Opinion

The Means or the Ends?

The reasons to pursue more sustainable living go beyond our collective responsibility. Living sustainably brings about a sense of connectedness through experience; a rare find in the modern world.

By Kevin Wiens
Published January 17, 2011

With each successive winter season a small but growing number of winter cyclists take to our streets. While the cyclists' numbers grow, the common perception of this activity seems to stay the same.

There's a recurring adjective applied to the winter cyclist in media reports and commentary: 'defiant.' We've heard this before, along with the less respectful monikers 'crazy' and 'fanatic.'

Of course, while these terms may be intended to express derision, the winter cyclist is more likely to be fueled by the adversity than deterred: when you're riding in the snow, and you feel the look of passing motorists, it's hard not to fancy yourself as The Road Warrior.

Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior
Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior

Of course, the perception that winter cyclists are a bit off is based on a particular assumption: that the purpose of a trip is to get from A to B, in as little time as possible and with maximum comfort; the journey is something that must be overcome.

Experiencing the World

Technology supports this thinking, ready to intervene on our behalf, making sure we can reach the ends without enduring the means. Swiss playwright Max Frisch saw technology as "the knack of so arranging the world so that we don't experience it."

This may be why some motorists, when stuck in a traffic jam, are overcome with such frustration - the car is not performing its one explicit function and there's not much in the way of an experience to turn to.

There are times when the shorthand of technology serves us well. However, the longer we're detached from a process the more likely we'll forget the myriad of outcomes that come from our involvement in that process.

Getting into a cold car on a wintry morning seems harder than it should - it feels as though the cold is a foreign intruder in what is supposed to be a controlled environment.

It's no warmer mounting a bicycle in the same conditions, but the situation seems easier to accept. The weather matters more when riding a bike, as does our physical abilities and our surroundings. The result is a feeling of connection between place and self.

The pursuit of a more connected experience seems to be a common element in movements associated with sustainability. The local food movement seeks to expose the isolated consumer to the entire length of the food production chain. New urbanists promote mixed use neighbourhoods over the fractured suburban form which separated home, work and play.

These ideas are not a rejection of progress - indeed, new and old ideas are constantly intermixing to create new ways of doing things. If, however, we look at these movements through a modern lens, focussed on a particular end result instead of the experience, sustainability can appear like a rather eccentric approach to life.

Authenticity and its Discontents

In his recent book The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter explores the roots of our dissatisfaction with modernity. Potter's narrative begins with the enlightenment. Comprehensive religious doctrines that served to define our place in the world were replaced by the modern structures of liberal democracy and capitalism.

As a result, the connected person was transformed into the isolated individual and left with voting once every few years and consuming as the primary modes of involvement. In Potter's view the main opposition to this packaged and disengaged society can be found in the pursuit of authenticity.

Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax
Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax

Potter's authenticity seekers take up many pursuits (localism, new age spiritualism) but their underlying drive is the same - status seeking. The authenticity seeker is enlightened and hoping that you're not.

Potter sees this competitive spirit revealed in the response to The 100 Mile Diet, originally a book written by a Vancouver couple who challenged themselves to limit their food to local sources within 100 miles of their home.

The book became a movement, which was followed by the 50 Mile Diet and the 0 Mile Diet. While it's possible that social one-upmanship is involved here, does that make the local food movement nothing but a competitive forum in the vein of sports or reality-TV?

Potter refers to the 100 Mile Diet as a fetish, implying that there's a certain isolated fixation among its participants.

Perspective Through Involvement

But like all demonstrations, the purpose of the 100 Mile Diet is in fact the opposite: to expose people to a different perspective through involvement. As a result, the singular, isolated experience of picking up food at the supermarket expands to include the full spectrum of food-to-table and perhaps most importantly, we're in the spectrum.

This desire for finding our place seems to follow from Potter's belief that a sense of alienation is at the root of our modern malaise. Yet somehow he is convinced that the singular end goal of recognition is the only motivator at play.

It's somewhat tempting to think this, if only for the irony: the consumerist 'keeping up with the Joneses' mentality is rejected and replaced by an equally shallow sort of social-ladder-climbing cloaked in virtue. Potter's narrative has a neat shape but in reality our motivations are more complicated.

