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Jay Townley: There is no return to normal

Published September 17, 2021
There is only the future!

By Jay Townley

Editor's note: Townley is the Resident Futurist at Human Powered Solutions, an industry consultancy.

On Aug. 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented a scientific consensus representing the most complete synthesis of climate science available. The scientific consensus was: It's too late to reverse the damage done to the Earth's climate. But it's not too late to change course right away to prevent things from getting far worse.

The IPCC report doesn't present one future. Its most important finding is that there are several futures possible for the world, including the American bicycle business and the bike shop channel of trade!

There is no going back ...

What we can expect from most governments, certainly many politicians and some industry trade associations and business executives, is the redoubling of their usage of what we have recently heard and seen as the time-honored rhetoric of distraction called "getting back to normal."

Instead of telling people that we need to truly transform and change the way we live, and our businesses, and organize our societies, we will be told that we can go back to the way it was, except perhaps with fossil fuels and disposable goods replaced with green energy, bicycles, and recyclables. Maybe less driving our automobiles and air travel, but all-in-all, we can get "back to normal" with some green changes here and there.

This way of thinking is perhaps as dangerous as the climate crisis itself. While warning about inflation as a threat to our economic future is the rhetoric of reaction, getting back to normal is the rhetoric of distraction. It builds directly upon how our psychology has evolved over decades.

When you hear a politician, trade association leader or business executive talk about "getting back to normal," remember that while this is comforting to hear, they are peddling a dangerous idea most of the American public is hardwired to accept.

And if we keep accepting it as a plausible goal relative to climate crisis, we will end up further away than ever from where we really need to be. As well as accepting the facts, it's time to give up on getting back to normal and face the fact that there is no normal to return to ... there is only the future, and what we choose to make of it.

Shawn Hubler wrote in The New York Times on Aug. 6, "This is the summer that feels like the end of summer as we have known it."

Ever since reading this I have thought about what it means. When I was growing up, and for many years after, I think of summer as a time for family and individual enjoyment and fun. Like most of you, I looked forward to being able to enjoy bike riding, swimming, and working outside.

This summer — 20 months after COVID-19 was identified and 18 months after a pandemic was declared that totally disrupted the U.S. economy and the American bicycle business — was different from any summer I have ever experienced.

On Aug. 14, Greenland had rain at the highest point of its ice sheet for the first time in recorded history. There were bare rocks where snow once capped the Sierra Nevada. Wildfires burned across the West, creating their own weather and sending smoke and large-particle pollution up to the jet stream, delaying planes in Denver and turning the sun red in New York City. Heatwaves killed people in the West and contaminated shellfish along the Pacific coast while floods in the South carried homes and people away and heavy rains swept cars from the roads in Arizona.

The hurricane season extends from June 1 through Nov. 30. For 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a likely range of 13 to 20 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which six to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including three to five major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher).

Where I live in Wisconsin, the lakes and flowages I enjoyed with my grandchildren in the summer are polluted and many have algae-blooms that are deadly to wildlife and will make people sick. Friends tell me they could not fly fish this summer because their favorite streams are too overrun with pollution in various forms, and we have already experienced our first derecho (a straight-line wind and storm event).

Like many people, I especially looked forward to the summer of 2021. It felt like the country was opening up from the pandemic, and after being fully vaccinated in April, I watched with anticipation as at least 10 live bicycle and micromobility events were announced through the rest of the year.

By the time I attended the Big Gear Show in Park City in early August, the Delta variant was stalking the land; two of the smaller bicycle business events were canceled by the last week of August.

Americans, including those of us in the bicycle, e-bike and micromobility businesses, were about to enjoy the season we thought we understood. We were looking forward to it because we remembered what it was ... a warm, sunny, pleasant time where we could sit back and relax and enjoy ourselves as we prepared for the event and show season.

But it wasn't to be. As Shawn Hubler said, "This is the summer we saw climate change merge from the abstract to the now, the summer we realized that every summer from now on will be more like this than any quaint memory of past summers."

Many avid cyclists around the country could not and still cannot ride during bad air alerts or when the temperatures and humidity are too high. Some have turned to indoor cycling and where the temperatures permit, some are changing to riding earlier or later to avoid the heat. This is the summer the world, the country, and our state and local community shifted and changed.

We were already off balance and out of sync because of COVID-19 and the pandemic, and now, this summer the climate crisis became our new inescapable and omnipresent reality, and the end of summer as we have known it.

Consumers have changed more rapidly than any other time in history!

The folks in the bicycle, e-bike and micromobility businesses that want things to go back to the way they were — they want to have their cake and eat it too!

They want to keep the monetary windfall from the pandemic-induced surge in sales — and return to the predictable certainty of the pre-pandemic way the mainstream business was conducted with the same supply chains, distribution, channels of trade and pecking order — with only enough green changes around the edges and integrity and ESG Integration and accountability to accommodate the most obvious shifts in consumer buying habits.

However, American consumers have been changed by the pandemic that induced them — as whole demographic clusters — to shift their expectations more rapidly and completely than any other time in history.

Now, many of them, our end users, are applying their new mindsets to where, what, and how they buy and no amount of wishful thinking about the way it was is going to compel them to go back when they have already been exposed to the future ... and found it both satisfying and in line with their expectations for how they want to live their lives. And they are about to be influenced and compelled again by the IPCC report as relates to the climate crisis.

For decades, the bicycle business has spent time and money in great measure on building and enhancing the perception of bicycles and bicycling as viable solutions. The Black Swan economic event and the public health crisis of COVID-19 have accomplished in the last 20 months what the bicycle business has labored at for 46 years, since the end of the last bike boom. What we refer to as the Bicycling Relevance Index has popped up like a balloon, and bicycles and e-bikes are now widely accepted as positive and beneficial means of human transportation and mobility.

Despite the differences between the political parties, an astonishing thing has happened in the House and Senate. Bipartisan legislation in the form of two separate transportation bills has worked their way through both chambers and have a good chance of coming out of conference in a form that will retain bipartisan support, guaranteeing a favorable vote.

This legislation is separate from the much-talked-about infrastructure legislation and contains billions of dollars for state and local governments for transportation alternatives, including electric cars, e-bikes, bicycles, and walking. It is the most human-powered-transportation friendly federal legislation and funding I have seen in my lifetime. There are many reasons for this, but it is another example of the favorable Bicycling Relevance Index and prompts the question: Why would we want to go back to the way it was?

Follow the consumer!

On one side we have politicians, trade association leaders and business executives (some, but not all) who advise us to just hunker down and wait for things to return to normal. And on the other side we have consumers, our end-users, who have been changed by the pandemic and have already moved ahead by shifting their expectations and buying habits to a new rolling future that is continually educating them in innovative types and levels of customer satisfaction.

As well as accepting the facts, it's time to give up on getting back to normal and face the reality that there is no normal to return to — there is only the future!

As the IPCC report makes clear, there are now only unknown and unfamiliar alternative futures that we can choose from. Embracing that uncertainty, rather than denying it, is the first step to choosing the right one. And the one thing I am confident of: There will be bicycles, e-bikes and bike shops whatever the future holds.

Jay Townley is a co-founder of and Resident Futurist for Human Powered Solutions, a unique consultancy consisting of some of the most experienced and knowledgeable people in the Micromobility space —

Jay Townley

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