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Through the Grapevine: Environmental Virus, parts I-IV

Published May 22, 2020

Editor's note: A version of this column ran in the May issue of BRAIN.

Environmental Virus: Excuse me for moving beyond COVID-19—at least for a few moments. Oddly, recent reports by Nieman, Columbia Journalism Review, Editor & Publisher and other outlets that cover media report a decline in interest for COVID-19 related news. 

We should be grateful if the near-rabid viewers of Fox News were to shorten the time spent listening to a network that hosts a legion of provocateurs of falsehoods. Nonetheless, a slackening in public interest in near total COVID coverage could be a good sign; that the public has taken to heart the warnings of health professionals. Wash your hands, keep your distance and wear your mask. The public — and our industry — is now turning to when and how to begin a long, slow and painful return to some semblance of normalcy. We all welcome that conversation and should ignore the know-nothing contingent of Tea Party Patriots, fringe evangelical pastors, ultra-right-wing radicals, anti-globalists, delusional commentators and assorted other nincompoops demanding an immediate re-opening. I have modest confidence that the American public will embrace science and common sense and forgo rushing willy-nilly into a premature embrace. But re-open we must. With that said, let me turn to the environment and climate change. Again, let’s disregard the fringe factor and acknowledge that we have radically degraded our collective environment; that we continue to relegate sound science and a meaningful discussion of how to “bend the curve” of a fast deteriorating planet to the back burner. Pandemics, no matter the human and economic toll, move on. Climate change remains with us.

Environmental Virus II: COVID-19 could be characterized as a sudden onset of global paralysis. In six months or so it’s brought the wheels of commerce to a near screeching halt; destroyed many thousands of small businesses worldwide, decimated personal wealth, infected millions and killed many thousands.  COVID also has pushed serious issues deep into the background of our collective thinking, including climate change. Of late most of us have seen dramatic photos of cities with much cleaner air whose residents can see distant mountains. Real-time satellite imagery attests to such from Beijing to Baton Rouge. It’s startling. But no one thinks this temporary cleansing of carbon emissions will last long. We will, most assuredly, revert to the old normal. COVID may buy humanity a smidgen of time to contemplate and act on what is a far more serious threat to our collective future than a once-every-100-year-pandemic. Yet scientists and researchers — like epidemiologists — have been warning for decades that the planet is sick and getting sicker. They’ve been derided as hysterics by the idiots listed above and the well-financed propaganda oozing out of the oil and gas industry. The Trump administration is wasting no time gutting major environmental regulations as Americans struggle with the pandemic. Thank Andrew Wheeler — he’s a well-heeled coal industry lobbyist who now leads an Environmental Protection Agency jihad. Wheeler’s blithely gutting air and water quality regulations, much of which benefits the coal industry, with less public oversight due in part to the pandemic. Be grateful environmental organizations have tossed a legal wrench into the cogs of his so-called deregulation. But the climate, with minimal fanfare, continues to degrade.

Environmental Virus III: Let’s bring this back to the bicycle industry. Of late there’s been some muted happy talk about a renaissance in cycling. Many dealers — at least those classified as “essential” — report strong demand for service and less expensive bicycles. And, as the country slowly reopens, more dealers could enjoy a burst of business. Families appear to be riding around neighborhoods to get exercise. Some cities have temporarily closed streets in favor of walking and cycling. Two-wheel delivery is booming. And some essential workers in major metro areas would rather bike than sit in a tube or bus. That won’t last long. Some folks think this pandemic could spur renewed interest in cycling leading to a boom. I’m skeptical. Economists have a phrase to ponder: reversion to the mean. Skip the arcane muddle of statistical explanations, it simply says that an extreme event (COVID-19) is likely to be followed by a less extreme event. In other words, many U.S. consumers who’ve taken up cycling amidst social distancing will revert to past actions. Old habits are hard to break. More importantly, and I am no financial seer, the high-end market — say $3,000 and above — is unlikely to resume at a pre-pandemic pace anytime soon. Fear breeds preservation, and even most big-spending cyclists will preserve their cash. That’s a problem for dealers who’ve long relied on those sales for a decent slice of cash. What should dealers, suppliers and manufacturers think about in an emerging New Economy? The environment.

Environmental Virus IV: Outside of Western Europe, the global bicycle industry — especially in the U.S. — has no long-game to play when it comes to climate change. We tend to muddle along quarter-to-quarter tweaking geometry, fussing over suspension forks while attempting to trim a gram or two. This is sad. Experts estimate that air pollution worldwide kills more than four million people a year. These are unseen deaths complicated by poverty, poor diet, asthma, heart disease and other issues. Ample studies find the same in America’s largest cities. Think Los Angeles. If globally, four million people were to die from COVID this year our collective hair would be on fire. It’s time to take a page from Europe and pay attention to Cycling Industries Europe (CIE), a relatively new industry organization. Key brands are backing it — Trek, SRAM, Accell, PON, WTB and others. Its goals? To create a vision for a post-COVID world where cycling is at the center of mobility. Wow! Ambitious! More importantly CIE wants to focus on innovations to smooth a transition to more sustainable mobility and still make money for the industry. And CIE embraces a 24-page EU plan called the Green Deal; we in the U.S. deride such thinking. Well, pay attention. We’re not going back to normal.

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