Wake up and hear the birdsong

'Despite the desperate situations of some poor traders, many people are learning interesting lessons from the blockades'

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How clever can those sneaky anti-capitalists get? Do you remember when green protesters were content to block the odd city road? Or they might be satisfied to target examples of global capitalism, such as McDonald's, by smashing a few windows or daubing walls with a few slogans, as they did on 1 May. But the next day, it was always business as usual, with the press and the government shaking their heads over the anarchist tendency - a tendency which looked pretty ineffective against world capitalism, even if its participants liked to talk up the new wave of global activism.

How clever can those sneaky anti-capitalists get? Do you remember when green protesters were content to block the odd city road? Or they might be satisfied to target examples of global capitalism, such as McDonald's, by smashing a few windows or daubing walls with a few slogans, as they did on 1 May. But the next day, it was always business as usual, with the press and the government shaking their heads over the anarchist tendency - a tendency which looked pretty ineffective against world capitalism, even if its participants liked to talk up the new wave of global activism.

But now they are really going for it. Oil refineries in Cheshire and Pembrokeshire are being blockaded by anarchists sneakily disguised as farmers. Garages have started to run dry, as the petrol produced by those giants of global capitalism, Shell and Texaco, can't get through to the pumps. Watch out, capitalists of the world! After all, if you can't sell your goods you can't make your profits.

The A1 north of Leeds has been brought almost to a standstill for hours by green protesters posing as truckers, and the police did nothing about it, even though the protests led the newspapers' front pages. Talk about reclaiming the streets! And as for a global wave of activism... well, look at France, where the roads were briefly reclaimed, the pumps ran almost dry, and the cars fell silent.

I know that some misinformed journalists are saying that these protests are being spearheaded not by Swampy and masked members of Reclaim the Streets, but by huffy businessmen - but, really, can you believe it? What nonsense! Who but the green activists would want to stop the traffic? This is the anti-car protest that we've all been waiting for.

Despite the desperate situations of some poor traders and holidaymakers, many people were learning interesting lessons from the blockades in France. The number of deaths on the roads in France over the August bank holiday was apparently the lowest for decades. People started to live without their cars - walking to work, cycling along once filthy and busy roads, shopping around the corner rather than in superstores. As the garages closed in France, people heard the birdsong ring out louder than the traffic, and liked the sound.

And in the UK, these protests haven't come a moment too soon. How can anyone believe that they are really being masterminded by car and lorry drivers? As soon as we see garages running dry, it doesn't make us long to see them pumping again and the lorries back on the roads. No, it makes us wonder whether we are indeed too dependent on those pumps and the roaring trade that they serve.

These protests are likely to be successful in alerting us to the dangers of living in a society in which mobility is everything. For too long, we have been encouraged to believe that a healthy economy must be underpinned by more and more movement of goods and people. In 1950, the average Briton travelled five miles a day. Now he or she travels about 28 miles a day, and the trend is growing.

But now the questioning is really beginning: do we want hypermobility to go on defining the way we live?

For instance, one result of seeing the lorries grounded should be to make us step back and look again at a food industry that pollutes our cities and destroys our countryside by driving food excessive distances to vast superstores that we, in turn, have to drive to. A forthcoming report by the International Society for Ecology and Culture tells us that in 1998, the UK exported 263,000 tonnes of milk and cream, while importing 203,000 tonnes. Have the lorry drivers who are blockading the oil refineries had enough of these crazy trade-offs?

Or we might think again about why we have chosen to design our living environments around the use of a car, when the logic is inescapable - a more dispersed and polarised society. In it, the rich constantly run from the hell of their own making, and leave the dirty, dangerous areas around the huge roads that they buzz down between home and work to the poor, who can't afford to escape. Don't think that's just rhetoric: people on high incomes make three times as many car journeys as people on low incomes, but people on the lowest incomes are five times more likely to see their children hit by a car.

The bubble is set to burst. More and more people are beginning to see that the dream of the private car - individual mobility with an ever-receding horizon as the limit - is a dream that turns into a nightmare if everyone tries to put it into practice. This government may not be able to see this clearly, for the smokescreen that is put up by the tabloids, who pretend that motorists are a beleaguered minority rather than an over-influential lobby that stifles everyone else's choices. But even the Government can see through the idea that fuel taxes need to come down.

Far from seeing fuel taxes reduced, let's see the revenues they bring in being used to create some decent public-transport systems. How can the reporters claim that people who use roads are angry? It's the people who use trains who are furious, since train journeys in Britain are some of the most expensive on earth. It's the people who don't have cars who are incandescent, since their roads are too dangerous to walk along and where are the buses? Crawling along, no doubt, in an hour, or a day, or a week. The most pressing transport problem for most people is not that private car journeys are too expensive, but that the alternatives just don't exist.

There are so many positive things that could come out of this wily little green protest. Ideally, it will push the Government to think again about its recently announced transport strategy, which did little to help people do what many really want - to dump the pump, yes, but for good. Although John Prescott has put money for rail and bus services on the table, he has gone back on promises made years before to cut the overall volume of traffic, by announcing that the Government foresees a 17 per cent increase in traffic over the next 10 years, and announcing that 100 bypasses would be built and 360 miles of roads widened to cope with it.

But this reliance on cars is not inevitable. It is shaped by government policy and, step by step, it could be challenged. Rather than throwing money at paving over more grass to serve lanes of belching traffic, the Government could try diverting some of that money into schemes that let people turn off the engines and take a few steps on their own.

Take another little example: apparently, in 1971, 80 per cent of seven- and eight-year-olds went to school on their own; now almost none do, they are all in cars, being driven by bored parents. But the Pedestrians Association has shown that it would cost a tiny fraction of the amount earmarked for new roads to set up safe walking and cycling routes for every one of the 25,000 schools in the country.

Yes, by all means let some garages run dry, if it helps us to think again about why they are still at the centre of all our lives. It's time for us to welcome these protests for what they clearly are: the most cunning and cleverly disguised bit of environmental activism ever to hit Britain. And then, gradually, beyond the blight of crowded motorways and thundering lorries, what a green and pleasant land we might rediscover.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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