Contrary to popular opinion, bicycling can potentially damage the environment due to the increased longevity of people engaged in physical activity, says Karl Ulrich, a Wharton Business School professor.
Ulrich argues that the greatest environmental peril society may face is the looming prospect of slowing the aging process, and bicycling potentially contributes to slowing aging.
Put simply, Ulrich says there is an underlying conflict between human-powered transportation, longevity, and environmental impact, which needs to be highlighted as the world seeks to find green solutions.
“The bicycle is a remarkable machine, allowing humans to transport themselves much more efficiently than by most other means. At the same time, physical activity, fitness, and health are almost axiomatically worthy objectives,” says Ulrich.
“And yet, the steady improvements in human health and longevity have a tremendous impact on the energy use and environmental impact of the human population.”
In a paper titled, “The Environment Paradox of Bicycling,” Ulrich argues that energy savings due to the use of human powered transportation may be offset by the increased energy used by living longer due to better health.
According to Ulrich’s analysis, each person-year of human-powered transportation by a previously sedentary individual offers an average increase in longevity of 0.029 years, which basically means people live longer, allowing them to inflict greater damage on the environment through increase energy consumption.
“It is axiomatic among environmentalists that substitution of human-powered transportation for single-occupant automobile trips provides environmental benefits,” states the paper.
“Yet, given the current state of the automobile-driving population, particularly in the United States, first-order environmental benefits can result in high second-order environmental costs due to increased longevity of those engaging in increased physical activity.”
A basic premise of the argument is that as more sedentary individuals engage in physical activity, they can potentially live longer and therefore exert more pressure onto the environment.
Ulrich labels his analysis a “bizarre Swiftian argument” but provides complicated mathematical calculations to substantiate his theory that bicycling makes people live too long for the good of the environment.
“As a society, we value longevity more than long-term environmental impact. If we did not, we might provide incentives for risky behaviors such as smoking, drug abuse, and driving without seat belts,” states the paper.
“Thus, even if human-powered transportation does not provide a significant net environmental benefit, it provides other benefits we seem to value even more.”
Having said that, Ulrich does state that those who adopt the bicycle as a means of transportation could potentially develop an increased awareness of the environmental impact of their actions and may over their lifetimes reduce energy consumption substantially in their other, non-transportation activities.