Understanding people's motivations is important in broadening the appeal of a movement. Of course the underlying motivation in a sustainability movement should be lessening our impact, but let's assume self-interest also plays a role.

The Authenticity Hoax shows us one particularly harmful form this self-interest can take: sustainable living as a means to distinguish ourselves from others.

The problem with this approach goes beyond self-delusion. If our interest is in distinction, we need to maintain an outsider to contrast with. This puts a limit on membership in the club.

Appeal to Experience

Sustainability is often associated with the political left, but there's little reason why this limitation should exist. When a new idea has the whiff of a political identity, people tend to retreat to familiar grounds. An appeal to experience, on the other hand, is something that gets to a fundamental human need that transcends political barriers.

It might seem strange at first to learn that some conservatives grow their own food; others seek out ways to generate their own power and reduce energy consumption. If the motivator behind these activities is not to appeal to one group or contrast with another, it stands to reason that something more personal is involved.

Conversely, how many people are deterred from cycle commuting mainly because 'that's something other sorts of people do'?

Appealing to a lifestyle by way of identity is perhaps better suited to strengthening an existing group than winning over new adherents. It's not easy to change one's identity, so this shouldn't be our only antidote for the modern malaise.

Through involvement and experience, we can have individuality without that other product of modernity: isolation. We don't have to all aspire to be the lonesome Road Warrior; maybe something more along the lines of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.

Peter Fonda (centre), in Easy Rider
Peter Fonda (centre), in Easy Rider

Kevin Wiens is an engineer by day, an amateur filmmaker and a resident of the Strathcona Neighbourhood in Hamilton. He recently moved back to the Hammer after a few years living in Vancouver. The move seems to be suiting him well.

27 Comments

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By beaslyfireworkstechnican (registered) | Posted January 17, 2011 at 21:54:23

Good timing. See Potter's take on the 100-mile diet, Hamilton, Authenticity and eco-classism here: http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/01/11/think...

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 17, 2011 at 22:35:18

People strive for that sort of "authenticy" for many reasons. Many are seeking to 'define themselves' or set themselves apart as individuals. Others, though, have broader concerns, and seek authenticity as a part of achieving larger goals.

We live in a very superficial culture. This leads to many people feeling they need to find a "deeper meaning", but it also leads to a lot of people finding nothing but totally symbolic representations of that. If you actually care about something like social justice or sustainability, chances are you DO want the ideas to get popular, just not to become a fashion statement or an advertising gimmick.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted January 17, 2011 at 22:45:38

Well I have to admit people who ride their bicycles in the winter in poor snow conditions baffle me for the dangers they put themselves into. I don't understand it but this article does help explain it. Good read Kevin!

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By JMorse (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 08:17:16

The first picture is actually from Mad Max. It's the final scene where Max leaves Johnny the Boy to either die or saw off his own leg to get away. Best movie ever.

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By JMorse (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 08:47:13

Having now read the article, I must agree that while the "connected" experience of bicycle commuting in the cold is quite rewarding, for many including myself this experience is just one of many factors in making the decision.

For me, economics plays a key role. It's way cheaper to ride a bike than to drive or use transit. There's also the great exercise that becomes part your daily routine, the freedom to bypass traffic, and the flexibility of not having to adhere to transit schedules. I don't believe most who bike commute in the cold do it just to feel better about themselves, they do it because they're aware they can, and it supports other more utilitarian goals. All the feelings of connectedness are a welcome byproduct.

Sadly my previous routine of a 20km each way bike commute is no longer. I am now forced to use a car to fulfill my commitments to work. My goal however is to realign my daily life to include a necessary and beneficial bike ride.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 09:22:11

People ride bikes in the winter for the same reason they ride them in the spring, summer and fall - transportation.

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By Mark-Alan Whittle (anonymous) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 09:33:26

I admire anyone willing to navigate Hamilton streets during the winter time. It's unfortunate that snow clearing equipment never seems to do a good job in the curb lane. Drivers have to be extra alert and try and accomodate this shared resource with others forms of transportation.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:12:26

Once you cycle in the winter for any real chunk of time you get used to it, just like driving or walking. There are many places far less accustomed to snow than us where an average light Hamilton snowfall snarles an entire city for days for lack of antifreeze and snow tires. Similarly, many places with far harsher winters than us (ie: Montreal) still have many more that cycle through them.

