22 April 2006

Happy Earth Day to you!

By Rupert Read

Today, April 22, is Earth Day, across the planet. A day for us all to remember that we are nothing - nothing - without our environment. A day to celebrate this beautiful rock hanging and spinning in space, our one and only home.

There has also been a call issued on the internet, a call which makes sense to me, to have an Earth-wide 'Car Free Day', in association with Earth Day. 'Car Free Day' would be a day when we can put our love for Earth into practice; perhaps by leaving the car at home and taking the bike out instead. Or by walking it, or bussing it. Or, at least, by car-sharing, to reduce the impact of any essential journeys.

Each Earth Day or Car Free Day is an opportunity for thinking carefully about the serious impact that private transport has on our lives, and on our world. Cars are wonderful devices that have given many of us fine freedom of movement. Cars are absolute magic for getting quickly from a to b; but not necessarily for getting from a to be. Our society's reliance on the private motor vehicle tends to speed up everything, so that one no longer finds it easy to appreciate simply being. Here, a great example is being set by the Slow Food and Slow Cities movements, in countries like Italy. The ideal of Slow Cities' is a great one to think about, on Earth Day; imagine simply how pleasant it would be to be in a place where slowness, and pleasantness, and not sheer speed, was the dominant ethos!

Fast cars make our streets unsafe for unsupervised children. Kids used to be able to play in the street; that freedom has mostly gone. It used to be a joy to walk in cities, even in London. Now even in smaller cities, like Norwich, there is no space undisturbed by traffic noise and pollution.

Cars, meanwhile, are sold to us on the premise that they will deliver freedom to us. Freedom can allegedly be bought for the price of a 4x4, or of a sporty coupe. Take a look at any car ad: How often does it show the advertised vehicle stuck in traffic? How often does it show the car in a repair shop? Or in an accident, with blood on the bonnet… No; the image is always of speeding along an empty highway, or miraculously deserted city street, or through a desert…

In fact, the images of freedom conjured up in adverts to persuade people to buy flashy new cars are almost entirely misleading. In a country with too many cars, one inevitably spends half one’s time fuming - literally - in congestion!

A first step forward, in reducing vehicular pollution, is to move to low-emissions vehicles (the best of which, by the way, do not run on industrial-scale biofuels – see 'The new climate cynicism'. The EU has target emissions levels, agreed by heads of states and governments, to reach an average CO2 emission figure of 120gms/km for all new passenger cars by 2010. Yet it was reported just this week that 2005 saw only a 1% decrease to an average of 160 gms CO2 per km. This is a failure in responsibility by car manufacturers, and a break of the promise that their industry group, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), made back in 1998 when they promised the European Commission to reach average emissions of 140 gms CO2 per km for new cars by 2008.

You can help change this, by demanding companies to make true low-emissions-vehicles. If you are buying a new car, choose one which emits less than 120 gms CO2 per km, i.e. Band A and B for vehicle licencing.

Meanwhile, with the onset of catastrophic climate change, and with oil starting to run out, there is inevitably going to be less driving, in the future. Car Free Day, in a generation's time, may well see entire cities looking like Norwich's wonderful pedestrianised zones, such as London Street and Gentleman's Walk.

And that's the way we may yet save our beautiful blue-green planet. By switching gradually to 'feet first' transport methods - walking and cycling - and to other low impact means of getting about. By working from home and communicating with people the smart way, by phone and computer, and soon by video phoning and ultra-cheap internet-videoconferencing.

That will be a really happy day for the Earth, for our children and for billions of non-human creatures... When we humans turn decisively toward ways of moving, and ways of being, that can last.