Quality over Quantity

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan were terrible, and the unfolding nuclear catastrophe threatens to overshadow even those disasters. Our thoughts go out to the people who are affected, and we must do what we can to help them. Beyond that, Japan has shown me once again that there is no technological way to “build our way out” of the energy and climate crisis we face.

Renewable energy sources, especially wind, have great potential, but the simple fact is that we cannot continue to consume such enormous quantities of energy – nor do we have to. Here is how I have been trying to decrease the energy I consume, while improving my quality of life at the same time.

The majority of my energy consumption is in four areas:

Daily transportation: Some people tell me that electric cars are the answer, but if everyone drove one, we’d need so much electricity that nuclear power would be almost unavoidable. They batteries are toxic as well.  When I ride my “Urban Bike” for deliveries, I get to go for a beautiful ride instead of sitting in traffic in my car.

Home heating/cooling: Keeping our heater thermostat at 67 instead of 70 degrees in Seattle cuts our home heating bill (and pollution) almost in half, while remaining perfectly comfortable. (And our house is much smaller than the one in the photo, so it takes less energy to heat.) Bicycle Quarterly’s offices are heated even less, and we wear warm underlayers at work. Simple and effective.

Airline travel: This is a big one. A commercial jetliner gets about 50-70 mpg per passenger, about the same as a small car. However, the distances I fly are huge. One trip to Europe consumes more gasoline than all my driving in 5 years!

To reduce the impact of my traveling, I focus on quality over quantity. Instead of jetting to places for a weekend, I make one trip a year, but take the time to make the trip worth while. When I went to the Cirque du Cyclisme, I spent a week in Chicago to visit friends and explore the city. When I go to Paris-Brest-Paris this summer, I will spend an entire month visiting family and friends and doing research for Bicycle Quarterly.

When possible, I take the train instead of flying or driving. Europe’s high-speed rail network allows me to travel extensively within Europe with minimal pollution. It would be nice to have such a system in the U.S.

Most of my travels are close to home. There are so many neat places to explore around here (see photo at the top). I find a week-long bicycle tour, starting from home, a much more rewarding experience than “36 hours” in an exotic location.

Manufactured goods: Everything I buy is made from materials that are carried around the world. I try to buy quality things that will last me a long time. This not only reduces pollution and saves money in the long run, but well-made things also are more enjoyable to use. When something breaks, I try to fix it, whether it’s cost-effective or not. I find this very satisfying. And when I order things, I select “Ground Shipping” over “Next Day Air.” (At Compass Bicycles, we also avoid air shipping as much as possible.)

All these choices not only reduce the energy I consume, but they also improve the quality of life I enjoy.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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15 Responses to Quality over Quantity

  1. Ely says:

    Well said.
    The situation in Japan has only made me question deeper the role of fuel and energy on our society, especially in the US. We want more, cheaper, faster, but we are cheating ourselves out of the simple gifts of happiness which come with less, quality, and slower.
    My favorite times are walking with my wife or son, to the park or a cafe. Talking, holding hands in the rain, with nothing but time and a good appetite.

  2. yackrr says:

    Just found this article regarding air travel and warming: http://arst.ch/os3
    Looks like carbon emissions may not even be half of the problem with air travel.

  3. Michael says:

    What about food? I have no data at hand, but if my recollection is correct, more petroleum is used for industrial agriculture than for transportation in the US. I realize it doesn’t quite fit the “quality over quantity” theme, but it’s worth mentioning, because it is often overlooked.

    • It actually fits right in. Buying locally, you get food that is in season and tastes better than fruits and vegetables that were harvested unripe and airshipped half-way around the globe. It’s important not to be dogmatic about all this. After all, the goal is to increase our quality of life… even if that includes an occasional Kiwi from New Zealand or a trip across the country by plane.

