Taking stock of our car-loving culture

 

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The horses stand sullenly in the barn where they have dwelt, uninterrupted, for two years. Has it really been that long since my wife and I hopped into their saddles and sped away down the street and around the lake, the soft summer wind peeling the frowns from our faces?

The “horses” – that’s what we call our twin, hybrid two-wheelers with the fancy side bags for boxed lunches and bottles of wine. We bought them from a local outfit six years ago when we became convinced that global warming would doom the infernal combustion engine to a proper extinction. Humanity, we thought, would finally see the error of its fossil-fuel ways. Everyone would soon be riding bikes. We were just ahead of the curve in southeastern New Brunswick. 

Ah yes, how young we were.

Today, the oil and gas industry is pumping away harder than ever. Production in the tar sands of Alberta, where bitumen is king, has never been higher. Now, the only fear policy makers and politicians nurse is whether they can get the stuff to market before competition drives the price down to commercially unsustainable levels. 

That’s certainly what Canada’s finance minister, Joe Oliver, fears. 

Speaking in Ottawa recently, he said weaning the nation from its dependence on American buyers of its black gold is, “an obvious strategic imperative.” Moreover, he added, “the Canadian economy has been bolstered by resource revenue and it’s important that we continue to see that revenue sustained and grow. . .(It’s an) asset that Canadians consider absolutely fundamental to their identity.”

I’m a Canadian, but I’m not sure I will ever perceive non-renewable reserves of oil and gas as innate to my sense of self. Aren’t they more or less necessary evils, the consumption of which we would all do well to curtail? 

Yves Bourgeois of the Urban and Community Studies Institute at the University of New Brunswick might agree. “A lot of people are interested in public or shared transportation because for low-income people it’s often the only means of transportation, he told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal recently. “Decision-makers in municipal or provincial governments are often told they need to fund public transportation because it helps low-income people. . .in New Brunswick, there’s actually a compelling economic argument to fund more shared transportation.”

Still, we remain a defiantly car-loving culture. 

According to the Institute, this province boasts (if that is the word) the third-highest rate of automobile ownership in the country – 1.55 cars per home. The national average is 1.47. Reports the T-J: “They also put five per cent more kilometres on their private vehicles than the Canadian average.”

Is there a causal relationship between this and another disturbing trend in New Brunswick?

“A report released by the Canadian Public Health Association says that 30 per cent of the adult population is obese in Atlantic Canada,” the CBC reported in March. “In New Brunswick, the highest rates of obesity are in the northwest, where 27.4 per cent of adults are obese and in the Acadian Peninsula, where 28.8 per cent are obese.”

Said Stephane Robichaud of the New Brunswick Health Council: “We see that we have a higher rate than the rest of the country of people dying before the age of 75 for treatable or preventable causes.”

In fact, my decision to park the car and zip around on bikes was inspired, in part, by the fact that I was turning 50, that dreaded threshold one crosses when one can no longer kid oneself about maintaining youthful vitality without expending an ounce of effort. 

Still, as the first, fresh days of summer arrive, it’s not too late to take stock of our present lot. My wife and I are planning new excursions, new adventures in cycling thanks to our sturdy horses. For now, as the weather begins to cooperate, the Nissan will stay in the driveway, and once again, we will be in the wind

 

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