In April this year two issues were reported in the Dutch news. The first was about the increase in the number and length of traffic jams: once again something has to be done about this recurring problem. The second issue was about new measures concerning smoking bans. We live in a world in which we are used to dealing with each individual problem separately. But it’s interesting to sometimes consider certain issues together, in relation to each other. As I will argue in this blog, in these particular cases our underlying insincerity when it comes to dealing with ecological matters is revealed.
Research has shown that the number and length of traffic jams has increased yet again – an issue that keeps appearing on the agenda of urban areas. This time traffic accidents and the bad weather have apparently influenced the figures, but on top of that quite a grim picture is painted with regard to the increase in traffic jams in the near future. We are warned that if we want to prevent this, we have to take action now. Improving the existing roads and spreading the flow of traffic over more hours is seriously being considered these days. However, it should not come as a surprise that in the end we seem to be able to deal with this issue in one particular way only: by creating more roads and more lanes to make way for more traffic.
A decade ago
Dutch comedian Dolf Jansen touched on this topic nearly ten years ago, in 2009 (in his collection of columns Afvallen door seks’, p. 20-22): ‘I really and sincerely don’t understand it. When for already twenty, thirty years it has become obvious that creating more tarmac only causes traffic to increase. When solving a bottleneck only results in a new bottleneck five or ten kilometres down the road, when the only thing that demonstrably disappears are not the traffic jams, but beautiful places and views and areas of irreplaceable nature, to not even mention the health of anyone who lives somewhere near the new and widened roads. How is it possible that we, now with united forces and urgency, continue on this unwholesome way?’ He fears that in the end the entire country will be transformed into a ‘gleaming black tarmac surface’ (my translation).
It is quite obvious that better roads with more lanes have inspired people, and probably will continue to inspire people, to buy their houses further away from their work – indeed, in quiet country areas where the air is a lot cleaner. And by doing so, they keep contributing to the rising level of pollution; and by continuously having to commute between two places and two communities, they no longer fully belong to either of them.
The other issue in the news recently concerned extending the smoking bans to the designated spaces created by bar owners for their smoking clientele. It has been decided that within two years these must all be closed. We all know that smoking is bad for our health and it is reasonable to take measures to protect the health of other non-smoking people. But what is the problem when addicted smokers are happily smoking together in a separate room and consciously polluting one another? There are no innocent victims involved here. Some people even call for extending the smoking bans to the open air spaces outside the restaurants and bars. OK, in this case an occasional gust of wind might blow the smoke towards an innocent, non-smoking person (like me…) sitting at the next table…
Allowing or preventing pollution?
This is a good starting point to bring back the other issue: dealing with traffic (jams). The city councils of the major cities in the Netherlands are aware that car and motorcycle fumes polluting the city centres are far worse than the smoke of some cigarettes. Therefore, more and more measures are being taken to ban the most polluting vehicles from so-called environmental zones in these city centres (and to promote cycling instead). Here we can see that the two issues overlap a bit, but still two conflicting approaches to the environmental problems become visible: on the one hand, we facilitate car drivers by creating more roads between cities and towns, allowing for more pollution and to the detriment of our health; and on the other hand, we extend smoking bans and ban cars from city centres to decrease the level of pollution and improve our health. Our attention is diverted to individual smokers and individual car drivers, to a scale we can handle quite easily, while we are not dealing properly with the major issue at hand: the rise in traffic jams between the cities and towns – which involves the even larger issue of global climate change.
Public transport and the lack of environmental awareness
I subscribe to the critical observations by Dolf Jansen above. Like me, he is one of the few men left who do not possess a driving license, and – whenever possible – travel by public transport (or by bike or on foot). Although the Netherlands – compared to many other countries – has a fantastic network of public transport, somehow the car has managed to maintain its high status, its mythical appeal as the vehicle which grants us the freedom to individually explore the world (cleverly promoted by powerful adverts).
I think this mythical worship of the car, and the fragmented and contradictory ways in which we continue to deal with environmental issues, can occur because we do not yet realise what it means to be truly environmentally aware. As I argued in previous blogs, this means putting the environment first and our human lives second – acknowledging the power of the larger natural world in which our much smaller lives are always embedded. Until we have realised this, I expect we will continue to take these kinds of contradictory measures.