Wake up and hear the birdsong

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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michael Crabtreeof the San Francisco 49ers misses a catch during 2013's Super Bowl XLVII  

Super Bowl 2015: It's the most ridiculous sporting event of the year, but I absolutely love it

John Rentoul
The author with David Leppan, the co-founder of Wealth-X, in his BBC series  

What I learnt about inequality after spending time with some of the richest people in the world

Jacques Peretti
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links