It turns out that it's really challenging to instrument lasting positive environmental change without having government onside.
I was going to write about trip-chaining this week, the process of filling a standard A to B trip with additional stops along the way to get errands or tasks done. I touched upon it as one of the excellent benefits of adopting an active travel lifestyle in my inaugural post back in April. I had hoped to expand on the idea in today’s post. Then Extinction Rebellion ran a protest and shut down part of Lothian Road for a few hours, and everything got confusing and angry for a short while.
So as with any contact with the enemy - the enemy here being my environmental activist streak - the plan to write about chaining shall be disrupted this week and in its place will be a look at the protest by Extinction Rebellion on Lothian Road this past Monday.
Monday had been a hard day for me. There were some unfortunate happenings at work, and my body was aching from running the Edinburgh Seven Hills race the day before. I wanted to curl up on the couch, be ignored by my cats, shown unquestionable loyalty from my old dug, and enjoy the company of my equally sore running partner & wife Vicki. I just wanted to get home.
I was leaving the office, debating about whether to walk or bike, or sack it and get the bus to give my legs a rest. Just then, Vicki sent me a text saying 'XR have blocked Lothian Rd and the Bridges!' I'd never had the opportunity to see one of their protests before, and my office is just off Lothian Road, so I thought why not pop along?
Full disclaimer here: I've been to XR meetings, I've heard them speak, and I'm friends with some of their members. I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a member, but it's safe to say I'm associated with them. I care passionately for the environment as they do; my activism outlet is just of a different form, I suppose.
In pairs, six activists from XR locked themselves together in the middle of the road bringing traffic in both directions to a standstill. Buses, taxis, private cars, and all their drivers & passengers had to find alternative routes to their destinations as a result. For an evening, there was massive disruption within the immediate vicinity and that disruption rippled across parts of the city until the congestion of the daily commute died down.
Many people question these tactics. I witnessed a fair amount of anger towards them. People pissed off that they couldn't get home. One person demanded police arrest them, annoyed that they couldn't get home, because like me they had had a hard day at work. Another was furious that their partner wouldn't be able to get through to them so they could make their film showing. Angry people rallied on Twitter to call them idiots, twats, and jobless hippies! Why don't they target the corporations that are causing all the damage?! All this disruption is just causing more pollution, don't you know?!
Why not target the corporations?!
Well, the truth is, thousands of people in hundreds of environmental activist groups have been fighting to protect the earth for literal decades. Greenpeace was founded in 1971, Friends of the Earth in 69, the World Wildlife Fund in 61, the list goes on. Environmental activism isn't new, it's just starting to get more in your face as the threat of climate breakdown looms.
For years organisations have been campaigning against corporations that have been destroying the planet, but the destruction has continued. It turns out that it's really challenging to instrument lasting positive environmental change without having government onside.
There have been some wins recently, though. Thanks in part to the disruptive protests by XR and the youth movement started by Greta Thunberg, governments are declaring that there is, in fact, a Climate Emergency facing humanity and that something must be done to fix it! Great right? Problem solved! Unfortunately, not quite.
Governments aren't doing nearly enough to ensure the safety of citizens. Merely declaring that there is a climate emergency is far from acting to stop it. While leaders say there is a climate emergency one day, and open new airport terminals the next, then the problem still remains. Stating it is just another soundbite, and soundbites aren't actions.
But this has caused more pollution?!
Sure, for the few hours of transport chaos on Monday, there was probably a small spike in pollution from traffic. Longer queues, more idling, more polluting start-and-stop driving. All of these are bad things and can increase emissions.
However, this is a mere mote of dust in the growing cloud of pollution that Scotland's car addiction has been creating over at least the past 27 years.
Almost 38% of Scotland's pollution comes from transportation (only 4% of which is international aviation and shipping). Pollution from road transport has increased by 11% since 1990, and in 2017 was Scotland's most prominent climate polluter. Scotland has a transport problem, and can't address a climate emergency without solving it.
The active travel solution
All of this disruption was pretty inconsequential to the active travel community. It took 45 minutes (15-minute cycle, 30-minute walk) for me to get home after visiting the protest for a short while. That’s the same amount of time as it took last week and the week before. Cycling and walking are pretty consistent because it’s easy to get around things, even climate rebels! XR makes a point of opening their blockades to those walking or cycling (though the police did eventually block access to everyone to make it safe for them to use cutting tools).
Devoid of cars, people were able to walk and cycle more freely on Lothian Road. I felt like a kid again, standing up on my pedals, wheeling around the road, knowing that there was no driver attempting to close-pass me to get a few metres in front to the next red light. I felt safe. This is the kind of road environment that Scotland needs to foster if it wants to see more people transition to active travel.
The Scottish Government announced today that they plan to boost active travel infrastructure by making up to £51 million available. Isn't that awesome? Yes, but then again no. The Aberdeen City Bypass project cost more than £1 billion to complete and has no access to bikes. The new Queensferry crossing - open only to cars - cost over £1 billion to complete. We're spending billions to maintain a status quo that is literally killing the planet and hope that a small fraction of that can change it.
Imagine how different Scotland would be if £1 billion were made available! Cleaner air, healthier & happier people, safer streets, and all while tackling Scotland's most significant source of climate pollution! Scotland could spend a £1 billion on active travel and save billions more due to the benefits of getting people active.
This disruption sucks
I do get it. The disruption sucks. It's annoying to work a long Monday and then discover that your journey home is going to take longer than you had hoped. Maybe you had plans to go to the movies. Perhaps your kids were at home, with a sitter, and now you've got to hope that sitter will stay an extra hour and maybe sort dinner out for them. That sucks, it's infuriating even. Remember though, the activists of XR have lives outside of their activism too. Many of them have kids or Monday night plans. Many of them would rather be home.
I ask that you try to look past the immediate impact it has caused you getting home. You and I are not where the world stops. Please try and see the bigger picture. The next generation needs us now so that they can live later.
Thanks for reading.