Tuesday 14 April 2020

A glimpse of a better future (where are we heading to after the pandemic ?)

Suddenly it seems that nearly everyone can see, hear and smell the benefits of fewer motor vehicles. Stories are appearing from all around the world about clear skies, fresher air and being better able to hear bird song. The corona virus lock-downs have brought us more peaceful streets, fresher air, less noise. Fish are seen to have returned to rivers, insects appear to be more numerous. Tourists no longer dominate historic cities. Stress levels are down (non corona related stress, at least).

Fewer cars
Most people alive now were also alive when there were half as many cars.
Many were alive when there were a quarter as many, or even less.
Your country is almost certainly similar.
Here in the Netherlands, car usage has approximately halved due to the corona crisis. This has made headlines. For the first time in as long as anyone can remember we've had no traffic jams caused by traffic for nearly a month. It's been described as an historic drop, but actually we need only go back about 30 years to find a time when this level of car ownership and use was normal. i.e. what we consider to be a relatively quiet situation now isn't actually extreme at all - this is something that most people alive now took for granted when they were younger. Indeed, it wasn't seen as a benefit back then because we were too busy looking at the problems which existed already due to this level of car usage. People had already started taking to the streets to protest about the effects of excessive motor car usage much longer than 30 years ago. The "historic low" level of traffic which we have now was seen by many as rather an excess when this was "normal", and there are people alive now who protested against the dominance of cars when they were less than a quarter as many cars in use as we think of as "normal" today. i.e. less than half of what we have during this "historic low".

At the time of writing, more than 120000 people have already died due to the corona virus. That's a terrible death toll over the last four months and all of us would of course like to see an end of this virus. However this terrible death toll is nothing in comparison with what is seen as "normal" due to cars. There have been more than a million deaths annually due to car crashes for some years now, and in addition four million or so people die each year die due to air pollution, a good proportion of which is also due to motor vehicles. To solve the problems due to motor vehicles, we need far fewer motor vehicles. Most people in the world already live without cars and it's not difficult to be one of them.

Fewer flights
Another thing which people have commented on extensively is that our skies are now spotless because there are fewer vapour trails due to aircraft flying overhead. Of course there is a difference, but again it's not as extreme as many people imagine. In March 2020 there were about half the number of flights that there were in March 2019. A halving sound quite extreme, but the number of flights doubles approximately every 20 years, so there are actually lots more aircraft in the skies now than there used to be.

I used to know what they all were...
Most people alive today were used to seeing far fewer aircraft than are in the skies now, even during this crisis. When I had a childhood hobby of aircraft spotting there were less than half as many aircraft for me to spot as are flying now during this crisis.

So with aircraft too, this dramatic change has actually meant that we have only returned to a time when the problems with aircraft were already apparent. People were already protesting about noise and pollution from aircraft when there were fewer of them as are flying right now during this crisis.

The current level of air travel, during this crisis, remains far too high. It is not sustainable. And it's not just air travel. Moving from one mode to another mostly just means a similar level of emissions from a different mode. That is not sustainable either. We will survive without holidays this year, without work trips. To solve the problems due to travel we must continue to travel far less.

Reduced oil production
The oil producing nations have agreed to an historic 10% reduction in their production in order to prop up prices. Note that this actually only takes the rate of oil production back to what it was about ten years ago.

People have protested about environmental destruction due to oil companies for decades longer than this and at times when their production was very much lower than is the case now. One particularly high profile case of a protestor who was executed was in 1995 when the rate of oil production was around half of what it was at the beginning of this year.

The oil companies have not reduced their output in order to try to save us from the inevitably destructive environmental effects of their product, they are merely trying to prop up their own profitability. The best way we can fight against this is to try not to buy their product. To solve the problems due to fossil fuels we need to go as far as we can to stop using fossil fuels.

Who really needs greener vehicles ?
Watch this excellent documentary about bullshit jobs
The subject of "bullshit jobs" has been discussed quite a lot over the last few years and some people are right now discovering that their 'important' job is actually either not quite so important after all, or in some cases an utterly pointless waste of time. This crisis has shown us who the real essential workers are. It's also shown us who we don't miss much if they don't go to work.

There is a realisation now that the lower level of car traffic due in large part to cutting back on the bullshit commutes used to travel to bullshit jobs is beneficial for everyone. But another thing that we've seen is that rather than getting in the way of "essential" commuters, some of the other vehicles on the roads (e.g. ambulances, tractors, trucks and vans) actually provide truly essential services such as keeping us healthy and providing us with food and other supplies.

The realisation that we do need food, we do need (some) goods, but we don't actually need nearly so many commuters demonstrates something important: we've not only been placing emphasis on the wrong workers but we've also been putting the majority of our efforts at greening transport into the wrong vehicles. Building electric vehicles is a resource intensive and polluting industry. Instead of using the limited resources available to build so many electric cars, trains and buses as possible to enable people to continue to travel excessively we should all along have been looking to green the essential vehicles (ambulances, tractors, trucks and vans etc.) while we encouraged people not to spend their time travelling regularly back and forth on commutes. Some of us have of course been saying this for a long time now...

Tackling emissions and improving our quality of life fit together and both can far more effectively be achieved by reducing the number of motor vehicles than by merely substituting the latest examples of what the motor industry wants to sell as a slightly greener alternative to the already greatly over-used motor vehicles which already exist.

At present we see that existing road infrastructure has become more welcoming to cyclists because there are fewer cars. While we can design infrastructure to maximise safety around cars (e.g. the safe roundabout design), it's always best to remove the cars. No roundabout or traffic light actually exists for the benefit of cyclists and pedestrians. They all impede cyclists and pedestrians while they attempt to reduce the danger of motor vehicles.