  4. Jan, that’s a nice piece. Certainly in the right direction. But there’s more you can do. I love what I’ve seen of the Quarterly, though I have not yet subscribed. Possibly will, but here’s the thing. Producing and delivering a paper magazine equals fairly significant environmental costs. Personally I love magazines and currently subscribe to three print boat publications. I am a little loathe to add a fourth, and, though I love the object, it might be worth considering a digital subscription to reduce environmental impact.
    My second point: year ago when I bought a Chris King headset for a bike build, Chris claimed a zero impact to the environment for his (onsite) manufacturing process. I don’t see that claim currently on his website, but the idea was provocative. While the use of bicycles is one of the most environmentally sane ideas we have ever come up with as a species, the manufacture of bikes does have environmental costs. It would be interesting to see an article in BQ on this subject and forgive me if you’ve already done so. It would be very informative to know what bicycle makers make an effort to reduce their impact, and how they do it. Current events notwithstanding, these issues become more valent daily. Thanks for a great magazine! This is the bike magazine I was looking for.

    • We keep our paper usage down to a minimum, but Bicycle Quarterly is intended as a lasting resource. Digital format is great for magazines that are read and then recycled. When we research many topics, whether the history of various builders or technical issues, we often rely on old books and especially magazines that are 50, 80 or 100 years old. If those had been in electronic formats, they’d be gone today. In other cases, we have to undertake large amounts of testing, only to re-discover things that were known long ago. By producing almost 6000 paper copies, we ensure that Bicycle Quarterly will be a resource for future generations of readers. (With the invention of the printing press, even a fire in the largest library no longer destroys much knowledge.)

      We do print on recycled paper, and we keep our office paper to a bare minimum. We don’t even send out packing slips with our orders – you get an electronic confirmation. Many of our local deliveries are by bike. I don’t see how you can have a manufacturing process (especially of aluminum parts) with zero environmental impact without using offsets. And offsets have their own problems – http://www.thenation.com/article/offset-buyers-beware. It seems that a more honest goal is to minimize your emissions locally, rather than trying to buy your way out of them.

      • rory says:

        i see your point regarding the digital publication of Bicycle Quarterly versus a paper print. I would like to know why Compass doesn’t sell any local (even if it’s just from the same continent) parts? How are the grand bois hubs so superior to either the white industry or chris king hubs that they warrant shipping them from taiwan for sale?

        I do think Bicycle Quarterly could write a very interesting article regarding the environmental impications of producing a hub from gran bois versus producing a hub from chris king, right down to even the nitty gritty details of where the cutting fluid ends up from each process (IE how do Taiwan’s sewage treatment plants compare to the US’s?)

      • Most of the Grand Bois products are unique and not available elsewhere. They are made by the companies best able to produce this type of product. For example, there are few companies forging aluminum in the U.S., and none of them specialize in bicycle parts. (There are a few Grand Bois parts that we sell simply because we are the U.S. distributor. The hubs are very good, but they are not superior to all other hubs. We made this pretty clear in Bicycle Quarterly when we tested them.)

        Today’s manufacturing is global. If a French person buys a “local” TA crank, they get a forging made in Taiwan (with aluminum that may have been smeltered somewhere in the U.S., using Australian bauxite). The forging is shipped to France for machining and finally to the French consumer. If they bought a crank made in Taiwan, the impact would be the same – instead of a raw forging being shipped to France, it would be a finished crank on the boat.

        I think the solution is to buy local for items of which you consume a lot, and consume less of manufactured goods that are shipped around the world. If you use that crank for 20 years, the impact per mile or per year is relatively small. And of course, ocean freight is relatively low-impact compared to air-shipping vegetables.

        As sources change from one production run to another, it’s impossible to do the analysis you would like to see. Neither Chris King nor Grand Bois even know where the bauxite used for their aluminum was mined…

      • Dan Connelly says:

        Given the heaps of paper which comes through my mail slot every 3 months, the vast majority junk mail which will go straight to the recycling bin for some uncertain future, Bicycle Quarterly is an insignificant fraction. I wouldn’t think of discarding a single issue: they all contain archival material which is worth saving for future reference. I think if we were at the consumption level where Bicycle Quarterly was a large marginal contributor to waste, it would be fantastic, but that’s a long way off. As it is there’s more paper used in ads alone of a single daily copy of the local newspaper than in a quarterly edition of the magazine.