As for Potter, somebody needs to tip this dude off that restating tidbits of a first-year Culural Studies course in a popular book does not make you original or visionary. There's probably at least a thousand kids at Mac who could write a far more balanced article. These arguments are the postmodern intellectual equivalent of an acid trip, and as such don't do all that well out of context.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:13:21

Great read, Kevin--I've taken more than a few minutes to reflect on what you've written, and I can't help but agree very strongly with your assertion that experience and involvement must be a new adherent's first step in joining/participating in a movement.

Ryan, don't go into The Authenticity Hoax expecting anything less glib this time around. Despite Potter's regrettable tone throughout the book (smug is a very fair comment), I found it hard to dispute his argument that the retailing of political & social identity is just the post-modern extension of material consumerism.

Consumers are encouraged to "find themselves", however symbolically, not through self-reflection/thought, meditation or other internal means, but through classic, externally focused materialism. For example, in the market (the market for ideas as much as goods or services), a concept such as Yoga is boiled down to what you need to practice it: cheap Chinese-manufactured mats, overpriced ass-lifting pants, accessories, Western re-interpretations, and other marketing gimmicks meant to satisfy the consumer by bestowing a new identity immediately, with little effort other than cash changing hands.

To the case of sustainability, it's the same retail-identity experience that lets a wealthy, West-coast dot-commer silently drive off dealer lot with his new Prius, when a more in-depth analysis of 'sustainability' might suggest that he ditch the car entirely.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:15:18

Well I have to admit people who ride their bicycles in the winter in poor snow conditions baffle me for the dangers they put themselves into.

What are the particular dangers to which you refer?

For most of the winter, the roads are cleared (by ploughs, traffic, sun and wind) but 8:30 am. The only danger that keeps me off my bike in the winter are icy ruts on the road - that was a problem for two days last winter and no days so far this winter.

And I'l echo Ryan's experience: cold-weather cycling is, in many ways, easier than warm weather riding since I don't have to worry about sweating - if I start getting warm, I open a button or drop a layer into my basket.

Comment edited by moylek on 2011-01-18 10:19:20

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By kevin_wiens (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:33:51

I get the sense that Andrew Potter believes there are more meaningful forms of involvement out there but the picture he paints definitely focuses on how identity is projected outward rather than personal experience (more Yoga pants, less meditation). In some sense, his view seems like that of the outsider looking in; a cool, objective analysis applied to something human. There are some good recent examples of philosophers writing about modern culture where the writer takes a more personal approach, with great results:

Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love, a Journey to the End of Taste

Mark Kingwell's Better Living, In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac

Comment edited by kevin_wiens on 2011-01-18 11:34:16

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 13:00:20

Kingwell and Potter are both products of what must be a pretty decent Philosophy department at U of T. I'm not sure how well they know each other, but I imagine they must--Potter wrote an interesting response to a Kingwell piece published in the Walrus last year on the subject of civility in politics.

While I'm pretty confident in the quality of Kingwell's work, as Better Living was often brought into class by my sociology profs back in undergrad, I'm a little more leery of Potter--he's too eager to use a timely, if not totally appropriate analogue to prove a point. He reminds me of a slightly more uppity, less evidence-based Malcolm Gladwell in a lot of ways. And I suppose judging by Potter's evaluation of Gladwell, that it takes one to know one:

Potter wrote:

In the end though, I was left with the same sense of admiration, but also the same gnawing frustration, that I get from reading Gladwell’s books and essays. At his best, Gladwell takes ideas from academia – mostly psychology and social research — and packages them in insightful examples wrapped in brisk, direct prose. [...]

Too often for comfort though, Gladwell slips into a intellectual mode where he states truisms and generalities in a very earnest way, that makes it sound like he thinks he’s really on to something.

