In 1989, Ben Elton wrote his novel Stark about a conspiracy of wealthy industrialists to “deal with” the threat that climate change and subsequent ecological collapse posed to their profits:
“it’s the producers that count. The consumers just want their car and their cooker and their cheap fuel, they’re sheep. We must influence those in power, the people that profit from the disinterest that the general population seem to be showing in their future.”
Well this last week there are glimmers of hope on the horizon- hope that human beings do have slightly more capacity for independent thought than our woolly friends above (whom I was surrounded by on a cycle tour through the French Alps). First the election of Barack Obama in the States, showing that the selfish consumerist gluttony that characterized the Bush years may finally be yielding to something else…
Then, yesterday, the UK Dept. for Transport released their traffic data, which showed a decrease in the volume of traffic over the past 6 months. To understand how unusual this is, look at the inexorable rise in traffic volumes over the past 60 years:
“Britain is in the early stages of a recession, with unemployment rising and industry shrinking, leading to fewer cars and HGVs on the roads. But during the recession of the 1990s, traffic remained static, suggesting there are other reasons for the decline.
It would appear thousands of motorists are giving up driving, either because of soaring fuel costs, rising parking and car taxes or because of the environmental cost.“
What if- when all is said and done- we actually developed the ability to see the state of our roads and streets, our cities and countryside, indeed our planet as it really is- to see human and ecological communities under stress- pushed to the breaking point by filthy polluted air, the screeching roar of traffic, the senseless destruction of life by speeding steel and chrome, blood on oil-stained asphalt, kids growing obese because they have nowhere to play, people deprived of the ability to get around as humans have for centuries- using muscle power. What if we could see the thin film of atmosphere of our planet being thickened irreversibly by the trainloads of coal heading to a fiery end in our power plants, the millions of little tin boxes mindlessly speeding along their post industrial arteries?
What if we could see all of this and just say no- a critical mass of individuals deciding that we have driven too far down this road- that our transport habits are jeopardising all that we hold dear- and that change is now critical.
The last month I have been traveling around the UK, presenting my research, Driven to Excess, to community groups, conferences, and even at the Houses of Parliament last Tuesday. The response has been tremendous- it’s incredible the effect solid research data has- like Appleyard, I’ve managed to document the social erosion caused by our car habits, and when I talk about our predicament, I see these lightbulbs flicker on- it’s almost as if people realise, “that’s what’s wrong with our lives.”
There seems to be a real interest in car-free lifestyles these days, a willingness to get a taste of the freedom that a good bike can provide, and to get the automotive monkey off our backs. It’s this shift in human perception that excites me most, more than the cycle expressways, the dream public transport systems, or the multi million dollar social marketing contracts- the simple individual decision to pull the bike out of the garage, and pedal away from that rusting hulk of an illusion that we can maintain the “great car economy.”
We ride because it’s pure.
We ride because the car is broken.
(images courtesy Andy Singer)