Daily Archives: February 13, 2021

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Material challenges of bicycle manufacturing in a post-growth world

The idea of a world based on active transport, and on cycling in particular, is a recurring theme in thinking on degrowth. This was one of the proposed transformative paths of the Manifesto of the Mouvement québécois pour une décroissance conviviale[1] and this notion also plays an important role in the reflections of the Degrowth.info group, based in Germany[2]. The mainstream media also associate degrowth with cycling.[3]

Most degrowth advocates agree that the bicycle is a useful and desirable tool in a post-growth world, although some favour the promotion of walking.[4] One of the precursors of the philosophy of degrowth, Ivan Illich, describes the bicycle as the ecological machine par excellence:

The bicycle and the motor vehicle were invented by the same generation, but they are symbols of two opposing uses of modern advancement. […] It is a wonderful tool that takes full advantage of metabolic energy to speed up locomotion. On flat ground, the cyclist goes three or four times faster than the pedestrian, using five times less calories.[5]

French engineer Philippe Bihouix, for his part, sees it as an example of a low-tech machine, despite the relative technical complexity involved in  its manufacture. Even a simple model, he points out, contains several hundred technically complex basic parts, which are difficult to produce locally. The processes include metallurgy of alloys and different metals, the machining and fitting of parts, vulcanizing tire rubber, producing anti-corrosion paints, and grease for the chain. Once built, however, “it is clearly possible for ordinary people to fully understand how it works, to tinker with it […] to keep it in good condition for many years, not to say almost indefinitely”[6] (translation).

Some currents of degrowth stress the need for production at the local level, ideally through worker self-organization. These  ideas can be found in the writing of Yves-Marie Abraham, for example, who argues that the production of the basic necessities of life should no longer be undertaken by private enterprise or the State, but by communities organized according to the principles of self-production and sharing of the means of production.[7] As many other organizations, Polémos, an independent research group on degrowth based in Montreal, also advocates a form of work organization based on cooperative and commons-based production[8].

But what exactly is involved in the production and maintenance of a bicycle in terms of work organization, material and energy resources, as well as technical choices? This study looks at the form that bicycle production could take in a degrowth context and the dependencies that this mode of transportation  entails. It considers the concept of the bicycle workshop, a facility that is smaller and more user-friendly than a modern factory, and interrogates the tensions between the simplicity of manufacture to be achieved and the technical efficiency necessary for a light manufacturing process.

Why efficiency matters

The issue of efficiency may seem too focused on industry and productivity to be a legitimate concern as far as degrowth is concerned. The drive for efficiency is sometimes associated