Comment edited by Borrelli on 2011-01-18 13:02:14

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 13:32:13

Kingwell was a contemporary of mine at U of T and I met him on a number of occasions. Even as an undergrad he was intimidating. Because of my tangential association with him, I've bought a few of his books over the years. Guess it's time to stop hoping I'll absorb the contents through osmosis and actually crack the spines. :-)

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By PseudonymousCoward (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 13:46:50

Ryan, in a way I'm sorry you raised the issue of trolling here. Until your comment, I was just enjoying reading my way through an intelligent, respectful conversation that had not yet been overrun by the "thugs". When I'm reminded what a civil discussion looks like, I find myself thinking you need to adjust the site's terms of service to ban rudeness outright as an offense against free speech. Is it censorship to muffle a boor with a megaphone so that someone else has a chance to speak and be heard?

Comment edited by PseudonymousCoward on 2011-01-18 13:51:35

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 14:12:01

PC-->"Is it censorship to muffle a boor with a megaphone so that someone else has a chance to speak and be heard?"

No--this is the most important function of the Speaker of the House in our Parliament, and it is mostly because of Peter Millikin's abdication of this role that the current House looks the way it does.

Crying "censorship" is real easy, but demonstrating it is another thing completely. Having standards for discourse does not equate to censorship, and free speech does not require a raucous free-for-all that privileges large quantities of loud, emotional outbursts.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 14:50:56

Borelli >> this is the most important function of the Speaker of the House in our Parliament

And who plays that role on RTH? Under the current voting system, it would appear it is those in the majority.

>> Crying "censorship" is real easy, but demonstrating it is another thing completely.

In other words, you're guilty of being a troll until you can prove otherwise, is that how it works? Shouldn't it be up to people who are claiming they can't be heard to demonstrate how this is the case? Seeing that so called trolls are the ones who are more likely to enjoy having their comments faded from view, your assertion that the majority opinion is being attacked is hilarious. You are a very funny person.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 15:24:59

It's Borrelli with two R's, Smith. Thanks.

I wasn't specifically referring to RTH when making that statement, but as to who plays this role at RTH, it would appear no one, and I think that's the point. I can't say I've ever seen a comment disappear on RTH, suggesting that there isn't any active management of comments (someone correct me if I'm wrong).

As to trolling, I'm not an expert on web communities, but I would suggest that the trolls on RTH get what they deserve. As I've commented before, the voting system on RTH is more akin to an expression of community standards, and I honestly don't understand why some trolls get their knickers in a knot over it.

If you visit a progressive, urbanist website and start trying to sell the neo-liberal gospel without attempting to adhere to community standards, what do you honestly expect the response to be? More importantly, if someone comments while gleefully violating the existing community standards (i.e. respectful dialogue, a focus on reasoned debate instead of expression of opinion or emotions), no one can reasonably expect those comments to be treated as equivalent to all others.

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By bobinnes (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2011 at 16:04:43

Good read and a whole bunch of links to follow. Much too interesting - I lost track of how many things I'm probably guilty of. My own take on this corner is that the picture these days has become a bit religious as in, green religion, ie. the faith based system for evaluating complex subjects like climate. I haven't read any Potter other than the article linked but any debunking of dogma, hubris or whatever is a good thing in my books, even if the underlying concern in genuine. When too many people lean too far in one direction, it becomes political and therefore serious, possibly even dangerous in the hands of our ever manipulative masters.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 16:04:43

BoRRelli >> If you visit a progressive, urbanist website and start trying to sell the neo-liberal gospel without attempting to adhere to community standards, what do you honestly expect the response to be?

I was hoping the response would be vigorous debate that represents the political spectrum of Hamilton. As you may have noticed, so called trolls have NEVER called for comment fading, voting, or registration of pro urban viewpoints, no matter how misguided they are and so obviously lacking in facts to back them up.

Unless of course RTH is supposed to be a one sided, progressive advertisement masquerading as community debate. Is that what RTH is?

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2011 at 16:35:35

The discussions of sustainability, conspicuous (non)consumption and smugness remind me of the South Park episode, Smug Alert.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker can be heard discussing the attitudes which they sought to skewer here.

Comment edited by moylek on 2011-01-18 16:36:35

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 19:24:55

Ryan >> You have amply, consistently, relentlessly proven otherwise about your intent.

My intent is to try and punch holes in people's ideas. If there are no weak spots in these ideas, I will be unable to do so. Think of me as a critic of the political left. I may be annoying, but I am fair and I do use facts and numbers to support my claims.

