Environmentalism and the bicycle

I’ve added another paper to the ‘Longer articles’ section of this blog, Environmentalism and the Bicycle. Here’s the abstract:

In the UK, the bicycle has played a role in the oppositional cultures of various social movements; feminism and socialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, post-1960s anarchism and, most recently, environmentalism. This article discusses the significance of the bicycle to the discourse and practice of the contemporary environmental movement. At the level of discourse, the bicycle is routinely mobilised in constructing the green visions to which environmentalism aspires. And in practice, use of the bicycle organises and helps sustain the distinctive ‘green lifestyles’ of environmental activists. Thus, as an object both discursively utilised in green talk and texts, and actually ridden by green practitioners, the bicycle powerfully enables the articulation of an alternative society, a green vision of sustainability. The case of the bicycle demonstrates how ‘ordinary’ materialities can contribute to the development and performance of antagonistic cultural and political identities.

The article emerged from research towards my PhD, undertaken between 1998 and 2002. In a different form it eventually found its way into the academic journal Environmental Politics, back in 2006. Re-reading it, it strikes me as in some ways now almost historical, a reflection on the state and status of cycling in British environmentalism at the turn of the millennium, rather than today, December 2nd 2009. I have, though, elected not to change it, for now. But, what’s changed in the last few years?

Well, I think it’s pretty indisputable that cycling’s profile has increased dramatically in the UK since I wrote this piece. Late in the article I write, “There are more bicycles than ever in the UK, yet the proportion of all trips made by bike continues to fall”. Despite some valiant efforts, we’re remarkably clueless about the actual state of cycling in the UK, but I think it’s safe to say that I couldn’t write that same sentence with any confidence today. Although levels of cycling and the proportion of all journeys made by cycle are obviously two different things, cycling is clearly on the up and my best guess would be that the proportion of all journeys made by cycle, across the UK as a whole, is up too.

Re-reading, I was also struck by my discussion – following especially the work of the British anthropologist, Mary Douglas – of materiality as communicating cultural allegiance and hostility. My hunch is that the car is increasingly being used in this way, within popular culture. Take the very popular British TV show (and the range of other cultural and material expressions to which it has given rise), Top Gear. I must stress that I’m speculating here – I’ve not done a rigorous sociological analysis of this TV show. I don’t even have a TV, so have rarely watched it! (And when I have watched it, I’ve been surprised to see representations of car culture which are more nuanced and ambivalent than the show’s staunchest critics would have had me believe.) I would  not attempt quasi-analysis without solid empirical research to back me up in an academic setting (which is one of the reasons I started a blog!), but in the relaxed and casual informality of the blogosphere I’m tempted to read Top Gear in, from a cycling perspective, a reasonably optimistic light.

Although still undoubtedly dominant, car culture and motoring-as-usual are under threat. We live in a world which is undergoing steady (if uneven and rather stop-start) enlightenment about climate change, peak oil and an assorted range of other threats to quality-of-life, or even life. Car culture is massively culpable, and it is on the back foot. I’d be very interested in Mary Douglas’ analysis of Top Gear, were she still with us. But my sense is that we will see stronger, more aggressive assertions of a celebratory car culture as advocates of that culture feel increasingly threatened by an emergent alternative, an alternative which shows clear signs of being in the ascendant. People often perform, and thus help to reproduce, their opposition to another world through more strongly and fiercely entrenching themselves in the world-which-they-know. In other words, car love might grow most intense as the car is most obviously dying.

It’s also pretty clear that carbon is much more clearly on the agenda than it was when I wrote this piece. I know we’re approaching the Copenhagen negotiations, so quite rightly carbon is metaphorically as well as literally everywhere, but the rise of carbon has had some interesting knock-on effects in the world of British environmentalism. It’s interesting, for example, how nuclear power is no longer quite the unambiguous ‘bad’ which I describe it as here – some key environmentalists now support it, for the sake of tackling climate change. (I don’t, by the way – I just think it’s interesting to note how seemingly solid and uncontentious positions informed by particular political ideologies can actually, over a few short years, become much more wobbly; the world is always changing, and us with it … which is why the bicycle has such a fantastic chance ….)


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