From Smoky Sunsets to Utility Cycling: One Man’s Solution to Climate Despair

The smoke snapped me out of my stupor.

Climate despair is a real thing. We’ve all probably had that experience, of turning away from the latest disaster event: breakaway Antarctic ice sheets the size of large cities (and imminently, of large states); of dried-up rivers and reservoirs; of thawing Arctic permafrost. We have all looked away. The crisis we’re living through is too enormous, too insurmountable to even digest, let alone act upon. Why bother, we ask ourselves, when there are much bigger actors doing all this harm to the environment? So we go about living our lives, tra-la, tra-la.

But then, the smoke came our way.

A smoke-filled sky.
Another reason to wear a mask.

Starting in about 2015, smoke from wildfires from as far away as California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia got picked up by the jetstream and drifted all the way across the continent. The haze and smoke descended into our atmosphere, thick enough for us to smell. “Oh, shit,” I said to myself, “this is not normal. This is not right.” It’s bad enough to have to read the news of these devastating wildfires. The fact that we could “smell the news” raised that disturbing question I couldn’t shake: “Am I somehow responsible for this?” Isn’t there a direct link between our tailpipe emissions, for example, and the drought conditions that led to these wildfires? Am I making things worse just by getting in my car?

The Upper Midwest has had several seasons since then of smoky sunsets, but none that I can recall before 2015. In 2021, we couldn’t go outside without first reading the air quality index on our phones. This is the “new normal,” as they say. But on one such day in 2019, I resolved that I would no longer contribute to it. I decided that summer that I would stop driving.

OK, well, not exactly stop. My wife and I do own a minivan. We have three almost-grown children, and we care for aging parents who live nearby. But we started finding other ways to commute. My wife would take the bus downtown to work, and I would ride my bike, a conventional hybrid bike, a scant two miles away. I got a set of pannier bags that could clip on the bike rack. I got used to riding the short distance to the grocery store. And to the dentist. And the doctor’s office. And my parents’ apartment. Little by little, the radius I was willing to travel by bike got longer. When our grocery-getter car had to be retired, we opted not to replace it. Then COVID came, and my wife started telecommuting. My job changed, and my commute got longer, so now I ride an e-bike. The van sits in the driveway most of the time. What began as a question, “Could I ride my bike there?” eventually morphed into the question, “Do I have to drive there?”

We are all creatures of habit. Our lives don’t start exactly fresh every day, without a template from what we’ve done every day previously. We go about our day, taking care of business as we have always done, unless we have a compelling reason to change. So consider this:

What if we didn’t? What if we found a way to displace all of our car trips under a certain radius with other means of transportation? If you could draw a circle indicating a one-mile, two-mile, or three-mile radius from your home, how many of your weekly destinations would be enclosed in that map? When things are so deeply awry, and we know deep in our gut that something has to change, it’s a good time to dust off that old axiom: “Think globally, act locally.” Within a three-mile radius, for example.

I call myself a Utility Cyclist. That means I get around on my bike not for fun, not for exercise, and certainly not wearing Spandex tights with words on them. I ride in pretty much the same way I used to drive; going about my daily destinations: shopping, appointments, as well as commuting. In the three years I have been bike commuting, I reckon I have traveled at least 6,000 miles. Based on our minivan’s gas mileage, that’s equivalent to 400 gallons of gas, and two metric tons of greenhouse gases saved. And money. I saved some of that, too. But more importantly, I feel like I’m modeling (along with every other cyclist and transit user) for everyone around me that it is indeed possible to break the stranglehold that gasoline holds over our lives.

The Utility Cyclist gets ready to roll.

Family, neighbors, coworkers, even passers-by can’t help but notice a middle-aged guy riding by in a high-visibility jacket. And so a toddler in her front yard pointed at me and announced to her mother “Eewidabye!” (translation: “that man is riding a bike.”). I say hello to an 8-year-old kid riding on the sidewalk. He responds, “I’m riding a bike like you!” This can be the new normal, if we choose it. Oh, and, by the way, I find that riding my bike is wicked fun. Even in winter.

With a new climate law on the books, there is reason for hope that we may yet reach our goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even so, it will take time for the transition from combustion-based transportation to electric vehicles. The beauty of cycling is you don’t have to wait for that to happen. So please don’t wait for your own “oh, shit” moment. Find a way to cut back on those short-distance trips, for a start. It won’t prevent those disaster stories from coming, but finding ways to eliminate gasoline from your transportation diet will dissipate the sense of complicity and despair that settles around us, like smoke.

Ed Steinhauer

About Ed Steinhauer

Ed Steinhauer is a teacher and artist living in St. Paul, Minnesota.