Driving across the South American landscape, in search of hedonistic desires young men find hard to sate, Ernesto Guevara expected something entirely different from the scenes he was shown. Instead of beautiful women he was given starving children. Destitution, not lustful desire, greeted his every turn.
Consumerism contrasted side-by-side with all-encompassing poverty. Ernesto’s ride across the continent exposed him to the repressive social class system of 1970’s Latin America his upbringing hid him from. This seminal event in the life of the young man would be the point where Ernesto Guevara became Che Guevara, the iconic Marxist guerrilla leader. His travel journal, the Motorcycle Diaries, documents first hand Guevara’s experience.
Fast-forward half a century and half a world away. The motorcycle is still a window into scenes many of us can little understand. This comes in the form of the ubiquitous Chinese motorbike. The silent demons whiz through the streets, a gentle humming the only indication of their rapid approach. Looking at these is reminiscent of Picasso’s cubist masterpieces. Pieces and parts are loosely held together by all manner of tape. It’s a wonder some even run at all.
While to the foreign eye these might be comical, or even testament to the “cheap” nature of the Chinese, consider the taped-up jigsaw puzzles from a different perspective – consumerism.
It’s no secret that the finite resources of the Earth are rapidly depleting, with only the best and brightest going to those in the upper echelons of society. Even for most lower- and middle-class people in the developed world the notion of reusing something has become quite foreign. How often do we simply throw something away rather than find a way to fix it? It is so much easier, and more exciting, to go and buy a new widget. For most in the developing world, this is not an option. That’s a good thing.
Adam Minter in his book Junkyard Planet talks a lot about the 3 Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – and how far we’ve strayed from this path. He also keeps his own diary of his travels throughout China and the remarkable lengths people here will go to when it comes to reusing what most deem defunct. Parts equal money and nothing goes to waste. When something in China finally meets its end, you can bet that the product has had a long and eventful life.
From this point of departure let’s return to our windows on wheels. Sure, they might not be the most beautiful things to look at, especially when placed side-by-side with a brand new powder blue Rolls Royce, but they function just as well. By some estimates, there are over 200 million electric bikes on Chinese roads. Now imagine if each time one had a ding, scrape, or faulty wire (all of which could happen multiple times a day) the owner immediately threw it away and replaced the bike with a newer model.
Sure, most people zipping around on bikes plastered together with packing tape aren’t doing it because they are tree-hugging hippies. It’s more a matter of financial practicality than anything. The impact of their actions, unbeknownst to many of them, is still felt the same way. They are living out the misinterpreted reduce, reuse, recycle mantra while many of us are only making things worse.
So the next time you feel the tale-tell gush of wind blow past you on the sidewalk and a stray piece of tape or rope whip your arm, catch your breath. That modern-art masterpiece that almost mowed you down is a critical piece in China’s arsenal against further environmental degradation.