Editor’s Note: This is a thoughtful article, please read through to the end before writing comments, and please keep the discussion civil. 

Here is something worth thinking about as we enter a new year of riding. Motorcyclists, as more than one contributor to this site has pointed out, are no different from other people except that they ride motorcycles. That suggests that they – we – should be concerned about the same things that worry the rest of the world’s people. Perhaps just from the point of view of someone who rides a motorcycle, or perhaps from the point of view of all the other things we each do. Simple? I don’t think so.

Recently, other contributors to ADVrider.com suggested that motorcycles can be more polluting than other vehicles. I doubted that initially, but a bit of research set me right. Euro 5 should sort out the excessive pollution that motorcycles create, but it certainly seems that it has been true in the past. Keep this in mind if you ride a classic or vintage bike.

It appears that we are more of a contributor to the dark side of the Anthropocene than we might like to believe, then. Mind you, we are a recent perpetrator; the climatologist William Ruddiman’s ‘early anthropogenic hypothesis’, the idea that agricultural land use began warming Earth’s climate thousands of years ago, seems to suggest that. Some aspects of this early global climate change remain unsettled among scientists, but there’s strong consensus that land-use change was the greatest driver of global climate change until the 1950s and remains a major driver of climate change today.

Are motorcycles compatible with the environment? (Photo BMW)

A quick, rule of thumb definition of morality and ethics: the former is what you believe you should do, the latter is how you go about it. So, does the importance of those other causes of pollution free us, as motorcyclists, of ethical responsibility for our polluting?

This is an interesting question. The consensus among philosophers seems to be that it does not. The problem here is that philosophers are often clearly nutcases, at least as far as we ordinary human beings are concerned, but a lot of what they say does make sense. One major concept associated with the condition of responsibility is ‘awareness’. According to those philosophers who affirm this condition, one needs to aware of four things to be morally responsible: the action (which one is doing), its moral significance, its consequences, and finally any available alternatives.

Good old Google points out that the major factors that can affect your ethical behavior are “individual factors, such as knowledge, values, personal goals, morals and personality; and social factors, such as cultural norms, the Internet and friends and family.”

Electric motorcycles could be one possible way to reduce environmental damage, if the power is generated cleanly. (Photo Malaysian Tourism)

These factors, I think, combine to create your conscience – which you must use. Forgive me if I quote that most staggering failure of conscience, the Holocaust, just for a moment: in Gitta Sereny’s book about extermination camp commander Franz Stangl, Into That Darkness, she leaves no doubt about what happens to a buried conscience: it rots. A conscience needs to be alive and it needs to be nourished by intelligent analysis of what its host is doing and going through.

Motorcycling does a great deal of good. From charity rides to support for third world countries with tourism, from the mental health it can provide to the skills it teaches… I’m sure you can think of more examples. So our conscience can draw on positives as well as negatives.

Which brings us to analysis of our own awareness of motorcycling. Are we aware of the action? Yes, we are. If we weren’t before, we have been made aware of the action by the several correspondents who pointed out the added pollution. Are we aware of its moral significance? This is open. If we don’t have the capacity to understand moral significance, then the answer is no. I would like to think that we do have the capacity, however. Are we aware of its consequences, and of the alternatives? Come on. Of course we are.

This leaves us in an entirely moot position. As intelligent, moral and ethical beings, can we justify our everyday behavior? Is riding a motorcycle a moral and ethical act?

Nature is not necessarily all good. The exhaust from buffalos is partly useful manure, but also partly greenhouse gases. (Photo The Bear)

Far be it from me to try to answer that question for you. Quite apart from everything else, it is something that everyone needs to assess for themselves. There is quite enough encouragement around to behave in this way, or in that, or another. In the final analysis we need to be ‘agents’; we need to not only understand but also act upon the input we get from our environment, and we need to take responsibility for it.

So if you’re being totally honest, is motorcycling defensible from an overall point of view? In the light of all the other huge causes of pollution, for example, do we even need to defend it? Given that we are all motorcyclists, I presume that you find it defensible — if you’ve thought about it.

Adventure riding does not necessarily harm the environment . (Photo Triumph Australia / Jeff Crow)

I have decided that, for myself, it is justifiable — subject to some limitations intended to keep environmental damage down. For a start, no more two-strokes! But don’t let my rationale influence you; I might just be selfish or bugging out. You need to make your own decision.

I would be interested in what it is, and how you have arrived at it. I’m sure other inmates would be too.


Can we justify our lifestyle?