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Egan’s Wager

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The Wager Thanks for reading this. My name is Michael Egan; I am an associate professor in the History Department at McMaster University, and this is Egan’s Wager. In an auto-dependent society at a point when peak oil is becoming an ever-increasing cause for concern, I am betting that I will put more kilometers on my bicycles between March 15, 2011 and December 15, 2011 than the family puts on our car. I will wager up to $2500, and I am challenging the McMaster community to match or exceed that wager. At the end of the year, the money—either my loss or the McMaster community’s—will be donated to the Mac Sustainability Office in order to hire a student for the Winter 2011 semester. As a professor, I’m excited about the prospect of this wager going towards a kind of service-learning project, where a student interested in environmental issues can get firsthand experience in contributing to making the university a greener place. In order to bet, send an e-mail to velonista@gmail.com, with your full name, your e-mail address, and the amount of your wager. Over the next nine months, I will keep an updated log of my progress and post about the challenges of cycling in a car-dominated society. I will also post short pieces on the history of technology and the environment. My blog also doubles with another fund-raising project I have underway to send money to Bikes to Rwanda. Please feel free to explore that effort and contribute if you feel so inclined.

The Odds What are my chances? Last year, we drove roughly 10000 kilometers on family trips; getting children to school and after-school activities; and general everyday kinds of shopping, errands, etc. In 2010, I rode roughly 5000 kilometers, mainly on my road bike, riding around Hamilton and surrounds. I also commuted to work by bike, but I live 2.5 kilometers from campus. You don’t need to be a math wiz to determine that I need to either ride more or drive less. The point or intent is to do both, but as a family of five, we have decided that it is largely impractical to do without a car completely. Nevertheless, I sprained my ankle at the beginning of last spring and spent close to a month without being able to ride. I was also traveling extensively through August and missed another month. While I do plan to travel a bit this summer, I hope to avoid missing a full two months. I ride for pleasure, I commute, and I am also building a bike to share with my two-year-old daughter (for more on this, follow The Build). She and I have a great time tootling (it’s a word) down to Dundas for coffee or the Dundas Driving Park for a swim or skate (depending upon the season) or other adventures. We plan to have similar adventures this year by bicycle. All in all, this is going to be close!

Background Over the past few years, a big part of my teaching has involved looking at the history of the future from a variety of different perspectives. It’s proven to be quite fascinating—how have past societies and individuals imagined their future? Most of these investigations have been linked to my teaching in the history of technology. Recently, I was asked to give a talk at a student-run symposium on sustainability. Building on this interest, I decided to title my presentation “21st-Century Luddite: Navigating Technology and Environment in a Brave New World.” Luddism has come to connote a backward distrust or fear of all things new and technological, but I wanted to challenge my audience to think more critically about the technological systems that drive our modern world. The original Luddites were industrial workers in 19th-century England most famous for resisting the rise of industrialism—and its concomitant threat to their livelihoods—by breaking the machine frames in the manufactories in which they worked. In my talk, I linked breaking free from our current dependence on various technologies—having become tools of our tools, as Henry David Thoreau claimed in Walden—to the rebellious actions of the original Luddites.

This account in mind, I’ve been looking to do some “frame-breaking” of my own in a 21st-century context. Nothing so violent as actually smashing stuff, but challenging the existing technological systems that drive so much of our everyday lives. I’ll discuss technological systems in more detail in another post, but suffice to say, I’m talking about the network of technologies that inextricably embed themselves in our culture. Not just the automobile, for example, but the system of roads, traffic infrastructure, gas stations, strip malls, drive-thrus, etc., all of which combine to make it very difficult to imagine living without a car. Or the information system, which comprises your smartphone (which doesn’t even set off my spell-check, incidentally!), your laptop, the internet, wireless and communications satellites… you get the point.

So: frame-breaking. This is a symbolic exercise to break away from the assumptions that we are slaves to the technological systems that surround us. I take great pleasure from cycling—the bike, I know, is a machine and has its own network of systems—and I’m embracing the opportunity to maximize a greener transportation option, get some exercise, and (I hope) help the university community while I do so. Can I ride more than I drive? Bet against me, and then come join me for a ride!

On March 15—appropriately, the Ides of March—I will post a short video with more information about Egan’s Wager including the family car’s mileage, the bikes, etc. Stay tuned.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Andre Gouveia permalink
    March 13, 2011 6:26 pm

    Dr. Egan,
    I support this 100% and am forwarding your email to those among my friends who I think might appreciate the undertaking. Since getting rid of my car in December I have been forced to use alternate means of transportation as well. Despite initially wondering how I would ever get by without a vehicle the adjustment has been a good one as I now commute by running and will be pulling the bike out once the the snow and road salt are gone for good. Best of luck in this endeavour.
    -Andre

    • March 13, 2011 10:50 pm

      Thanks, Andre! We decided we needed a car, but as a family, we do try to cycle, walk, bus as much as possible. Our urban infrastructure doesn’t favor cyclists or pedestrians, but living without a car is definitely possible. I’d be grateful for your help; it would be great to raise a sizable amount for the Sustainability Office.

  2. April 19, 2012 11:53 am

    This is a wonderful idea & a great challenge. I realize it’s not possible for everyone to go car-free, but just being cognizant of the possibility of riding your bicycle more, walking, or having a car free day is crucial.

    I’ve been fortunate enough with living & work situations that I’ve been car-free since 2003. While riding in rain, sleet, snow & heat used to seem unbearable, now the thought of dealing with traffic, parking, etc. is what seems unbearable. Funny how things change.

    Hope to see some updates on this, since I think the challenge is over!

    • April 24, 2012 10:49 pm

      Sadly, the wager was poorly structured. I’ve been thinking about ways to revive it without it seeming like a vanity project. Even though I didn’t really follow through, it was probably pretty close: we put less than 10000km on the car, and I must have been pretty close to 9-10000 by bikes. Will have to think more about this…

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