Saturday, June 26, 2010

Alternative Energy

I heard in the news recently that there was a poll that showed that Americans were very interested in the development of new sources of energy. Americans are worried about too much dependency on oil.

I've been thinking a lot lately about using our own physical energy to do more.

For a big portion of my life, I did not have a car, and so I got myself around primarily by using my own energy -- walking and bicycling. There was a time of my life when I bicycled 10 miles to work and 10 miles back each day. Other times I lived in cities or towns, making bicycling and walking distances easily manageable. The first several times that I traveled around England, it was by bicycle. In those days, my choices were partially motivated by financial considerations, but also by principle. I wanted to demonstrate that it was possible.

During one of these times, when I was living in a city in the U.S., I was walking back home one day carrying a load of supplies I had bought. I was tired and, I'll admit, kind of miserable. But I happened to walk past a gym. Through large windows, I could see dozens of people putting forth frantic effort that was not actually doing any real work in the world. I suddenly stopped and watched for a bit, amazed. I realized that these people had all most likely driven here to do this! Yes, it was admirable that they were trying to stay in shape. But the sight of them with their earphones on, some reading magazines at their exercise machines, each lost in their own world, putting forth all this effort that was not actually powering anything else, struck me as incredibly bizarre. If they walked or bicycled to run their errands, as I was doing, they could integrate their exercise into their everyday lives and not need to take extra time to do it. By powering themselves by their own energy, they would save gas and ease global climate change.

Yet, I knew and still know why people do things this way. Getting in your car is safe and easy. Working out at the gym gives you a sense of motivation and security (because of all the others around) in a safe setting conducive to distractions if you need distractions to take your mind off the effort of exertion.

Integrating exercise into your life by using your own energy to power the running of errands is just not as fun. The weather keeps changing. You see strangers on the streets, not all of whom are friendly all the time. You may have to travel through questionable parts of town. You feel vulnerable when you are not enclosed in a lockable fast-moving metal box. Our towns and cities are not usually built with pedestrians in mind -- sidewalks give out; you have to take the long way around because the short way is reserved for motor vehicles; many crossings are highly dangerous. And carrying heavy bags of stuff on a long walk just isn't fun. Since you have to stay alert, you cannot distract yourself as at the gym, and so you are aware of the dangers and your own effort every step of the way.

Furthermore, it has become socially unacceptable to show up at public places all hot and sweaty. Gyms are the only places where being hot and sweaty in public is acceptable, and yet they have showers, giving the message that you must clean yourself up as quickly as possible after exercising to be presentable again.

Yet, all of this is real. It is good for us to use our bodies for work and to get out into the world and confront all of its uncertainties.

And, our own energy is a very real energy source. I think it is worth thinking about whether there are more ways we can use our own energy in place of fossil fuels. Do our villages, towns, and cities need to be re-designed to make it more possible to run our errands on foot again?

Also, I should clarify that I am not opposed to gyms. I appreciate the way they are constructed to bring people together to support each other, inspire each other, and learn from each other to develop comprehensive fitness. But why can't we hook up the exercise machines in gyms to make use of all of that human power? I had that thought too, on that day when I paused to watch the people in the gym. Not too long ago, I did hear that a college was thinking of doing this as an experiment: having the gym machines generate some of the building's electricity. Why haven't we been doing this all along?

So, one "alternative" energy source we might want to seriously consider is making more use of human energy again.

1 comment:

  1. President Carter put in place legislation which offered various tax breaks and other incentives for research into alternative energy sources.

    One of the first things that Reagan did was to terminate the legislative package.