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Can We Make Bicycles Sustainable Again?

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Illustration: Diego Marmolejo.
Illustration: [Diego Marmolejo](

Cycling is sustainable, but how sustainable is the bicycle?

Cycling is one of the most sustainable modes of transportation. Increased ridership reduces fossil fuel consumption and pollution, saves space, and improves public health and safety. However, the bicycle itself has managed to elude environmental critique. 12 Studies that calculate the environmental impact of cycling almost always compare it to driving, with predictable results: the bicycle is more sustainable than the car. Such research may encourage people to cycle more often but doesn’t encourage manufacturers to make their bicycles as sustainable as possible.

For this article, I have consulted academic studies that compare different types of bicycles against each other or focus on the manufacturing stage of a particular two-wheeler. That kind of research was virtually non-existent until three or four years ago. Using the available material, I compare different generations of bicycles. Set in a historical context, it becomes clear that the resource use of a bike’s production increases while its lifetime is becoming shorter. The result is a growing environmental footprint. That trend has a clear beginning. The bicycle evolved very slowly until the early 1980s and then suddenly underwent a fast succession of changes that continues up to this day.

There are no studies about bicycles built before the 1980s. Life cycle analyses, which investigate the resource use of a product from “cradle” to “grave,” only appeared in the 1990s. However, the benchmark for a sustainable bicycle stands in the room where I write this. It’s my 1980 Gazelle Champion road bike – now 43 years old. I bought it ten years ago in Barcelona from a tall German guy who was leaving the city. He had tears in his eyes when I walked away with it. I have a second road bike, a Mercier from 1978. That is my spare vehicle in case the other one breaks and I don’t have the time for immediate repairs. I have two more road bikes parked in Belgium, where I grew up and where I still travel a few times a year (by train, not by bike). These are a Plume Vainqueur from the late 1960s and a Ventura from the 1970s.

The main reason why I have opted for old bicycles is that they are much better than new bicycles. Most people don’t realize that, so they are also much cheaper. My four bikes cost me just 500 euros in total. That would buy me only one low-cost new road bike, and such a vehicle surely won’t last 40 to 50 years – as we shall see. Of course, it’s not just old road bikes which are better. The same goes for other types of bicycles built before the 1980s. I ride road bicycles because I cover relatively long distances, usually between 35 and 50 km round trip.

Image: The bicycle I use most often, a Gazelle Champion from 1980. It has covered at least 30,000 km since I bought it in 2013.
Image: The bicycle I use most often, a Gazelle Champion from 1980. It has covered at least 30,000 km since I bought it in 2013.

What bicycles are made of

The first significant change in the bicycle manufacturing industry was the switch from steel to aluminium bicycles. Before the 1980s, virtually all bikes were made from steel. They had a steel frame, wheels, components and parts. Nowadays, most bicycle frames and wheels are built from aluminum. The same goes for many other bike parts. More recently, an increasing number of cycles have frames and wheels made from carbon fibre composites. Some bike frames are built from titanium or stainless steel. All of these materials are more energy intensive to produce than steel. Furthermore, while steel and aluminum can be recycled and repaired, composite fibres can only be downcycled and have poor repairability. 3

Several studies have compared the energy and carbon costs of bicycle frames and other components made from these different materials – which all have different strength-to-weight ratios. That research has some limitations. Scientists use crude methods because they lack detailed energy data from bike manufacturing processes, and some studies come from manufacturers who pay researchers to review the sustainability of their products. Nevertheless, all put together, the results are pretty consistent. For the sake of brevity, I focus on emissions (CO2 = CO2-equivalents) and ignore other environmental impacts.

Before the 1980s, virtually all bicycles were made from steel.

Reynolds, a British manufacturer known for its bicycle tubing, found that making a steel frame costs 17.5 kg CO2, while a titanium or stainless steel frame costs around 55 kg CO2 per frame – three times as much. 4 Starling Cycles, a rare producer of steel mountain bikes, concluded that a typical carbon frame uses 16 times more energy than a steel frame. 5 (That would be 280 kg CO2). An independent 2014 study – the first of its kind – calculated the footprint of an aluminum road bike frame with carbon fork from the “Specialized” brand and found the cost to be 2,380 kilowatt-hours of primary energy and over 250 kg of carbon – roughly 14 times that of a steel frame (without fork) as calculated by Reynolds. 2

A bicycle is more than a frame alone. Life cycle analyses of entire bikes show that the carbon footprint of all the other components is at least as large as that of a steel frame. 6 Scientists have calculated the lifetime carbon emissions of a steel bike at 35 kg CO2, compared to 212 kg CO2 for an aluminum bicycle. 78 The most detailed life cycle analysis sets the carbon footprint for an 18.4 kg aluminum bicycle at 200 kg CO2, including its spare parts, for a lifetime of 15,000 km. The main impact phase is the preparation of materials (74%; aluminum, stainless steel, rubber), followed by the maintenance phase (15.5% for 3.5 new sets of tires, six brake pads, one chain, and one cassette) and the assembly phase (5%). 9

Where & how bicycles are made

My steel bicycles date from a time when most industrialized countries had long-established domestic bicycle industries serving their national market. 3 These industries collapsed in Europe and North America following neoliberal globalization in the late 1970s. China opened to foreign investment and quickly became the largest bicycle manufacturer in the world. During the last two decades, China has made two-thirds of the world’s bicycles (60-70 million of 110 million annually). Most of the rest come from other Asian countries. Europe is back to producing ten million bikes annually, but the US only manufactures 60,000 bicycles per year. 3

Throughout the twentieth century, manufacturing bicycles required substantial inputs of human labor. 3 According to the Routledge Companion to Cycling, “wheels were spoked and trued manually; frames were built by hand; saddle making was laborious; headsets, gear clusters (blocks), brake cables and gears were physically bolted on.” Since the 2000s, automation has considerably reduced the need for human labor. The largest Chinese bike manufacturer, which builds one-fifth of the world’s bicycles, has 42 bicycle assembly lines making 55,000 bicycles a day – almost as much as the US in a year. 3

Domestic bicycles industries in Europe and North America collapsed following neoliberal globalization in the late 1970s.

The globalization and automation of the bicycle industry make bikes less sustainable. First, they introduce extra emissions for transportation (from raw materials, components, and bicycles) and for producing and operating robots and other machinery. Second, producing steel, aluminum, carbon fiber composites, and electricity is more energy and carbon-intensive in China and other bike-producing countries than in Europe and North America. 10 Most importantly, however, is that large-scale automated production represents sunk capital that needs to be working most of the time to spread overhead costs, driving overproduction. 3

How long bicycles last

How much energy and other resources it takes to build a bicycle and to deliver it to a cyclist is just half the story. At least as importantly is how long the bike lasts. The shorter its lifetime, the more vehicles need to be produced over the lifetime of a cyclist, and the higher the resource use becomes.

