Climate Change and Bicycle Travel

David Kroodsma, environmental consultant and data journalist and Stanford graduate, rode from Palo Alto, California to the southern tip of Chile and across the United States to raise public awareness about climate change. As a continuation of this mission, he just published his first book, The Bicycle Diaries: My 21,000-mile Ride for the Climate, in which he recounts his bike tour across the US, Central and South America. I recently had the opportunity to attend his book launch, from which all proceeds went to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, a local advocacy non-profit that promotes the bicycle as everyday transportation.

For years, I’ve had a continuing internal debate about the combining recreation and activism, so I found Kroodsma’s thoughts very refreshing since he has dealt with similar doubts. Right off the bat, he mentions his friends who teased him before he started out, “I guess I’m a little unclear on the tie between global warming and personal recreation … I just want a better explanation of how recreating is saving the environment.”

One of Kroodsma's encounters in the Peruvian Andes.

One of Kroodsma’s encounters in the Peruvian Andes. (photo from WattHeat – Energy News)

At the end of the day, “my goal of raising awareness in others was obviously backward–it was my own understanding that changed the most,” but his trip and book do still serve as useful ways to engage the public in the Climate Change conversation. This book exists simultaneously as an enticing travelogue and a call to action, as exemplified by the two separate appendixes–the first with advice on how to take action to slow down climate change, and the second with tips and tricks for long-distance bicycle travel.

Kroodsma believes that how we structure our society and how we vote are hugely important ways to shape the future that lies before us, especially because many people in the world right now who don’t have electricity, etc., rightfully desire more, not less. Therefore, he calls on us to live more sustainably, to spread the word about ways to do so, and perhaps most importantly, to Vote and tell our representatives to put money toward developing clean energy.

David took some time to answer a few of my questions despite the crazy schedule that results from book promotion and preparation for another epic bike ride, this time across Asia. Here is our interview:

EM: What is the most intriguing thing to you about a bicycle? About bicycle touring?
DK:
Bicycle touring is the perfect combination of vulnerability and independence — and this combination allows for unique interactions. The vulnerability means that it is easy for people to approach you because you don’t threaten them. Yet it is also easy for them to help you because they aren’t worried that you’ll stick around.

EM: Pros and cons of adventure tied with social change?
DK:
Adventure can encourage us to think big and dream — it encourages us to believe in ourselves and what is possible. Also, adventure by bicycle can help one learn about different regions of the world, and this greater awareness can in turn lead to change. Adventure, though, has its limits. Not everyone is inspired by it. Also, it can backfire if it looks like you’re just on a big vacation. Also, when you are passing through, you are just scratching the surface, and change often happens through long-term investment in a specific place.

EM: How do you balance research with touring?
DK:
The only way to balance it, I’ve found, is to travel very slowly! I have to spend a lot of time off the bike reading and on the Internet. For me, this usually means traveling half as fast as I would if I weren’t doing an awareness-raising project.

The cover image from David Kroodsma’s new book, The Bicycle Diaries.

EM: Most challenging part about writing a book? Most rewarding?
DK:
The most challenging part is every part — every detail of the book takes so much more time and effort than I expected, and to get the book right took incredible editing and rewriting. It many ways, it is like going on a very long bike trip — you have to get up every day and chip away at the huge project. The most rewarding is sharing the completed story with others. 

EM: You spoke about how visceral experiences offer different — perhaps deeper — insights than book knowledge. Can you share (1) why you value experiential education and (2) one moment that was an especially profound learning experience?
DK: “Experiential education” provides context — both intellectual and emotional. Our studies in the classroom or lab tend to be very focused on a specific topic, such as how climate change will specifically affect sea levels or crop yields. Traveling and seeing places at risk, and talking to people about these risks, gives a much broader picture, and helps one understand how these issues relate to all the other challenges people face. Secondly, making a person connection with a place or with individuals makes the issue an emotional one. I care more about the rainforest if I’ve actually been there, or if I know people who have actually been there.

One moment that was profound was when I stayed with a subsistence farmers in rural Honduras — Melvin and Rosa. They fed me rice and beans, and I slept on their dirt floor. I had read about how climate change will increase the strength of storms, and how such storms will be bad for the poor. But it was entirely different to hear Melvin talk about how when a hurricane hit Honduras he and his family went hungry for almost an entire season.

EM: What’s the most mind-blowing fact to you about climate change?
DK:
1.3 billion people in the world don’t have electricity. Somehow we have to connect these people to the grid–and provide sufficient energy to raise the quality of life–and yet also decrease global greenhouse gas emissions.

EM: What’s next? (Both in your bike world and in your climate advocacy world)
DK:
In advocacy, I’m most excited about using data and infographics to communicate information. I’m currently collaborating on a project, ecowest.org, to build dashboards to communicate the state of the environment.

Also, my wife and I are quitting our jobs and about to embark on a similar bicycle journey through Asia — “Ride for Climate Asia.” The emphasis will be less on outreach, and more on learning — we’ll be researching the climate and water issues of the countries we bike through, and sharing what we learn through rideforclimate.com. Follow us there!

PS. Kroodsma’s suggested resources for reading if you are a climate change skeptic, or for having informed points to discuss when speaking with ‘climate skeptics’: Grist’s series for skeptics and Skepticalscience.com.

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