Stretching the truth about walking

A disturbing junk-science meme circulating out there on the internets — apparently propagated by misguided animal-rights campaigners who are trying to hitch a ride on the climate train — makes the specious (yet how alluringly contrarian!) claim that driving is somehow ecologically superior to omnivore walking. This claim ignores all kinds of inputs, some of which are deconstructed by Clark Williams-Derry and others by the commenters. (In particular, the calculation focuses on the “upstream” impact of producing food, but not of extracting oil and refining it into gasoline; ignores the substantial ecological costs of manufacturing cars; and appears to assume that cars are robots that drive around dead [or at least non-respirating, non-calorie consuming] people [zombies?], rather than living, breathing, likely meat-eating people.)

My first reaction, upon first seeing this claim last October, was thus: ” ‘We need to get rid of these “or” arguments, that we can either do this or do that. “Or” has got to become “and” because we need to do everything.’ [Lawrence Frank] I really wish that… animal-rights groups wouldn’t use this either/or angle. If they really cared about global warming [and are not just using it as convenient political cover for other agendas], they’d understand that our society needs very broad, systemic changes to address this monstrous challenge, and that mouthing little platitudes that further confuse the public does NOT help.” Yet another case of blindered, single-issue people who see a single tree, not an entire forest.

Of course, that warning was not heeded. Such a seductively specious claim will inevitably find its way into the lying, scorched-earth right-wing echo chamber (what Mother Jones helpfully terms “the cold earth society“), which will stretch and simplify what was already a tenuous claim, then shout it from the rooftops until it drowns out any reasoned debate. And guess what? It’s happening. No less a light than John Tierney, the original “Skeptical Environmentalist” (whose “exposé” on landfilled recyclables still gets spat out at me on occasion, a good twenty years later) brought it into his blog — ahem, Science Lab. He even issued some sort of reader challenge: can someone else pull numbers out of their ass to claim that a car taxi is superior to a bicycle taxi? Reader Julian Lamb responds:

If selected as the winner, instead of rewarding me with a book, I’d prefer you push me from my home to my office (8 miles and over the Brooklyn Bridge) in a TAXI cab without assistance from the engine. That ought to cure you of any skepticism. If you make it over the bridge I’ll even buy you breakfast.

Regardless of how efficient a car’s engine might be, it still has to move a huge vessel in addition to its payload — as evidenced by the ethanol claim below. And even the original, highly suspect “calculations” that Tierney references regard walking and driving alone — yet bicycling is far more efficient than walking, and being hauled around in a cab (in city traffic, no less!) is less efficient than even driving alone (since cabs’ time spent cruising for fares pulls their occupancy rates down below 1).

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