For a long life expectancy, some parts of a bicycle need replacement. These are typically smaller parts such as shifters, chains, and brakes. 11 Until a few decades ago, component compatibility was a hallmark of bicycle manufacturing. 12 My bicycles are a perfect example of this. Most components – such as wheels, gear set, and brakes – are interchangeable between the different frames, even though every vehicle is from another brand and year of construction. Component compatibility allows for easy maintenance and repairability, thereby increasing the lifetime of a bicycle. Bike shops in even the smallest villages can repair all types of bicycles using a limited set of tools and spare parts. 12 Cyclists can do minor repairs at home.

Unfortunately, compatibility is hardly a feature of bicycle manufacturing anymore. Manufacturers have introduced an increasing number of proprietary parts and keep changing standards, resulting in compatibility issues even for older bicycles of the same brand. 13 For example, if the shifter of a modern bike breaks after some years of use, a replacement part will probably no longer be available. You need to order a new set from a new generation, which will be incompatible with your front and rear derailleur – which you also need to replace. 12 For road bikes, the change from cassette bodies with ten sprockets (around 2010) to cassette bodies with eleven, twelve, and most recently thirteen sprockets have made many wheelsets obsolete, and the same goes for the rest of the drivetrain including shifters and chains. 121

Before the 1980s, most bicycle components were interchangeable between frames of different brands and generations.

Disc brakes, which are now on almost every new bicycle, all have different axle designs, meaning that every vehicle now requires proprietary spare parts. 1 Disc brakes also required new shifters, forks, framesets, cables, and wheels, making such bicycles incompatible with earlier designs. 12 The rise of proprietary parts makes it increasingly hard to keep a bike on the road through maintenance, reuse, and refurbishment. As the number of incompatible components grows, it becomes impossible for bike shops to have a complete stock of spare parts. 12

Component incompatibility is accompanied by decreasing component quality. An example is the saddle, which hardly ever outlasts a frameset because it cracks at the bottom of the shell. 12 A little extra material would make it last forever – as proven by all saddles of my 40 to 50-year-old road bikes. Low quality affects some parts of expensive bicycles but is especially problematic for cheap bicycles made entirely of low-quality components. Cheap bicycles – bike mechanics refer to them as “built-to-fail bikes” or “bike-shaped objects” – often have plastic parts that break easily and cannot be replaced or upgraded. These vehicles typically last only a few months. 1314

Illustration: Diego Marmolejo.
Illustration: [Diego Marmolejo](

How bicycles are powered

So far, we have only dealt with entirely human-powered bicycles, but bikes with electric motors are becoming increasingly popular. The number of e-bikes sold worldwide grew from 3.7 million in 2019 to 9.7 million in 2021 (10% of total bike sales and up to 40% in some countries like Germany). Electric bikes reinforce both trends that make bicycles less sustainable. On the one hand, electric motors and batteries require additional resources such as lithium, copper, and magnets, increasing the energy use and emissions of bike manufacturing. Researchers have calculated the greenhouse gas emissions caused by manufacturing an aluminum e-bike at 320 kg. 8 This compares to 212 kg for the production of an unassisted aluminum bicycle and 35 kg for an unassisted steel bicycle.

On the other hand, the life expectancy of an electric bicycle is shorter than that of an unassisted two-wheeler because it has more points of failure. The breakdown of the extra components – motor, battery, electronics – leads to a shorter lifecycle due to component incompatibility. An academic study on circularity in the bike manufacturing industry observes a significant increase in defective components compared to unassisted bicycles and concludes that “the great dynamics of the market due to regular innovations, product renewals, and the lack of spare parts for older models make the long-term use by customers much more difficult than for conventional bicycles.” 15

Electric bikes reinforce both trends that make bicycles less sustainable.

On top of this, electric bicycles require electricity for their operation, further increasing resource use and emissions. This impact is relatively small when compared to the manufacturing phase. After all, humans provide part of the power, and the electricity use of an electric bike (25 km/h) is only around 1 kilowatt-hour per 100 km. The average greenhouse gas emission intensity of electricity generation in Europe in 2019 was 275 gCO2/kWh. 16 If an e-bike lasts 15,000 km, charging the battery only adds 41 kg of CO2, compared to 320 kg for producing the (aluminum) bicycle. Even in the US and China, where the carbon intensity of the power grid is 50-100% higher than the European value, electric bicycle production dominates total emissions and energy use.

Cargo cycles

Combining energy-intensive materials, short lifetimes, and electric motor assistance can increase lifecycle emissions to surprising levels, especially for cargo cycles. These vehicles are larger and heavier than passenger bicycles and need more powerful motors and batteries. There are very few life cycle analyses of cargo cycles. However, a recent study calculated the lifecycle emissions of a carbon fiber electric cargo cycle to be 80 gCO2 per kilometer – only half those of an electric van (158 gCO2/km). 17 The researchers explain this by the difference in lifetime mileage – 34,000 km compared to 240,000 km for the van – and the carbon fiber composites in many components, including the chassis of the vehicle. The lifecycle emissions of the cargo cycle, including the electricity used to charge its battery, amount to 2,689 kg. That is almost 40 times the lifecycle emissions of two steel bicycles (each with a 15,000 km lifecycle mileage).

Extending the useful life of electric bicycles has less impact on lifecycle emissions when compared to unassisted bikes. That’s because the battery needs to be replaced every 3 to 4 years and the motor every ten years, which adds to the resource use of spare parts. 11 This is demonstrated by a life cycle analysis of an electric steel cargo cycle with an assumed life expectancy of 20 years. 18 During its lifetime, the vehicle uses five batteries (each weighing 8,5 kg), two motors, and 3.5 sets of tires. Most lifecycle emissions are caused by these spare parts, with the batteries alone accounting for 40% of the total emissions. In comparison, the emissions for the steel frame are almost insignificant. 18 This particular cargo cycle was built for African roads and is not entirely representative of the average cargo cycle, mainly because of its heavy tires.

Cargo cycles have another disadvantage. Passenger bicycles and cars usually carry only one person, meaning that one passenger kilometer on a bike roughly equals one passenger kilometer in an automobile. However, for cargo, the comparison of ton-kilometers is more complicated. If the load is relatively light – usually up to 150 kg – the electric cargo cycle will be less carbon-intensive than a van. However, heavier loads require several cargo cycles to replace one van, which multiplies the embodied emissions. 18 Switching to cargo cycles without significantly reducing the cargo volume is unlikely to save emissions. Obviously, cargo cycles with steel frames and without electric motors and batteries – for now still the majority – will have much lower carbon emissions over their lifetimes.

How bicycles are used

In recent years, many cities have introduced shared bicycle services. In theory, shared bicycles could lower the number of bikes produced and thus decrease the environmental impact of bicycle production. However, building and operating bike-sharing services adds significant energy use and emissions. Furthermore, shared bicycles don’t last as long as privately owned bicycles. Consequently, shared bike services further reinforce the trends that make bicycles less sustainable.

