Global warning: This conversation might make you plan your life towards benefiting the planet.
With a clear interest in protecting the health of our planet, and a strong belief that data tells us more than what we would ‘choose to remember’, I started collecting data about my transportation modes at the start of this year. Yesterday was the 100th day of the year. Here are some thoughts on the subject that I felt were worth sharing with you.
Since the Summer of ‘69
In the summer of ’69, my father was navigating a Boeing-707 flight from London to New York that he did on a weekly basis when my mother packed her bag in their home in London, dropped my elder sisters off at a friend’s and drove to the hospital where I was born a few hours later. Apparently, my father was pleased when he was given the news, “it’s a boy”, upon landing at JFK Airport.
A few years later, growing up in Mumbai, I loved cycling, and although my father drove a British car on Indian roads, we were always encouraged to walk wherever we could. Those were the 70s and 80s, times when even the upper middle classes, if they owned a car, typically owned just one.
Moving ahead in time, as a student of engineering and management at the University of Cambridge I learned a fair amount about inefficient modes of transport from a ‘green perspective’. In fact, since the start of motorized transport, the rule at that university was “no cars permitted for undergraduates” and so, no matter what your social status, you would typically move around Cambridge by bicycle or foot. Whether it was to the boat house to row early in the mornings, or to parties in colleges across town, the common feature about the transport was green. The environmental benefit of such a culture will be obvious to you even if you were to visit Cambridge this summer.
Moving ahead another 30 years, back in Mumbai today, it is awful to see how the city has only become worse in many respects, as each decade has rolled by. One of these, familiar to anyone who has spent even a few hours in the city, where I spend a good chunk of each year, is the terrible state of roads, and inefficient use of public money. The popular media has published many reports [see this for an example from 9 years ago, and this one more recent] on how most tax dollars are spent on providing facilities for the limited number of car users when in fact the largest percentage of travel is done by public mass transportation (bus, train, metro) or bicycle and foot. What makes the situation sadder still is that despite the disproportionate allocation of tax money to the roads, those roads are in a terrible state and the transport on them crawls along – and that is when it does move! May God help you if you need an ambulance for an emergency in that city!
From BMW to Bicycle
With many claims to be green and being someone who generally likes to walk his talk, I thought it would be interesting to collect broad level data on my transport modes. My first car 24 years ago was a BMW but for the last 10 years I have not owned a car. In Mumbai, I own a bicycle instead. I have a strong preference for ‘as green a form of transport as possible’. Public transport is not particularly comfortable in Mumbai but I have typically opted for a bit of personal discomfort to benefit the city.
Data Collection and Behaviour Change
Normally, the commencement of data collection about oneself tweaks one’s behaviour (for instance, there is some evidence that those who weigh themselves daily, tend to lose more excess weight than control groups who don’t). Because of my choices for many decades now to minimize my carbon footprint from transportation, there was no sudden change in my travel methods. In my on-going quest to understand myself, the data simply gives me a better handle on my claims about being greener than the next guy stuck in traffic.
Simple Data Collected
All I recorded each day was the number of different journeys I did and their modes of transport. Often to meet someone, I might cycle to the station, take the train, and then walk at the other end. In many European cities that is not unusual at all. In Mumbai, a city that could really do with what I call CTW (cycle-train-walk) it is very unusual – especially for those who live in million dollar homes!
What I recorded was simply a count of the number of journeys, not the kilometres travelled. Given that the two transcontinental flights that I did take in February were of 8000km length each, whereas most of the bicycle journeys are for just a few Km, the story would be quite different if represented by carbon footprint. Having said that, there are clearly some journeys that cannot be done by greener modes of transport. Mumbai to London for a week with family is one of them!
How Green are my Numbers?
How Bad am I?
At first I felt terrible that I was not at 90% green. But then it struck me that I was still doing a lot better than most well-educated and reasonably wealthy people in pretty much most of the urban centres of India. Not that they ought to be anyone’s benchmark, but still.
What can you do?
You must not leave it up to your government to make the change you want to see. Even as I clicked on “Publish” for this article, I received this news snippet from a friend. If the news reporting is correct, it is tantamount to expecting people to eat less because grocery stores are shut on a Sunday. No, I’m sorry, that will not work!
Wherever you live, and in everything you do, you always have hundreds of choices daily. Every decision that you make that helps the planet, will help you in the long run. You might think that ‘since the bus is going there anyway, I might as well ride it’ is a green choice. But even getting off a stop earlier and walking 500m does have a positive impact on the planet. Whenever you are green, you can probably go even greener. If you collect data about yourself, you are more likely than not to make wiser decisions. I urge you to try that.
It is not about competing with your neighbour
Although it is not a bad idea to compete with your neighbour to be greener (why care what he drives!) you should keep your focus on simply becoming better yourself. Once you appreciate that everything you do has a definite impact on the only planet you have, you will make other changes that are better for your own health too. For instance, unless you are predominantly plant food and drink (please say NO to milk whenever you can!) human it is likely that giving up meat and dairy (yes, Mrs Vegetarian, give up milk – it did not come from a plant!) will have an even bigger positive impact on the planet than taking that bicycle to work. Better still, do both!
My Lucky 13
Today is day # 101 of the year 2017. I plan to take my son to an afternoon appointment a few kilometres away. He is visiting from London after 2 years but is comfortable cycling wherever we need to go in Mumbai. If he can do that at age 13, I reckon that just about everyone in this city can.
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.