    • doug in seattle says:

      Regarding environmental costs associated with bicycle manufacture: in addition to cost savings, used bicycles and parts offer significant environmental savings. I don’t know how many miles the 1984 Schwinn Voyageur I use to get to work has on it, but I can be certain the costs of the mining, smelting, manufacture, shipping, etc., have been significantly ameliorated in the 27 years of use before it came into my hands. It currently has saved hundreds of miles of personal auto use and will probably save thousands more. Same goes for the 1994 Shimano equipment bolted onto it.

      And when it finally wears out, I’ll ride the frame down to the transfer station and toss it into the recycle bin!

  5. Erik says:

    Very nice to know you really care about this problem. For everybody who wants to be able to make correct comparisons between all kinds of transport modes and heating systems, I strongly recommend reading: “Sustainable energy without the hot air”. (can be downloaded here). It is a well-constructed and quite neutral overview of all existing systems and their possible impact.
    Intercontinental Airtravel remains a major problem since there is no alternative. Fortunately for me, I don’t have to. Cycling takes care of my biggest transportation demand (10 000 km/y), followed by train and long-distance coach. (similar to the Greyhound busses).
    Our house barely needs heating since it has a balanced ventilation system and it’s walls, roof and floor are airtight and isolated. The necessary heating is supplied by a condensing gas boiler with a heating efficiency of +90%. The yearly electricity demand is covered by photovoltaic cells.
    Because like you state: the cheapest and most easy way of solving the energy problem is to reduce our consumption. Keep up the good work!

  6. Alexander says:

    Right! Just 2 remarks on E-cars: I am already scared to have a Tesla pasing me at 120 km/h without any noise to warn me! ;-)
    On the other hand: here in Germany we already have a lot of renewable energy. Problem is storing overflow. Here Ecars can be an important part of the solution. In the context of a smart grid they can be loaded when wind energy is available, store excess energy and “sell” unused battery power while it is needed at another place.
    But for sure the best argument against nuclear is that we really dont need it…..

  7. thelazyrando says:

    I think products should have a lifecycle analysis label like food has a nutritional label. It should tell us what energy is required for all phases of the product from raw materials to manufacturing, shipping and disposal/recycling with special mention of any toxic materials generated and an estimate of its service life.

    Without that information it’s hard to fully evaluate a product compared to an alternative.

    In terms of a PDF BQ I think we are at the point globally that unless the entire human race collapses a PDF document online will survive forever. I’ve lost or damaged so many of my original BQ issues I ordered a whole new set. In PDF I’d simply go to my back up disc if I lost or damaged a file. However, I think given the small circulation of BQ and people’s propensity to file share you’d see a hit in paid subscriptions. I’d prefer a PDF version of the magazine, but I prioritize success of the business before convenience or the environmental impact of paper.

    safe riding,

    Vik
    http://www.thelazyrando.com

    • Without that information it’s hard to fully evaluate a product compared to an alternative.

      I agree, but that analysis is difficult to make without some generalizing assumptions. For most manufactured goods, consuming less always is a safe alternative.

  8. Bill Gibson says:

    Japan is on my mind, too. They will rebuild, and maybe they will choose to rebuild closer to their roots. Imagine a Japan as smart and hard working, as cooperative, as competitive, but more sustainable than it is now. I only hope that when our time comes, we respond as well.

    Beyond my passion for cycling, I’m interested in how we can transition through the long emergency that the present and future seems to be. A little beyond the scope of BQ? Or, is there a place for articles on how to rebuild the modern American city and suburb – especially the suburb (!) – to make it more sustainable by making neighborhoods and urban regions more bicycle friendly, as cheaply and quickly as possible?

    I’d like to think we don’t have to go through catastrophes to muster the political will to change, but that may be inevitable now. On the other hand, I find cycling such a positive factor in my life, that I cannot imagine, in the long run, that the rest of society won’t recognize it, too. You may say that I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one!

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