A 2021 study compares the environmental impact of shared and private bicycles while including the infrastructure that each option requires. It concludes that personal bikes are more sustainable than shared bicycles. 8 The research is based on the Vélib system in Paris, France, which has 19,000 vehicles, roughly half with an electric motor. Vehicle manufacturing and bike-sharing infrastructure cause more than 90% of emissions and energy use. The remaining emissions are due to the construction of cycle lanes (3.5%), the rebalancing of the bicycles to keep all stations optimally supplied (2%), and the electricity used for charging the batteries of the electric bikes (0.3%). Altogether, a shared bicycle from the Vélib system has an emissions rate of 32g CO2/km, which is three to ten times higher than the rate of a personal bike (between 3.5 gCO2/km for a steel bicycle and 10.5 g CO2/km for an aluminum bicycle. 8

Building and operating bike-sharing services adds significant energy use and emissions

The scientists found that the bike-sharing service led to a 15% drop in bike ownership. However, they also calculated that the average lifespan of a shared bicycle is only 14.7 months, with an average lifetime mileage of 12,250 km. In comparison, the average lifetime of a personal bike in France, based on a 2020 survey, is around 20,000 km – almost 50% higher than for shared bicycles. The Vélib system includes 14,000 bike-sharing stations with a total surface of 92,000 m2 and an estimated lifetime of ten years. Each of the 46,500 docks consists of 23 kg steel and 0.5 kg plastic. The power consumption of each bike-sharing station is around 6,000 kWh per year. Due to the high impact of the infrastructure, the lifecycle emissions of shared electric bikes are only 24% higher than those of shared non-electric vehicles. 8

The environmental footprint of bike-sharing systems can vary significantly between cities. A life cycle analysis of bike-sharing services in the US found carbon emissions of 65g CO2/km – twice as high as in Paris. 19 This is largely because the US systems rebalance the bicycles using diesel vans, while the French service employs electric tractors. The US study also looks at the newer generation of “dockless” bike-sharing services, which score even worse. Dockless shared bikes can be parked anywhere and located through a smartphone application. Although this removes the need for stations, each bicycle requires energy-intensive electronic components, and the system also generates emissions through communication networks. 1910 Furthermore, dockless systems require more bicycles and involve more rebalancing.

A life cycle analysis of Chinese bike-sharing services, many dockless systems, shows high damage rates and low maintenance rates for bicycles. The annual damage rate is 10-20% for reinforced bicycles and 20-40% for lighter vehicles which have become more common. In practice, a shared bicycle becomes scrap when the bike part with the worst durability breaks down. Repair is virtually not happening. 10 Finally, when the companies go bankrupt, bike sharing creates mountains of waste – including bicycles in good condition. 10 1

Image: Lifecycle carbon emissions per kilometre of riding a bicycle. Graph: Marie Verdeil. Data sources: [^8][^17][^19][^26].
Image: Lifecycle carbon emissions per kilometre of riding a bicycle. Graph: Marie Verdeil. Data sources: [^8][^17][^19][^26].

Not every bicycle replaces a car

None of this should discourage cycling. Even the most unsustainable bicycles are significantly less unsustainable than cars. The carbon footprint for manufacturing a gasoline or diesel-powered car is between 6 tonnes (Citroen C1) and 35 tonnes (Land Rover Discovery). 20 Consequently, building one small automobile such as the C1 produces as many emissions as making 171 steel bicycles or 28 aluminum bicycles. Furthermore, cars also have a high carbon footprint for fuel use, while bikes are entirely or partly human-powered. 21 Electric cars have higher emissions for production but lower emissions for operation (although that depends entirely on the carbon intensity of the power grid).

The bicycle even holds its advantage when its much shorter lifetime mileage is taken into account. 22 Gasoline and diesel-powered cars now reach more than 300,000 km, double their lifetime in the 1960s and 1970s. 23 If a bicycle lasts 20,000 km, it would take 15 bikes to cover 300,000 km. If those are steel bicycles without an electric motor, the total carbon footprint for manufacturing is still six times lower than for a small car: 1,050 kg of CO2. If the bikes are made from aluminum and have electric motors, then emissions grow to 4,800 kg CO2, still below the manufacturing carbon footprint of the small car.

However, not every bicycle replaces a car. That is especially relevant for shared and electric bikes: studies show that they mainly substitute for more sustainable transport alternatives such as walking, using an unassisted or private bicycle, or traveling on the subway. 19 24 In Paris, shared bikes have three times higher emissions than electric public transportation. 8 In addition, many carbon-intensive bicycles are bought for recreation and are not meant to replace cars at all – they may even involve more car use as cyclists drive out of town for a trip in nature. In all those cases, emissions go up, not down.

How to make bicycles sustainable again?

In conclusion, there are several reasons why bicycles have become less sustainable: the switch from steel to aluminum and other more energy-intensive materials, the scaling up of the bicycle manufacturing industry, increasing incompatibility and decreasing quality of components, the growing success of electric bicycles, and the use of shared bike services. Most of these are not problematic in themselves. Rather, it’s the combination of trends that leads to significant differences with bicycles from earlier generations.

For example, based on data mentioned earlier, manufacturing an electric bicycle made from steel would have a carbon footprint of 143 kg. Although that is four times the emissions from an unassisted steel bicycle, it is below the carbon footprint of an aluminum bicycle without an electric motor (212 kg). Especially if the battery is charged with renewable energy, riding an electric bike can thus be more sustainable than riding one without a motor. Likewise, an aluminum bicycle with a long life expectancy – for example, through component compatibility – could have a lower carbon footprint than a steel bicycle with a more limited lifespan.

Many researchers advocate switching back to producing bicycles from steel instead of aluminium and other energy-intensive materials. That would bring significant gains in sustainability for a relatively low cost – slightly heavier bicycles. Steel frames would also make electric and shared bikes less carbon intensive. Some researchers promote bamboo bike frames, but the benefit compared to old-fashioned steel or even aluminium frames is unclear. 25 A “bamboo bicycle” still requires wheels and many other parts made out of metal or carbon fibre composites, and the frame tubes are usually held together by carbon fibre or metal parts. 6 Furthermore, the bamboo is chemically treated against decay and becomes non-biodegradable. 1

Reverting to local and less automated bike manufacturing is a requirement for sustainable bicycles.

Better component compatibility would increase the life expectancy of bicycles – also electric ones – through repair and refurbishment. It would bring no disadvantages for consumers, even on the contrary. However, unlike a switch to steel frames, better component compatibility would hurt the sales of new bicycles. A study concludes that “the abandonment of standardization is a profitable business model because it ensures that bicycles can only be ridden for so long.” 1 The decreasing sustainability of bikes is not a technological problem, and it’s not unique to bicycles. We also see it in manufacturing other products, such as computers. One bike mechanic observes: “The problem here is capitalism; it’s not the bikes.” 14

Reverting to local and less automated bike manufacturing is a requirement for sustainable bicycles. The main reason is not the extra energy use generated by transportation and machinery, which is relatively small. For example, shipping from China adds around 0.7 to 1.2 gCO2/km for shared bicycles. 8 More importantly, domestic and manual bike manufacturing is essential to make repair and refurbishment the more economically attractive option. By definition, repairing is local and manual, so it quickly becomes more expensive than producing a new vehicle in a large-scale, automated factory. 10 Locally made bicycles would increase the purchase price for consumers. However, better repairability would allow for a longer life expectancy and a lower cost in the long term. Addressing bike theft and parking problems is also essential because they are often a reason for buying cheap, short-lasting bicycles. 26

Finally, shared bicycle services can have their place, and we will probably see further improvements in their resource efficiency – the newest bike-sharing stations in Paris have reduced their power consumption by a factor of six. 8 However, shared bicycles are unlikely to become more sustainable than private bicycles because they always require rebalancing and a high-tech infrastructure to make the service work. Furthermore, getting attached to your bike can be a strong incentive to take care of it well and thus increase its life expectancy, as I can testify.

