: first, that no one secedes, but also “that Americans figure out creative ways to resist injustice and create communities where everybody counts.”

We’re enduring a period of harsh, angry confrontation that seems only to harden people in their positions, making it difficult for any kind of civil, sober discussion and development of new ways of responding to the crises that most people admit, at least privately, are sweeping the world. Pink pussy hats have been put away, the mid-term elections are past, and a different political mix is taking over in Washington and many other parts of the nation.

This is the time for serious conversation and prudent legislation in the real world. What will it take to make such talk possible? More episodes of creative civil resistance conducted with wit and civility might be one answer.