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Mr. Green Car: Polluting for pleasure

June 29, 2011

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

This will be another column full of mea culpa — I will be railing against something I have been involved with for nearly my entire life and continue to do. I doubt I’ll change my ways much, so I really don’t expect you readers to suddenly stop what you’re doing, either. However, it is my hope that I am planting acorns — that from these little seeds of an idea will grow a big oak tree of wisdom. Changing our ways and attitudes toward how we think and feel about things takes time — voting rights for women, anti-slavery, gay rights all began with some thoughtful conversations long before they were universally adopted.

With that, I’m going to comment about polluting for pleasure. In the last Mr. Green Car (June 15), I opined that entertainment events, big and small alike, cause pollution in us driving from all over to participate. Along those same lines, we’ll look at the toys we use that consume fuel in the process of providing pleasure.

Some of the many ways we derive pleasure is by entertaining ourselves with motorcycles, cars, snowmobiles, boats, airplanes, jet skis (personal watercraft) and RV camping. Motorcycles and cars can be used for “transportation” — that is to get us from point A to point B to engage in some useful activity. They can also be used purely for pleasure. The joy ride is the simplest example — a pleasant Sunday afternoon ride or drive to nowhere in particular. Fuel consumed and air polluted means no gain,  except maybe by the bar and restaurant owners where we stop. Both machines can be raced as well. Racing is a very exciting form of pleasure — an adrenaline rush. Auto and motorcycle racing usually involves other machines — trucks and trailers, crew vehicles and track support — so the fuel use and pollution created rises dramatically over the simple joy ride form of motorized pleasure seeking. I’ve done both. I’ve had road motorcycles, and I raced dirt bikes, and I still enjoy a top-down joy ride in my Miata frequently.

Boating can be very fuel consuming. Powerboats, in particular, get notoriously bad gas mileage. Large boats, what most would consider “yachts,” measure efficiency in gallons per mile. But the sort of boat most of us use for pleasure will be towed to a lake or river, run around a while and filled again on the way home. Some are quite thirsty machines. While not a big fan of personal watercraft, now that they operate with quiet and efficient four-cycle engines instead of smoking two-strokes, I’d recommend a more efficient small craft in place of a large machine. It is not uncommon to see a man piloting a large boat up the river by himself for a bit of pleasure. Could he gain a similar pleasure with a personal watercraft or even a canoe or kayak?

I have sailboats. And while they use the wind for propulsion, I, too, pollute greatly in the need to run a small, stinky, two-cycle outboard to get under way. It only uses a couple gallons a year, but the pollution from these old two-cycle outboards is awful. Then, there is the sometimes hundreds of gallons of gasoline consumed in towing the 26-foot sailboat to a destination far away. In this respect, sailing is something like RV camping. The activity itself doesn’t do much harm to the environment — it’s the fuel consumed in getting there that does.

Flying is another pleasure activity that can consume a lot of fuel. Small airplanes are not particularly fuel-efficient. Most have air-cooled, carbureted engines that in themselves are not very efficient. Aviation has not benefited from the kind of advances in engine technology that the automotive world has seen. It’s a legal and a scale of economy issue. An average small, four-passenger airplane will obtain about 13 miles per gallon — about the same as driving a Hummer at 130 mph. A lot of flying is going nowhere to do nothing — a joy ride. Pilots often spend a morning flying to a pancake breakfast event or to an airport restaurant for a burger (Janesville, Wis.’s airport is famous for this). We call it the “$100 burger.” Even flying on an airliner to a vacation destination is fraught with a great release of carbon dioxide along the way — airlines are a major contributor of global warming greenhouse gases. On a global scale, piloting a small airplane around is not a major impact on the environment — compared to everything else, the total fuel consumed is miniscule because it is done so infrequently by a very few people. I’m one of them, too.

So, I’ve pointed out that having fun with our machines is costing us dearly in fuel purchases, oil imports, air pollutants and greenhouse gases. What can we do?

First, and easiest, is to cut back on frequency. How often do you need to derive pleasure from these activities? Next, is to acquire a more efficient machine and get rid of the old one — literally scrap it out. It does the environment no good if you sell your smoky old outboard motor to someone else. There are electric outboards and electric drive systems for boats. Electric airplanes are in the developmental stage. These can be much cleaner, particularly if the recharging energy source is clean.

Enjoy something human-powered instead of motor powered. I’ve found mountain biking to be just as exciting as riding a dirt-bike, and a lot less hassle, too. A kayak can be taken along on a top-down joy-ride with a trailer behind a convertible — this is a two-fer fun thing to do.

Lastly, how about just not going, going, going all the time? Stay home and garden, play checkers in the shade under a tree with a good friend. Play a banjo. There are a million different ways to derive pleasure that don’t involve moving our bodies with a petroleum-powered machine. The time may well come that the price of oil will force this shift upon us. Until then, I hope this discussion will put a nugget of guilt in your noggin while you’re out having fun with your machine — I know I think about it. Now, to kick that oil addiction…

From the June 29-July 5, 2011 issue

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