Kris De Decker

  1. Szto, Courtney, and Brian Wilson. “Reduce, re-use, re-ride: Bike waste and moving towards a circular economy for sporting goods.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport (2022): 10126902221138033. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Johnson, Rebecca, Alice Kodama, and Regina Willensky. “The complete impact of bicycle use: analyzing the environmental impact and initiative of the bicycle industry.” (2014). ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. Norcliffe, Glen, et al., eds. Routledge Companion to Cycling. Taylor & Francis, 2022. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  4. Cole, Emma. “What’s the environmental impact of a steel bicycle frame?” Cyclist, November 7, 2022. ↩︎

  5. Mercer, Liam. “Starling Cycles publishes environmental footprint assessment and policy.”, July 2022. ↩︎

  6. Chang, Ya-Ju, Erwin M. Schau, and Matthias Finkbeiner. “Application of life cycle sustainability assessment to the bamboo and aluminum bicycle in surveying social risks of developing countries.” 2nd World Sustainability Forum, Web Conference. 2012. ↩︎ ↩︎

  7. Chen, Jingrui, et al. “Life cycle carbon dioxide emissions of bike sharing in China: Production, operation, and recycling.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 162 (2020): 105011. ↩︎

  8. De Bortoli, Anne. “Environmental performance of shared micromobility and personal alternatives using integrated modal LCA.” Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment 93 (2021): 102743. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  9. Roy, Papon, Md Danesh Miah, and Md Tasneem Zafar. “Environmental impacts of bicycle production in Bangladesh: a cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment approach.” SN Applied Sciences 1 (2019): 1-16. ↩︎

  10. Mao, Guozhu, et al. “How can bicycle-sharing have a sustainable future? A research based on life cycle assessment.” Journal of Cleaner Production 282 (2021): 125081. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  11. Leuenberger, Marianne, and Rolf Frischknecht. “Life cycle assessment of two wheel vehicles.” ESU-Services Ltd.: Uster, Switzerland (2010). ↩︎ ↩︎

  12. Erik Bronsvoort & Matthijs Gerrits. “From marginal gains to a circular revolution”. Paperback (full-colour): 160 pages, ISBN: 978-94-92004-93-2, Warden Press, Amsterdam. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  13. US petition that calls for end o built to fail bikes gaining support in BC. ↩︎

  14. Aaron Gordon. “Mechanics Ask Walmart, Major Bike Manufacturers to Stop Making and Selling ‘Built-to-Fail’ Bikes”, Vice, January 13, 2022. ↩︎ ↩︎

  15. Koop, Carina, et al. “Circular business models for remanufacturing in the electric bicycle industry.” Frontiers in Sustainability 2 (2021): 785036. ↩︎

  16. ↩︎

  17. Temporelli, Andrea, et al. “Last mile logistics life cycle assessment: a comparative analysis from diesel van to e-cargo bike.” Energies 15.20 (2022): 7817.. ↩︎

  18. Schünemann, Jaron, et al. “Life Cycle Assessment on Electric Cargo Bikes for the Use-Case of Urban Freight Transportation in Ghana.” Procedia CIRP 105 (2022): 721-726. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  19. Luo, Hao, et al. “Comparative life cycle assessment of station-based and dock-less bike sharing systems.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 146 (2019): 180-189. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  20. ↩︎

  21. Bicycles are entirely or partly powered by food calories. Some people argue that the life cycle energy requirements of bicycles are higher than other modes, when one considers the impact of food require to provide additional calories that are burned during the bicycle use. However, the majority of people in car-centered societies take in more calories than their sedentary lifestyle requires. Increased cycling would lead to lower obesity rates, not to higher calorie intakes. ↩︎

  22. This a purely theoretical calculation, because cars encourage much longer trips than bicycles. ↩︎

  23. Ford, Dexter. “As Cars Are Kept Longer, 200,000 Is New 100,000.” New York Times, March 16, 2012. ↩︎

  24. Zheng, Fanying, et al. “Is bicycle sharing an environmental practice? Evidence from a life cycle assessment based on behavioral surveys.” Sustainability 11.6 (2019): 1550. ↩︎

  25. A comparison of the life cycle emissions of a bamboo versus an aluminium bicycle showed little difference (233 vs. 238 kg CO2). [6] ↩︎

  26. Larsen, Jonas, and Mathilde Dissing Christensen. “The unstable lives of bicycles: the ‘unbecoming’of design objects.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 47.4 (2015): 922-938. ↩︎

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A Montreal mill where handmade paper was made for decades is closing

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David Carruthers and his wife, Denise Lapointe, make paper that artists, printers and bookbinders prize for its unique qualities. But soon, they'll be moving out of their mill in the basement of an old linoleum factory in Ville-Émard, on the banks of the Lachine Canal. 

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28 days ago
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Finding Hope In The Dark Power Of Fungus

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In the autumn of 2007, a container ship called the Cosco Busan was leaving the port of Oakland, having just refueled, when it sideswiped one of the towers of the Bay Bridge, puncturing the ship’s fuel tank. Inside was bunker fuel, a heavy oil repurposed for marine vessels from the remnants of petroleum production. Bunker fuel is so dense it has the consistency of tar.  

That morning, over 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel spilled into San Francisco Bay. It spread quickly: northeast to Richmond, to the beaches of San Francisco, to the rugged coasts of the Marin Headlands and then out to the Pacific and up and down the coast. In an urban area known for its natural beauty, over 50 public beaches across multiple counties were soon closed. The oil killed thousands of shoreline birds, damaged fish populations and contaminated shellfish. It derailed local fisheries for years. 

In San Francisco, a woman named Lisa Gaultier had been preparing for a disaster like this. Lisa is the founder of a nonprofit called Matter of Trust that promotes sustainable living through recycling, reuse and the repurposing of surplus. Since the early 2000s, she had partnered with a retired hairdresser from Alabama named Phil McCrory who had invented an unusual technique for getting oil out of water using discarded hair. The hair technically adsorbs oil, attracting it to the surface like a magnet. (This is why our hair gets oily if we don’t wash it.) Matter of Trust began collecting discarded hair from salons and dog groomers and felting it by machine into large mats that were stored in a warehouse next to the nonprofit’s headquarters in San Francisco. After the spill, people spontaneously showed up at the beach wanting to help clean up, and Lisa was there with the hair mats.

Paul Stamets, a successful businessman, author and spokesman for the expanding world of do-it-yourself mycology, happened to be in town just a few days after the spill to headline the Green Festival, an expo for “sustainable and green living.” Stamets promoted relatively accessible techniques for cleaning up the environment using mushrooms — including oil spills. Lisa had heard about Stamets’s work and had already been in touch with him “about our hair project.” Lisa called him from the beach where, she recalled, “there were 80 surfers out there using our hair mats, trying to clean up the oil washing up onto the shore.” Stamets told her that if she could find a place to put the oily hair, he would donate $10,000 worth of mycelium.