My most recent attack of the LRT story was about travel times. This is a relevant issue for taxpayers and it should have been addressed by an LRT supporter. Instead, it was "ignored" and left unanswered. Don't you think the public deserves to have these questions answered, even if you hate the questioner?

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By mb (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 20:59:37

Happy Birthday Bob Young!

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted January 18, 2011 at 22:26:08

My most recent attack of the LRT story was about travel times. This is a relevant issue for taxpayers and it should have been addressed by an LRT supporter. Instead, it was "ignored" and left unanswered. Don't you think the public deserves to have these questions answered, even if you hate the questioner?

Smith, ironically I think your comments about LRT travel times were overshadowed by incessant trolling by others on that particular thread!

I will take the bait! (Pun intended, topical humour, don't take it personal Smith, just teasing) http://www.raisethehammer.org/comment/56...

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By Zot (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2011 at 01:23:49

"maybe something more along the lines of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider."

Ummm... Thanks, but no thanks, You do remember how that movie ends don't you?

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 19, 2011 at 10:02:54

A Smith>> "I was hoping the response would be vigorous debate that represents the political spectrum of Hamilton."

Hey, I'm all for that, and if you'll recall, I've long been a supporter of your comments (if not necessarily agreeing with them) because they offer much-needed balance.

But you might be setting the bar a little high if you think that the website can somehow orchestrate that. There's no one speaker or representative for RTH (or any other informal group along the political spectrum), no one controlling the debate, no adherence to formal rules, etc.

But, I'm curious: What website (or other forum) would you hold up as the gold standard for "community debate"?

I think the history of the RTH comments section reveals that there's almost an equal likelihood that a pro-RTH'er will go over-board in bashing a heretic as there is a chance that a heretic/troll will wander in and ruin a productive debate. No point in trying to assign blame in this chicken-egg problem, and I don't think it's fair to lay this problem at the feet of RTH and its organizers.

For example, you've placed most of your debating eggs in the "punch holes in other people's arguments" basket. This is probably one of the most irritating forms of 'debate', and is remarkably common among commentators with conservative views (since they, by definition, tend to prefer the status quo). You can fairly punch holes in all kinds of progressive schemes, since progressives are rarely afraid of exploring new, creative ideas and get it wrong as much as right. But don't expect this to be an endearing approach, especially if its done rudely, or without the presentation of alternatives (since the hole puncher critic has the luxury of being insulated from having to propose his/her own way forward).

But (in my view) criticism, done correctly, is never a bad thing. And speaking of LRT, Smith, have you seen this? Some of the arguments presented are a pretty shaky upon closer investigation, but it's an interesting, alternative (for RTH) view of an established LRT scheme, especially the issues surrounding the construction and operation costs (which will probably be issues here in Hamilton, as well).

Comment edited by Borrelli on 2011-01-19 10:03:07

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted January 19, 2011 at 11:07:28

Borelli, if Smith actually used honesty and real logic to "punch holes in other people's arguments" I would agree with you, but he has shown time and time again he doesn't really care about the truth, only about picking fights and keeping them going as long as possible by throwing factoids around like confetti and posting big long lists of years and numbers that don't prove anything or are irrelevant. You can pick apart his so-called logic all you want, he doesn't care, he just keeps going as if he never saw it, that's why people get tired of trying to debate with him. He may act like he's doing some noble duty but really he just wastes everyone's time with his stone walling.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 19, 2011 at 11:15:15

I was hoping the response would be vigorous debate that represents the political spectrum of Hamilton.

It might surprise you, but that's not why all of us come here. Perhaps not even most of us. We come here to discuss, to have a dialogue and to talk about things. The point is conversation, not opposition, and so (gasp) sometimes we are content to agree.

My frustration, as someone who loves both debate and discussion, is that a certain number of posters here are using things like "arguments" and "facts" in a purely token way. It is as if there's a two-fact minimum on here and any two facts in a post magically grants it "above reproach" status, regardless of whether the facts/arguments are relevant, logical or add anything to the discussion. After these facts have been stated, the trolls in question then rant for two days about how "they stated a FACT and got downvoted anyway".

Two facts and an assumption placed in consecutive order do not equate to logic.

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