If you won’t do it for the planet, do it for the money

A few days ago, I took a call from a polling company hired by my city to gauge public awareness of ecological issues and city council’s new master plan on the environment.

I’m happy to oblige these kinds of requests; it’s like having an extra vote that non-responders don’t get. And it got me thinking about why we live the way we do.

In Canada, the majority of people say that human-assisted climate change is a real thing – and a real threat. In the United States, belief in climate change polls at less than 50 per cent.

But the majority of Canadians don’t act in significant ways on their science-based beliefs. They continue to drive big vehicles (trucks are still far and away the top sellers in new vehicles) and build big homes. They live in neighbourhoods where you have to drive to pick up a loaf of bread or a litre of milk.

We just had Earth Hour in late March. Bike to Work Day is May 11 and World Car Free Day is Sept. 22. All of these events are okay, but they’re honoured far more in the mentioning than in the participating. Who is being changed by having these days on the calendar? Hardly anyone.

I recently read an essay about how science-driven policy is a good idea for governments, even though most individuals reject that practice for themselves.

The essay offered various theories as to why people persist in lifestyles they know are driving calamitous climate change. It seems the end of the world as we know it doesn’t resonate enough to change behaviour.

So I propose another angle to the issue that may persuade some people to change their lifestyle. If the prospect of mass starvation for our grandchildren won’t change our behaviour, how about greed?

Here’s another day Canadians mark every year: Tax Freedom Day. Last year, it was June 7. It’s the day Canadians had worked enough hours to pay all their taxes for the full year, leaving the rest of the year to work for themselves.

And that’s not the end of it.

If we work until early June to pay our taxes, the average Canadian works after that almost until Car Free Day to pay for vehicle ownership.

The Canadian Auto Association has a calculator to determine the full and true cost of owning a car. If you own a mid-sized car, you’ll need $9,946 of after-tax income a year to own and operate it. The average SUV requires $11,947 a year. A pickup truck runs on money: $12,940 a year.

How many hours do you work every year to cover those costs, after taxes?

Government figures put the average after-tax net for a Canadian at $53,775, which for our discussion is very close to $25 an hour, after taxes.

So how do you rank? The question is important, because although all our salaries differ, the cost of a vehicle type is rather static. If you’re not making the average, you’re working a whole lot more hours a year just to drive your car to work.

How many hours does that come to? For the average Canadian with an average mid-sized car, it’s about 10 weeks a year. Add a week to own an SUV and two more weeks a year to run your pickup.

That’s after Tax Free Day, remember.

So if the thought of huge storms, prolonged droughts, destructive flooding or rising tides destroying cities doesn’t get you thinking about leaving the car at home more often (or perhaps not buying one), think about the money.

Prof. Paul Tranter of the University of New South Wales in Australia wants people to think of “effective speed” when they think about transportation. That calculation includes not just the time spent on your journeys, but the time you spend working to pay the full cost of each journey.

Long calculations made short, the bike wins by many kilometres, followed by walking. And the faster, more expensive the car, the slower your effective speed.

Sure climate change is real, but so is money and the hours you spend to earn it.

Is having an extra $10,000 a year, tax-free, in your pocket worth the price of a bike?

I’ve always thought so, even though I don’t do Earth Hour, Car Free Day or Bike To Work Day.

Greg Neiman is a freelance editor, columnist and blogger living in Red Deer, Alta.

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