As the days wore on, a range of government entities moved in, from the Coast Guard to the Department of Homeland Security, in addition to private companies contracted to clean up the spill, all vying for funds. Meanwhile, law enforcement and legal teams began their investigation into the spill’s causes. 

After a flurry of phone calls to city and state officials, Lisa got permission to put what she called a “mountain” of hair and oil next to a composting facility at Presidio Park. But then, the oil-soaked hair mats were impounded by authorities: The oil was evidence in a criminal investigation. (In the end, the shipping company paid $10 million in fines and restitution and the captain was sent to federal prison for 10 months.)

Undeterred, Lisa found a local freighter company that would give her some fresh bunker fuel, which a crew of volunteers mixed with used motor oil and then sopped up into new hair mats. Stamets trucked down the promised blocks of mycelium from Washington; several hundred more were donated by Far West Fungi, a local mushroom farm. About 30 volunteers layered it lasagna-style: straw (a common mushroom substrate), blocks of mycelium, hair mats soaked in oil. Photos of the stack show a mound about 30 feet by 12 feet. 

Some weeks later, mushrooms had sprouted from the top of the pile. A few news sites picked up the story. In one photograph, Lisa holds a clump of soil and straw, mushrooms popping out the side, over a caption that describes: “Mushrooms grown out of toxic oil, themselves now containing no toxins.” 

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what happened. As Ken Litchfield, a local cultivation teacher who helped organize the installation, explained, “The mushrooms were growing on the top where there’s enough oxygen, but underneath, nothing was growing except anaerobic bacteria.” Lisa told me that months later, when they returned, “literally the smell was so bad when we actually brought the stuff out, I almost vomited.” As for the fungi, it never touched the oil-soaked hair mats. 

About a year after the spill, Lisa found a UC Berkeley graduate student named Thomas Azwell who was looking for a project as part of his dissertation research. Azwell, now the director of the Disaster X-Lab at the UC Berkeley College of Engineering, told me that, initially, he had been “worried we were going to create an even worse mess, and it’s going to turn into this kind of parachuting-cats-into-Borneo story, where it just gets worse and worse.” 

In short order, Thomas found an article that showed that fungi can’t degrade bunker fuel on their own; the molecules in the heavy fuel are too complex. He proposed something simpler: composting. Take the hair mat lasagna, blend in plant waste, aerate regularly. And it worked. The pile began to naturally decompose. After a few months, they brought in earthworms to finish the job. Lab tests showed that the most toxic chemicals had broken down. “It took 18 months and a lot of manual labor, and it was really a mess,” Lisa told me. But in the end, they had usable (“freeway grade”) compost. Matter of Trust even got a grant from Patagonia to sell the final product at Costco.

This adventure was one of the first large-scale, high-profile attempts at mycoremediation — a scientific method that enlists fungus to restore and clean the industrial waste of modern society. Mushrooms famously thrive on all that is dead, decaying and toxic. Myco-remediation evangelists believe they can tackle everything from chemical spills to household trash. 

But the Cosco Busan spill wasn’t exactly a success story. It was, at best, a “feasibility study,” as Lisa put it, or in Thomas’s words: a “poorly designed prototype.” The fungi alone did not biodegrade the bunker fuel, and on the whole, the process had been labor-intensive, bulky, messy, variable and slow. Moreover, it did not fit into existing bureaucratic and legal processes, and whatever money was earned back by selling the compost was not enough to provide a financial incentive. 

In short, mycoremediation was a hard sell in a system that values efficiency and standardization above all else. But the enthusiasm for the technique was undiminished. A movement was growing, one focused on that almost archetypal image of the mushroom fruiting from a clump of oil-soaked earth, transforming toxin into life.  

“Myco-remediation evangelists believe mushrooms can tackle everything from chemical spills to household trash.”

Although the idea of using fungi to break down pollutants has been around for some time, the popularization of mycoremediation as a grassroots, citizen-science initiative owes much to Stamets, arguably the founding figure of DIY mycology. Before the burst of mycophilic media in the last five years and going back some four decades, Stamets was the person who best conveyed the awe-inspiring potential of fungi. His books grounded the fungal enthusiasm of counterculture in actual scientific knowledge and skills — first with two canonical cultivation manuals, and then with “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.”

Equal parts scientific textbook, instructional manual and spiritual manifesto, “Mycelium Running” is focused on relatively low-tech, ecologically beneficial applications for fungi, interwoven with what can only be described as a mycological view of life and the universe. Stamets is gifted at waxing lyrical about mycelium, which he describes as “vast sentient cellular membranes” that we walk on in every “lawn, field or forest floor.” In the opening chapter, he posits that mycelium is “the living network that manifests the natural intelligence imagined by Gaia theorists.” (“Gaia’s internet,” he calls it.) Even the fabric of the universe looks like mycelium. He writes:

Enlisting fungi as allies, we can offset the environmental damage inflicted by humans. … I believe we can come into balance with nature using mycelium to regulate the flow of nutrients. … Now is the time to ensure the future of our planet and our species by partnering, or running, with mycelium.

Stamets was and still is something of a circus barker for the fungal kingdom, standing outside the big top, inviting passersby to see the wonders within. The new Star Trek named a character after him — an “astromycologist” and expert in the fleet’s “spore drive propulsion system.” His writing and lectures (many of which are online) crystallized the mystical view of mycelium as conscious and beneficent and the idea of fungi as “allies,” all delivered with a beguiling mixture of scientific language and spiritual reverence.

“Mycelium Running,” published in 2005, inspired countless readers with its descriptions of how to use fungi for ecological restoration. In the years after the hair-mat experiment, groups of mushroom enthusiasts began forming to experiment with these methods. An American in Ecuador even founded a shoestring nonprofit, the Amazon MycoRenewal Project, to clean up oil spills left behind by Texaco there. 

In 2014, as a graduate student in anthropology, I joined one of these groups in the Bay Area — an informal organization that I’ll call the Fungal Alliance of the Bay (FAB), a pseudonym — as part of my fieldwork. Almost everyone in FAB had been inspired by Stamets and the promise of mycoremediation. As one FAB member told me, “Mycelium Running” “blew his mind,” especially “the remediative potentials.” Groups like FAB were keen to bring mycological know-how to the masses, for both personal and communal use. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and in the spirit of participant observation, I became one of them.

Over time, a cottage industry of classes on mycoremediation cropped up, taught by people like Tradd Cotter, the author of a book called “Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation,” and Peter McCoy, co-founder of a far-left collective called Radical Mycology, based in the Pacific Northwest, and author of his own book called “Radical Mycology.” The curriculum in these classes was as much about the philosophy and possibilities of DIY mycology as it was about technical instruction. This message of possibility, wonder and hope mixed with hard science felt like a distinct rhetorical form. I began to see these teachers as “myco-vangelists,” preaching the good word about mushrooms. They found sympathetic audiences in a national circuit of mycological festivals, a network of permaculture farms and centers and other like-minded hosts.

