Thursday, 19 November 2009

Get out and walk

This is a guest post by Valdemar

It was a Nobel prize-winning Swedish chemist by the name of Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) was who first discovered the greenhouse effect. And it didn't take him long to conclude that burning coal (oil was just coming into widespread use as a fuel in the late 19th century) would cause a surprisingly strong increase in that effect. In other words, the earth would heat up. Now Arrhenius didn’t necessarily think that would be a bad thing. Far from it. He could see that the world’s population was increasing, and he thought that global warming (as we call it) would make more land in higher latitudes available for food production. Also, he was aware that we are living in an interglacial period during the current Ice Age, and therefore increasing the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere could forestall a global cold snap.

His rosy prediction may yet be proved right (though if we believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others who’ve done the scientific heavy lifting that’s not the way to bet). Alternatively, none of it may be true. Thousands of scientists from Arrhenius onwards could all be wrong and the world’s climate will not become substantially warmer. Suppose that's what happens - yet the government introduces measures to avert the catastrophe anyway. Would that be such a bad thing?

For one thing, the roads would be a lot nicer.

One likely result of policies designed to tackle climate change is that we end up with millions of electric or hybrid cars tootling around in our towns and cities. This makes life a lot quieter, of course, which is no bad thing. Indeed, so quiet are green vehicles that the RNIB would like them ‘noised up’ a bit, because they represent such a menace to visually-impaired people trying to cross the road.

So, we are likely to see a huge drop in the number of internal combustion engines working in densely-populated areas. How much money will this save the NHS? All the pollutants belched out by gasoline and diesel engines might (invoking our old pal common sense again) have an effect on people’s health. Yes, I know some will deny outright that exhaust fumes cause any serious damage. Believe what you like, but ask yourself this: if the internal combustion engine were brand-new technology, how happy would you be to see it introduced on a huge scale?

But let’s consider something more important than cutting urban pollution. Maybe the price of fuel will rise so much due to those nasty carbon taxes (and perhaps due to genuine scarcity) that people will have to get off their arses and walk about more. This might have a beneficial effect on society. I suggest that the ‘great car economy’ lauded by Margaret Thatcher, whatever its economic benefits, has had a more corrosive effect on modern Britain than cannabis or Ecstasy ever could. This might simply because I am an insanely embittered non-driver. But stay with me. I might be good for a laugh, if nothing else.

Walking down the street for more than a few yards is an activity millions of able-bodied people shun in so far as is humanly possibly. Walking, though it’s never presented in such stark terms, is the chosen transportation method of society’s losers. Drivers whinge incessantly about almost everything, yet the number of people who choose to shun the car in favour of using their legs is hardly striking to someone who (like me) can’t drive due to their optical limitations. No, the car is always best, even for a journey that would take a healthy adult fifteen minutes to walk. As a result of this (and, of course, other factors) many people who eat fewer calories than their grandparents did have far fatter backsides. Not great news for the dear old NHS. But perhaps the physical harm habitual driving does is the least of our problems?

I’ve become convinced that frequent urban driving on our ludicrously congested roads makes people worse – more selfish, more aggressive, and more childishly obsessed with their own immediate needs. When you’re behind the wheel of a car it is far easier to be a bad citizen than a good one. Drivers expressing aggression and threatening violence is something the habitual pedestrian sees every day. Drivers can of course show some consideration for their fellow drivers and for pedestrians, but in a very limited way. More nuanced interaction with others is simply not possible.

Does this matter? I think so. So much of what we claim to prize about our society – our ironic, self-deprecating humour, our willingness to muddle through, and to live and let live – are well nigh impossible to demonstrate when you’re fuming inside a plastic and alloy pod. A burning, raw hatred for one’s fellow man, or woman, seems to be more commonplace than good-natured tolerance. How many of us have been shocked by the way a mild-mannered friend or colleague has been transformed, in an instant and very much for the worse, by that great car culture?

Well, of course, they don’t carry that rage into their non-vehicular lives, do they?’

You want to put money on that, Sigmund? I don’t believe that people can compartmentalise their minds so efficiently that the raging barbarian at the wheel can simply be put back in his box when the keys come out of the ignition. I think that this unpleasant side to the average driver’s character might well be manifest at home, at work, and pretty much everywhere else. I think it’s a Bad Thing.

I’m not going Daily Mail here – my chosen headline would not be ‘Driving a Car Makes You A Selfish, Immature Bastard Who Doesn’t Work at His Marriage or Value His Kids’. No, I’d opt for ‘Driving a Car Too Often Makes You Less Pleasant in a Vague, Corrosive Sort of Way’. I’m obviously no loss to modern journalism, but I hope my point is taken.

I think if we drove a lot less our society would be a lot better. Not richer - better. I think that if more people (and a broader cross-section of people) spent more time moving along the pavements we would have less crime, and less fear of crime. I think that women, the elderly and the young would be happier and feel more secure. We would, as a society, reclaim the streets.

Did I hear some old reactionary ask about evidence-based policies? Well, I appeal to common experience. I can’t present a UN-sponsored scientific report to support my viewpoint, oddly enough. I just think that our car-based society is very effective at suppressing what has long been considered civilized behaviour. And I think we’ve lost something important; something nebulous, and certainly something that’s hard to quantify, but something real and good, nonetheless.