How much more pleasant could our towns be if we went further down the path of giving more space to people by taking it away from unnecessary motor traffic ?

Reducing carbon ?
We need a much more rapid downward slope in emissions than the
side-effect of the corona virus will result in. It's not even close to enough.
A small carbon emission reduction looks likely this year due to the virus. But at best this will be very small and at worst there may be no reduction at all. The likely outcome is that this year's emissions will end up around 3% lower than last year's emissions. We might think this small reduction will help, but over time this will merely look like another year in which we did not act. It is unfortunately not even close to the 18 percent per year steady decrease that we need to keep our planet in a condition where human life is supported.

Meat and travel
It is highly likely that COVID19, like so many other human illnesses including swine influenza and avian influenzabovine tuberculosis, EbolaBSE/CJD, and very many other diseases, was transferred from animals to humans due primarily to people raising, killing and eating products derived from those animals for food. The disease was then spread around the world in a very short period of time because people travel so much.

So this world-wide pandemic, like so many previous disease outbreaks and just as we expect for future pandemics, was caused by meat and travel. Meat and travel. Also amongst the biggest contributors to global warming.

For the sake of ourselves, our children, our children's children, if we want to avoid disease or merely keep this planet's climate such that humans can continue to live here we need to limit our consumption of meat and dairy products and reduce the amount we travel.

Keeping up with the Joneses ?
Will people still feel a need to "keep up with the Joneses" if they no longer see the Joneses ? Could the virus trigger a change in thinking and reduction in pointless consumerism ? Will the rich people who now buy far too many clothes, electronic gadgets etc. still feel a need for those things if in the future they go out less ? Over consumption by the richest 10% of the population (this probably includes you, dear reader) is one of the other great drivers of climate change and another of those things which needs to change.

What future shall we choose ?
There is no herd immunity against climate change. There is no immunisation, no easy cure. While we're all talking about COVID19 now, the biggest problem facing us all last year was climate change, it's still the biggest problem this year and it will remain the biggest problem next year and after we have solved the problem of this virus.

There is currently much discussion about an exit strategy from the virus and about how we will "get back to normal", but a return to a "normal" which is similar to that which existed a few months ago would not be any more sustainable now than it was before and will not in all ways be better than the situation which we have now. The death rate from the expected effects of climate change due to "normal" behaviour will be far higher than what we currently have from the virus. We of course need to do what we can to tackle this virus, but let's not jump straight back into a situation in which we return to the smog, noise and road deaths which we had before. A better future world is possible. Our future doesn't have to be a continuation of the past.

The richest 10% of the people on this planet consume wildly
too much relative to the poorer people on this planet. Top
ten percent salaries begin at $13700 per year. If you are
reading this then you are probably one of the elite.
Outside of the direct and unpleasant effects of the virus itself, we also now have before us a glimpse of what a possible better future for all of us could look like. We need to grasp the positives and build upon them, creating high quality and low stress conditions for local transport by bicycle and by foot while encouraging people not to make the longer and more polluting journeys, especially those which lead nowhere except to a high stress but perhaps also completely unnecessary job. We need to change our society so that we do not emphasize the most pointless aspects of that society, for it is the pointless jobs, pointless commutes, pointless vanity and pointless greed which have got us into this mess. We need to consume less and be happy to do so because the alternative to doing so is far more terrible than this virus.

Some of the same solutions work for both the virus and climate change. But not all. We need to go much further in limiting our excessive consumption but while the negative effects of climate change could be far more destructive, they are also in many ways less cruel. For example, the climate places no demands on our social behaviour and we do not need to isolate ourselves from nearby neighbours and friends in order to live in a sustainable way. All we need to do is live within our means, i.e. within what is possible with the resources available on the planet we share. We need to learn to live in a way which is possible for the entire population of this planet, without some people demanding a far bigger slice of the pie, a higher standard of living than is possible for everyone. Let's start now, by consuming less.

Please don't forget about developing nations
At present much of our concern is about our own nations. Many of us are worrying mostly about other relatively prosperous people who are likely to have access to health care and who probably have enough to eat, and who have the luxury of being able to isolate themselves. Not everyone in the world has such an easy life as we do in the developed world and I fear for the effects of the virus in the nations where people are not so well cared for. At this time, if you can, please consider donating to development charities who can help those who are not in the top 10%. They didn't spread this virus but they are likely to be the worst affected by it - another unfortunate parallel with climate change.

Will this be remembered as the summer of "corona blue" skies, a brief moment when the air was clear and we could breath more easily, or will we return to what has been seen as a "normal" level of pollution in the near future ?
Trivia which demonstrates how long effects of health crises last: Because I lived in the UK during the time of the BSE/CJD health crisis of the 1980s/90s I am not allowed to donate blood in the Netherlands. That applies even though I didn't eat meat so I'm a long way from being a high risk donor. People who lived in the Netherlands during that time frame and who did eat meat can give blood in the Netherlands. I could find myself receiving their blood donation even though Dutch people are not allowed to give blood in the USA for the same reason that I can't here and this is true even though the USA had its own cases. Such restrictions often have more to do with national exceptionalism than logic, this being a factor which also contributed to many Western nations including the Netherlands apparently thinking initially that they'd somehow be immune to COVID19, leading to slower responses and much worse outcomes than in several Asian nations where the disease was taken seriously earlier.

1 comment:

Alex Rybakoff said...

Thanks, David! A brilliant summary, which goes far beyond cycling.

I had the same thoughts on bullshit jobs etc., but some things like the amount of cars/airplanes and oil extraction rate stuck me by surprise. Indeed, there were maybe 15 car owners in a huge block of houses I used to live as a kid. Now I live in a tiny house with only 5 other neighbors, but there is almost the same amount of cars in the garage as every family tends to have 2+ of them ;(