For many people in FAB and similar groups, learning how to cultivate mushrooms was just the first step toward learning how to “train” a specific fungus to consume toxins. FAB’s makeshift lab, at a local biohacker space, has been home to a few attempts to get Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), famously voracious, to eat motor oil. I remember one day finding petri dishes of agar half-soaked in motor oil on the shelves — an oil spill in miniature — with a small square of fungal tissue (a clump of the interior of a stem or cap) off to the side, beginning to put out its first tendrils. The lab even had a culture of Pestalotiopsis microspora, the fungus that can break down polyurethane; someone had gotten it in the mail after contributing to a Kickstarter campaign. 

Throughout my fieldwork, mycoremediation was a puzzle to me. In spite of all the books and classes and excitement, there were few cases in which it had been documented as a measurable, consistent and (most importantly) replicable process. And yet, it continued to be celebrated as a potentially game-changing “myco-technology.” Why wasn’t it being applied at all the polluted sites around us? 

In the “hands-on” workshops that I took in that time, the targets for remediation tended to be rather pedestrian, like the motor oil that drips off car engines in parking lots or the cigarette butts collected in an ashtray. These projects felt miniscule relative to the scale of toxic waste on our planet. This is not to say that such small-scale remediation projects were not worthwhile, or not meaningful, but they did not seem to match the enthusiasm that the method aroused in people. 

Nearly a decade later, the idea of mycoremediation has echoed far and wide. It is often mentioned in books and articles about fungi, usually in a catalog of potential applications. Less often mentioned are the difficulties and limitations that have also emerged alongside it. 

In fact, just a few months into my fieldwork, I found to my surprise that some FAB members quietly doubted the technique worked at all. Glen, a retired engineer, told me that he had suspected from the beginning that “using mushrooms for remediation was likely to be a flop.” He noted dryly that even Stamets was not working on mycoremediation and had quietly moved on to other projects. Andy, a widely respected taxonomist, told me that he “used to believe in it” until John, an old-timer in the local amateur mycology scene, told him (as he recounted in a stage whisper), “‘Don’t ever tell anyone this, but it’s a bunch of bullshit!’” 

When it comes to biochemistry, the rift between something that “works” and something that’s “a bunch of bullshit” is usually stark. If not self-evident, the difference between these two categories is usually discernable on some level of material, evidence-based reality. The thing was, mycoremediation did “work” in petri dishes and garden-sized projects; it was at large scales, like oil spills or superfund sites, where it seemed to falter or couldn’t get off the ground at all. 

“My interviews with mushroom enthusiasts were littered with exclamations of awe — many variations on ‘and then I was like, whoa!!’”

Over two years of ethnographic fieldwork, I spent hours peering into the sealed environment of petri dishes and mason jars while exclaiming in wonder at the snow-white threads of mycelium growing within. In its first stages, mycelium radiates outward like a slow-motion starburst, explosions of cellular growth. It has an ambiguous beauty, strikingly symmetrical, organic and otherworldly at the same time. Most enthralling was when the radial growth broke out and sprouted fleshy tendrils (primordia, otherwise known as baby mushrooms), a process called “pinning,” as they often look like tiny pins emerging from a two-dimensional surface — or, in the case of a species like Lion’s Mane, they curl in all directions like some kind of albino sea creature. 

Like all the FAB members, I too became weirdly attached to my jars, in which a fungal culture slowly colonized the substrate (usually a grain mixture), turning dense and white with mycelium. I once brought a “burrito” of corrugated cardboard inoculated with wild Oyster mushrooms that I’d harvested in the Oakland hills on a road trip with me, storing it in a plastic bin in the trunk of my car. I opened the lid to mist it with water twice a day and check its growth. I wanted to see if I could get it to fruit (produce mushrooms), but sadly, I composted it in Colorado.

FAB members and I would stand around each other’s makeshift labs, in kitchens and garages or in the converted utility closet at the local biohacker space, wondering over petri dishes and mason jars and plastic bags filled with myceliated substrate. My interviews with them (about their life stories and ideas about mushrooms, nature, science) were littered with exclamations of awe — many variations on “and then I was like, ‘whoa!!’” These jolts of wonder were embedded in a sustained enthusiasm for fungal lifeforms. The cognitive-affective pleasures of curiosity and fascination carried moral and aesthetic meanings too: Fungi epitomized interconnection, interspecies symbiosis, nonhuman intelligence and the cycles of decomposition and generation that characterize healthy ecosystems. They resonated as models of how to live sustainably on this planet. 

Much of their interest in applied mycology had to do with waste: making less of it and using fungi to break down what had already been produced, both toxic and benign. “Waste streams” was a key term in the vocabulary of DIY mycology. An ideal scenario was to use some kind of waste stream as substrate to grow mushrooms, thereby sending less trash to landfills.

Most of the DIY mycologists that I met during my fieldwork were committed to ecological lifestyles and social and economic justice. Fungi was at the intersection of their political, environmental and personal concerns: It could fortify soil and lower the use of pesticides, provide a model of connection for our increasingly fragmented and lonely society, heal psychological trauma and chronic illness, remediate the toxins of industrial society and much more. Their wonder and excitement were animated by anxieties, hopes and dreams about what was possible for human society as we moved away from fossil fuels, over-consumption and environmental pollution and toward sustainable lifestyles in balance with our surrounding ecosystems. 

Or at least, that was the vision.

“It is precisely their proximity to death and decay that affords fungi their charismatic power today.”

Today, we can see clearly the destruction wrought by industrial modernity: the climate crisis, mass biodiversity and habitat loss, widespread pollution, economic disparities, political instability, ethno-nationalism. The whole system seems to be in crisis. The anthropologist Kim Fortun calls this stage of global capitalism, with its omnipresent disasters, “late industrialism.” 

Fortun notes that one of the defining characteristics of late industrialism is a focus on production, property and boundaries while ignoring the way manmade products “migrate and trespass” — into the air, water, soil and our bodies. The plastic bottle doesn’t remain a plastic bottle; the components of production don’t remain in the factories. Along with the products we produce — the measured, quantifiable, documented commodity — comes the remnants of everything used to create them. As the Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman put it, two trucks leave the factory: One carries the products going to the marketplace, the other carries the trash going to landfill. But we only count the first truck, not the second — and certainly not the smokestack, the chemical flows. The result is a form of “slow violence” (as Rob Nixon describes it), where damage, like the gradual rise in rates of cancer, is not immediately obvious, making it much easier for the perpetrator to avoid accountability.

Something that has fulfilled its intended use and is discarded doesn’t vanish into thin air. It moves out of sight — to a landfill, a garbage patch in the ocean, perhaps burned. These afterlives, distributed across ecosystems and interrelated lifecycles (including our own), are seemingly impossible for the logic of industrial capitalism to grasp. 

Fungi — with their delicate, wisp-like threads of mycelium and their hobbit-home fruit bodies — offer another perspective. They embody an ecological paradigm of objects and phenomena in relationship with their surroundings, as part of feedback loops and lifecycles, in which diversity is critical to a system’s robustness. 

