Musings on the State of the Union

The State of the Union – an opportunity for the U.S. President to ramble on about where he (or perhaps she in the future) thinks the country should go in the next few years, regardless of whether anyone in Congress is listening or not. However, I don’t think President Obama took the opportunity just to blather. Instead, he made some good points, did some political maneuvering and stated some wildly optimistic goals. Unfortunately, he didn’t mention food or bicycling. He had one off-handed comment about “our farmers growing more food,” but I doubt he was referring to urban agriculture. However, he did mention some key issues that can have a significant impact on food and transportation advocacy: high-speed rail, science education, and high-speed Internet access.

Giving 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail would be quite impressive. Although Obama’s aspirations seem a bit absurd considering the cost and budget issues, I admire his chutzpah. It’s not like the high-speed rail lobby is banging down the door of the White House. Beyond the railroad’s romanticism, high-speed rail can actually contribute to denser, more bikable/walkable communities. Unlike airports, which are far outside of cities, most rail stations are right in downtown. This accessibility makes it simple for traveler to then rent or use his or her own bicycle rather than rent a car. Union Station in DC even has a bicycle station with rental bikes and a repair shop right outside the Metro/rail stop. Similarly, it makes bike sharing programs such as Capital Bikeshare more viable because more people are interested in using them. In addition, high-speed rail would lessen reliance on cars in general. Instead of needing a car for long-distance trips, especially ones people make regularly like visiting family, people can just jump on the train instead. The less reliant people are on cars, the less likely they are to purchase them and the more they support other alternatives, including bicycling.

Science education has a less obvious connection, but is actually more important. Saying that we need to improve education is a “motherhood and apple pie” statement, that no one who has a bit of sense argues against. But that doesn’t detract from its actual importance. It’s not just that American kids aren’t learning the scientific concepts; it’s the fact that they aren’t interested at all. The anti-science crusaders (or at least they see it as a crusade) have managed to not only convince many people of their philosophy, but turn others off to the beauty of science. If science education can help kids rediscover that joy, then we may have some hope for an environmentally sustainable future. Getting people to make the investments we need to prevent and prepare for climate change requires a lot more than information, but a basic understanding of the principles is a start. Similarly, a lack of knowledge about agriculture is one reason why our food system is so disastrous. If that understanding can then lead to inspiration towards creative solutions, then we’ll be getting somewhere. To quote G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Speaking of information, actually bringing high-speed wireless access to 80% of the U.S. population within five years could be incredibly empowering. Far from just being able to watch YouTube videos on our iPhones, this is an issue of social justice. The power activists have to organize, connect, and get information on the Internet is denied to those in many rural areas, who are often quite impoverished. High-speed Internet could put these folks in contact with others who care and are willing to help. For example, much of the organizing against mountain-top removal mining in the Appalachians could not have happened without the Internet. Without email and websites, it would have been much more difficult for the affected people to have their stories heard worldwide. Without a doubt, there are other groups fighting for social and environmental justice for whom high-speed Internet could be essential. This access is even more important beyond the U.S., where food issues are inexorably tied to social justice. Besides political action, the Internet is incredibly useful for sharing resources. We are working to make Ecolocity a hub for resources on sustainable food for people in D.C. and far beyond. Most of the time, someone has already invented the wheel for us – we just have to adapt it a bit for our situation.

Of course, Obama also talked about a number of other issues relating to environmental sustainability. I know I personally cheered when he stated a goal of 80% clean energy by 2035 (although apparently that includes natural gas and “clean” coal?!). Similarly, his bringing back the goal of “one million electric vehicles by 2015” has immediate professional implications for me. But these were three areas that I thought were worth looking at in the context of advocacy. They’re worth keeping an eye on, and thinking about how they fit into the goal of sustainable food and transportation for all.

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