My story begins in the early 1950s. in a small town in rural Ireland where I was born and brought up. Ireland was beginning to awaken from years of being a poor, backward country and the modern world was beginning to make its presence felt. Peoples' aspirations were growing and the motor car was making its presence felt. Few people were able to purchase one but the fascination with this miracle of convenient travel was growing.
For many young men the dream of possibly driving and owning a car was the summit of their aspirations. It got into our bones and became an obsession. This may help to explain that even today when our roads are clogged, our air is polluted and our very lives are at risk the car still holds a fascination. Just consider; when one views a modern ad for a car among other aspects is the unfailing sight of clear roads, a phantasy in reality but still dangled before our eyes. "Get freedom, escape, comfort, entertainment, communication, we are told! The car offers it all". We have put our faith in the car and now Pope Francis in his landmark encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si', urges us to change…..put our faith in the environment .
Our faith in the car is a lie, a cruel fantasy. Witness the sight of weary commuters inching along out of any city or town you care to mention in the Western world - and increasingly in the emerging one - and there you have the reality.
How do we persuade people that there is a better way?
Firstly, admit the scale of the challenge. For many people the motor car and what it is supposed to offer is a drug, up there with heroin, sex , money. Hence it should be of serious concern to people of Faith. Pope Francis in Laudato Si' pulls no punches when he declares that "the Earth is beginning to look like an immense pile of filth". Motor transport is a key component of the climate change crisis which is rapidly spinning out of control. I am not confining my thought to the numbers of vehicles but also the provision of infrastructure devoted to serving the car.
Think of the miles of concrete that have been poured providing us with roads (which soon become congested) parking lots, crowded streets where the emergency services struggle to get to people in need, street vandalism, accidents blighting people lives and causing injury and expense, the waste generated in servicing and ultimately disposing of old vehicles Let's not forget the growing number of people, mostly children whose health is being seriously affected because they live or travel near busy roads.
Is there a better way? Of course there is. But don't underestimate the mind change that needs to take place. Government should be enabling efficient, comfortable, clean, accessible and affordable public transport. Governments have become the prisoners of powerful lobbies, the motor one being among the most powerful. Hence thinking about how to move large numbers of people around is frankly not a priority. Citizens need to link with natural allies like the climate change movement, to drive forward the new agenda. Our politicians with very few exceptions have by and large ceased to lead and pander to the short term interests of their constituents, ie. tax cuts. Just consider the major plank of our new Prime Minister - tax privileges to people in the middle income bracket. .
What can ordinary people do to effect the change our planet desperately needs?
Firstly, moving from a carbon laden to an electric system of moving people should not be seen as the panacea. We have too many vehicles competing for too little space, the car is inefficient and continues us on the path of destruction. Note, electric cars will still devour precious resources in their construction, maintenance and disposal. We have to agree that by and large individual vehicles should only be encouraged for the essential services. Car sharing should be promoted and incentives offered to those who opt for this choice, e.g free or low cost charging points, priority parking. I am aware that what I am proposing is an enormous shift in people's thinking. Hence the change has to be gradual but nevertheless real, time is not on our side. The Pope, while not mincing his words on the present failure to grasp the nettle, is still optimistic. But we must act now.
As a lifelong cyclist I am aware that the short distances e.g of travelling to work are the most fuel inefficient and polluting. Ditch the gym and get on the bike should be our mantra. The freedom a bike gives one when e.g one arrives at one's destination has to be experienced to be believed. A homely example, on the relatively rare occasions when I need to bring our car into town, my stress level mounts qualitatively. Will I find a parking space? Will the car be damaged when I return? The sheer cost of modern vehicles is considerable. For recreation one will find it difficult to surpass the freedom that the bike gives one. One is directly in touch with the sights, smells and sounds of nature. I can stop and view a point of interest and am not subjected to the irritations of motorists whose passage is impeded. Very importantly one is thrown together with fellow travellers, whether they be fellow cyclists, walkers, joggers, horse riders etc. Community is fostered rather than denied when one opts to get out of the 'tin box'.
So come on, ditch the 'drug' and join Greta Thunberg and Pope Francis in fashioning a better world. We owe it to our grandchildren.
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