This embodiment is key to understanding the affective experiences of wonder and enthusiasm that fungi generate. The fungal form illustrates the interwovenness of ecosystems and the realization that nothing, nor any process, can be disconnected from and unaffected by the whole. Fungi materialize such complex systems. We see this most clearly in the conceptual and practical relationship between fungi and waste. They stand as a countermodel to the inability of our present system to make sense of (to digest, so to speak) the entirety of its products. 

“The power of fungi — to transform, destroy, deconstruct and resurrect — holds an almost sacred allure as industrial modernity falls apart at the seams and we are left to face its mess.”

It is precisely their proximity to death and decay that affords fungi their charismatic power today. Across cultures, they are often associated with otherworldly forces — gods, stars, witches, fairies, ghosts and other nonhuman spirits. In this association, mushrooms recall the philosophical concept of the pharmakon, something that is dangerous and powerful in its indeterminacy, its latent potential to be destructive or beneficial. 

Today, this ambiguous association is slanted toward hope. As McCoy writes in “Radical Mycology”: “From the mycelium we have come, to its web shall we return to be embraced, dissolved and recomposed.” Fungus’s vast, benevolent, delicate, living web mingles with death and decay and can both destroy and revitalize; in this sense, fungi seem to possess the ultimate transformative power. 

Fungi are inherently involved in what the scholar William Ian Miller called “life soup”: the unavoidably interrelated processes of decomposition and fertility, of death and life. In their phallic form, occasional sliminess and stinkiness (like the species that spread their spores by emitting an odor of carrion to attracts flies), and their sudden appearance and rapid decomposition, mushrooms often inhabit an uncanny valley between obscene, gross and alien, between the natural and the supernatural. As the crucial, mediating link between mortality and fecundity, fungi somehow embody and transcend both. 

It is this positionality that gives fungi their power, be it auspicious or nefarious. Oscar, one of my interlocutors from FAB, described them eloquently as “the pallbearers of nature”: They carry out the dead from the world of the living. They “deal with death,” as he put it, and with those aspects of modern life that are normally shunted aside, separated out, sent away.

In short, the aura of potential surrounding fungi, so closely intertwined with the capacity for transformation, is not solely about psilocybin or biomaterials or remediation. It is a reflection of fungi’s underlying power. Some can kill you in a few days, some can cause debilitating diseases (as Emily Monosson documents in her recent book “Blight”), and some can generate life-changing experiences of divinity.

Thus the power of fungi — to transform, destroy, deconstruct and resurrect — holds an almost sacred allure as industrial modernity falls apart at the seams and we are left to face its mess.

“Fungus’s vast, benevolent, delicate, living web mingles with death and decay and can both destroy and revitalize; in this sense, fungi seem to possess the ultimate transformative power.”

By the end of my fieldwork, mycoremediation’s original sheen of promise had worn off but a patina of wondrousness remained. The Amazon MycoRenewal Project had changed its name and shifted away from a focus on fungi to other means of ecological restoration; similarly, teachers on the DIY mycology circuit began to introduce mycoremediation with careful caveats before diving into its myriad possibilities. 

People were realizing that fungi require other organisms (bacteria, worms, plants) to be able to biodegrade toxins, and that this was done best by professional scientists who had the time, resources and knowledge to hypothesize, calibrate, test and measure. Even then, buy-in from authorities remained difficult — but not impossible. Environmental scientists, bioengineers and remediation specialists continue to experiment with fungi in their arsenal of bioremediative agents, while new start-ups continue to search for ways to make mycoremediation a viable business model. 

Similarly, DIY mycologists have over the years implemented a seemingly endless series of prototypes and simple installations to demonstrate that fungi can, in fact, consume toxins. Undeterred by the difficulties in scale, replication and economic feasibility, many still see the method as promising — a means, as Stamets put it, to use fungi to “offset the environmental damage inflicted by humans.” And their work, despite its limitations, captures the imagination much more than thermophilic composting or those meal worms that eat Styrofoam. 

In 2015, I took Tradd’s mycoremediation workshop at the Telluride Mushroom Festival. Under the placid gaze of three giant elks’ heads hanging on wood-paneled walls in a local lodge, Cotter helped me realize that part of the method’s appeal was its innate ecological drama — it enacts a wondrous, hopeful and empowering process. In these small, clearly delineated, closed environments — so unlike complex, large-scale, real-world scenarios — the petri dish, mason jar or barrel acted like a stage, making us an audience to amazing displays. 

Tradd spent much of the workshop explaining how you can train a fungus to eat chemicals that it would not usually consume, using elaborate metaphors (often involving pizza) and self-effacing jokes to explain what causes fungi to produce enzymes that can break down carbon-rich molecules. He included many photos of mushrooms growing out of odd substrates (like an old bowling ball) that he harvested and cultured for future use, as well as photos of his own in vitro lab experiments, in which he mixed fungal cultures with pesticides, motor oil or bacteria. He said:

My passion is making mixed plates. So I put other organisms on the plates and make little gladiator matches. … That’s more indicative of what’s going on in nature, right? Pure culture mycelium in a lab, it’s not true to remediation. This is fun because then you can set up little gladiator matches and see how that they interact. This is what happens when you don’t have cable. I’ll be honest, I’m desperate for entertainment.

He showed us a slide with a petri dish with a bacterial culture on one side and an Oyster mushroom culture on the other. “Three days later, you have all the bacteria fleeing the scene. You dropped the tiger in the room.” The tiger in this case: the hyphal threads of the Oyster mushroom mycelium radiating outward. In another slide, a puddle of the pesticide Atrazine sat on one side of the agar and on the other side, the fungus. A series of time-lapse photos showed the fungus growing until it stopped in front of the liquid like a line in the sand. 

“All right,” Tradd narrated, “it’s been eating pizza. Now comes the nasty stuff. It gets a whiff of it, it stops. That’s the moment where … it’s saying, ‘If I’m going to stay alive, I need to adapt.’” 

The fungus stayed that way for two days, Tradd said, so he gave up on it. “I said, enough is enough. It’s not going to eat it.” He had plans to try a new plate with less Atrazine to see if it was an issue of ratio. “I left the [old] plate in the incubator and just by chance I came back two days later. Bam.”

There were audible gasps in the lodge. The new photo showed the mycelium expanding into the tiny chemical spill and consuming it. “That gives me goosebumps,” said Tradd. “It just needed time to figure it out.” He had made an animated gif of the fungus devouring the Atrazine in the petri dish. We watched it a few times.

The animated gif was a nice touch, although by that point, I had seen some version of this story multiple times. Each time, it was awesome: It seemed momentous and promising. And each time, it was framed as a prototype, an illustration of a possibility, a suggestion for future experimentation. 

We seemed stuck in a state of latent potential. After Tradd’s workshop, I began wonder if this seemingly secondary aspect of mycoremediation — how cool it was to look at, how entertaining it is to watch — was not secondary at all. Rather than a realistic method for widescale remediation, it was, in practice, a kind of theater. Not in any trivial sense, but quite the contrary — as a medium of mythic truth. 

Like those terrible spectacles of the ancient world that Tradd referenced, these “gladiator matches” were both entertainment and displays of power. They staged a hyperreal enactment of justice and fate, with an audience looking on through the translucent walls of a petri dish or mason jar, a kind of Persian miniature depicting the heroic ability of fungi to slay the monsters of our time.

It’s no wonder that so much of the art made with mushrooms explores this very capacity. “Fungal Futures,” a 2016 exhibit that was perhaps the first major event to showcase fungal art and design, featured many pieces that were grown on some kind of waste or that incorporated biodegradation into the art itself. Katharina Unger’s artwork “Fungi Mutarium,” a domed incubator with tiny pods made from agar that house fungal cultures, was described as “a prototype that grows edible fungal biomass” on plastic waste. And then there was Jae Rhim Lee’s “mushroom burial suit”: a full-body garment embroidered with undulating white lines resembling mycelium and inoculated with fungi bred to decompose corpses as well as the environmental pollutants that accrue in the human body itself. 

Amateurs and artists are not beholden to the norms of objectivity that characterize science as a social institution. Their awe-inspiring rhetoric and invocations of possibility are a different kind of performance, more akin to a preacher who inspires feelings of wonder, grace and fervor in their audience. As Stamets wrote in “Mycelium Running,” “We felt we had witnessed a mycomiracle: Life was flowering upon a dead, toxic landscape.” 

This “witnessing” is essential to understanding the appeal of mycoremediation. Mycovangelists stage what the philosopher of science Andrew Pickering called, in his book on cybernetics, “ontological theater”: using science and technology to showcase the possibility of another reality, another way of being. Prototypes, then, are not simply technical, but almost incantory in nature. Although mycoremediation may have failed to achieve large-scale applications, it still works as an inspiring display of the power of fungi — its capacity for transformation, its ability to turn death into life.

“Rather than a realistic method for widescale restoration, mycoremediation was a kind of theater. Not in any trivial sense, but quite the contrary — as a medium of mythic truth.”

Only days before Tradd’s workshop, a tailings pond at a decommissioned gold mine just 10 miles from Telluride was accidentally unplugged (by EPA workers, ironically). Three million gallons of mine waste, mostly heavy metals, poured into Cement Creek and then the Animas River, turning the water an opaque yellow for days. Travis, a local DIY mycologist who co-taught the workshop with Tradd, was visibly depressed over the spill. He told me later that he knew the river well and often spent time there with his son. In truth, it was only a matter of time before the mine waste escaped its holding container, either through accident or neglect. This is simply a result of the way the system is designed. 

In most industries today, “remediation” usually means removing industrial waste to somewhere else, pushing it to the margins or dispersing it somehow into air or water — “out of sight and mind,” as Fortun puts it. Another approach is to simply abandon the waste where it is and move on — onto the next mine, the next factory, the next oil field — as was the case with Texaco in Ecuador. Often, the communities that end up dealing with the waste don’t have the political or economic power to fight the commercial interests behind these plans. They, too, are deemed “marginal,” negligible, a rounding error on the corporate budget. 

Fortun and other scholars observe that this form of displacement is not only endemic to our system, it is essential to its functioning — a feature, not a bug. The toxicity of industrial modernity cannot be denied, only ignored. “The strategy,” writes Fortun, “is one of disavowal.” 

“Disavowal” is a term that Fortun borrowed from Freudian psychoanalysis. For Freud, disavowal is the rejection of an aspect of reality whose acknowledgment would be too traumatic or emotionally difficult to face. The disavowed is not unknown nor actively discredited; rather, it is perceived but not acknowledged. It is a willed blindness, something placed outside the frame. In a state of disavowal, “things in reality connected are kept separate. Disavowal operates through disjunction, and refusal to connect.” It is one of the distinguishing characteristics of psychosis as defined by Freudian psychoanalysis. And disavowal, writes Fortun, “is a key corporate tactic of late industrialism.” 

Everyone who takes part in industrial modernity employs some degree of disavowal when it comes to waste. One might even say it is required to navigate our late industrial lives. If we spent every minute thinking about the environmental catastrophe of our society, it would be hard to function. But, of course, it is easier for some than others. The effects of waste and pollution might be everywhere now, but their effects are still unevenly distributed. 

Disavowal, though, is not only about waste. The disavowal of dark truths is arguably a theme of modernity itself. Modern practices around death are revealing in this regard: In many traditional societies, a corpse is kept in the family space until its burial; in most modern societies, the dead body is carted off immediately. Embalming is common to halt (and hide) the process of decay. It is precisely this approach that Lee’s mushroom burial suit is critiquing.

From a fungal vantage point, this system is indeed psychotic. Mycoremediation may not be the systemic intervention that was hoped for, but as an expression of one’s personal concern for our toxified landscape, it is far from insignificant. Rather, it is a tangible way for people without much institutional power to engage in the ongoing fight against environmental damage, to try to contain the disasters seeping around us. As a domestic intervention, mycoremediation is modest but culturally meaningful — a method of repair and reconnection. 

The power of fungi comes from the proximity they have with dark truths: the abject, the mess we need to face, mortality, vitality, kinship. In other contexts, this proximity elicits wariness, but in our current crisis, it holds the possibility of a healing power — a pharmacological power. Fungi can take on the mess and the junk, break it down and transform and incorporate it rather than ignore it. 

True, fungi need a host of other lifeforms to complete their task; they are not the only actors in this drama. But they are emblematic of the process. As one DIY mycologist put it succinctly: “There is no waste in nature, you know. Everything can be reused and everything can be seen as a potential source for someone else.” 

I thought about this often when I spent time with Oscar, a permaculture gardener, and Celeste, an arborist, who were regulars at FAB meetings and events. Their Oakland home was decorated with old posters from punk shows, stencil prints (one of an Amanita phalloides, a beautiful and lethal mushroom) and found art, a Ganoderma shelf mushroom nailed to the wall, a small jungle of plants. In a corner, a series of repurposed window screens hung vertically from the ceiling over a big circular floor fan—a homemade dehydrator. Every time I visited, it was full of mushrooms, plants and flowers: remnants of their wanderings.

One Sunday morning, I showed up to join them on a foray in the local hills. They were still puttering around, thinking about breakfast. Oscar hadn’t slept much — he told me he had been up late reading online mushroom forums. We went out into their backyard where he showed me a gigantic shaggy parasol he had spotted that morning, bigger than his head, its cap so heavy that the weight of it broke the stem. I took a picture of him: goofy face, hair askew, a tattered sweater, gold tooth glinting in the morning sunlight. 

Oscar and Celeste’s backyard was home to many mycological experiments. The shaggy parasol went into a cooler full of ice water, where Oscar broke it up and stirred it in, making an impromptu slurry to reinoculate the garden. A source of awe and delight just a second ago, the mushroom disappeared into a whirl of organic fragments. It was the lifecycle that mattered, not the fruit itself, and Oscar was on to the next thing. 

Among Oscar and Celeste’s projects was a “junk mail digester”: a plastic bin filled with Oyster mushroom spawn, into which they incorporated the constant stream of useless junk mail that arrived at the house — Safeway coupons, catalogs addressed to old roommates, glossy fliers for pizza delivery. Like everyone, they hated junk mail but never knew what to do with it. Before, it would just go in the recycling. Now it sprouted mushrooms.

The post Finding Hope In The Dark Power Of Fungus appeared first on NOEMA.

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