I was feeling pretty good that I hadn’t needed to use mine for a Vernian eighty days and got a wonderful cosy feeling when, on clunk-clicking the door on Wednesday morning, I found the interior covered in cobwebs.
But the Corollavirus didn’t feel the same. He wouldn’t start. So, for the second time since I took ownership six months ago, I had to call out the breakdown mechanics because I hadn’t been using up enough fossil fuels to keep the vehicle functioning.
Luckily, the mechanic sorted me out within half an hour and I managed to get to the Chilterns for the above-mentioned work.
But then I had the temerity to drive home. At night. With the headlights on. Ever since, the battery has given me not a flicker.
Somebody told me that I need a trickle charger. But I suspect a better solution would be to sell the car…
The redistribution of public space is a policy of social redistribution.
Fifty percent of public space is occupied by private cars, which are used mostly by the richest, and mostly by men, because it’s mostly men who drive, and so in total, the richest men are using half the public space.
So if we give the space to walking, biking, and public transit, you give back public space to the categories of people who today are deprived.
I spent last weekend in the company of, among others, a 400-year old called Bob.
400 years is a lot of years—something we can rarely grasp when thinking about trees.
To put Bob’s antiquity into perspective, 1621 saw the invention of these things called ‘Thanksgiving’, ‘Gothenburg’, ‘the violin’ and ‘the merry-go-round’. John Donne and Thomas Middleton were still breathing; Shakespeare had only just kicked the bucket. The Palace of Versailles and bottled mineral water did not yet exist; the Royal Mail was still exactly that—for royal use only.
400 years is a long time to be alive.
But did you notice that cleared ground around Bob’s feet? That’s the result of something called ‘halo-release’. As trees age, they become less tolerant of shade and so rangers at Bob’s home on Ashridge Estate in the Chilterns are thinning out the canopy competition around the oldest residents of the forest.
400 years is a long time to be alive but, remarkably, halo-release could extend Bob’s life by another hundred years or so.
Imagine still being alive in 2121.
In a few weeks, we’ll all be gawping in admiration at the sweat and tears of the planet’s fastest, strongest athletes at the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo. In the summer of 2121, Bob’s Oak will still be around to hear the synthesised pants and grunts of the artificial athlete robots competing in the LVII Olympiad taking place on Moonbase One.
A lot can happen in a hundred years.
Halo-release costs about £500 per tree. You might think that’s incredible value for a century’s life extension. But there are an estimated one thousand veteran and ancient trees in the Ashridge Estate woodland and £500 per tree escalates fast.
It’s no small irony that Ashridge Estate is in the heart of the territory being stripped to make way for HS2, the new high speed railway line between London and Birmingham.
The government itself recognises that these ancient woodlands are ‘irreplaceable’ and yet here we are.
Earlier this year, famously, I bought a car. That doesn’t stop me thinking that cars are a pretty selfish way of getting around—often one that we are forced into, rather than freely choosing, because of a lack of viable alternatives.
The last lockdown in England neatly followed the passing of the financial year, so I thought I would look back and share a little of what happened with Dave in the final quarter of 20/21.
WARNING: STATS AHEAD!
In the last three months, I spent about 50 hours less on my mobile phone than I did the preceding quarter. I also managed to read more, meditate more, do more yoga and a lot more press ups—3,049 more, to be precise.
I spoke to almost exactly the same number of friends at a rate of 2.7 per day. But I also visited 4,000 more unique web pages and spent 90 more hours staring at my computer screen: a whole hour per day more. Urgh.
Looking back over my diary, since the turn of the year, I have played (and lost) ten games of online poker and learned how to skateboard (badly). I also started a new job with Thighs of Steel and said goodbye to Foiled on BBC Radio Wales.
I volunteered for half a dozen marshalling sessions at my local vaccination centre and am now waiting for my second jab. I learned how to drive a golf buggy.
I’ve been really tired. I got a load of blood tests. A lot of people I speak to have been really tired too. Something’s going around; something I hope will lift with the lifting of restrictions. I feel more alert when I can see over the horizon.
I put up some bunk beds and bought a secondhand car. It’s a Toyota Corolla: see if you can guess its name…
I feel bad about the car, actually.
(Side note: I’m not saying that you should feel bad about the car just because I do. We all make deals to get through life. Your deal is your business.)
Until this year, the balance for me was always against owning a car.
They are expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. They pollute the air we breathe and cause direct harm to landscapes around the world. They are bulky possessions and are an eyesore on the driveway. They can, and frequently do, kill and maim.
It’s ironic, then, that the balance was tipped this year in favour of car ownership by—of all things—my new job as an outdoor instructor.
This job involves getting around fairly remote places and depends on ninety percent of instructors having vehicles to shuttle between campsite and trailhead, or pursue errant schoolkids across the countryside.
(Side note: Even somewhere as suburban as Bracknell Forest counts as ‘fairly remote’—the quickest route by public transport from where I live takes 3 hours 47 minutes and involves two buses and three trains—plus an overnight stay if I want to get there for an 8am start. For comparison, from flat to forest, the drive takes less than 90 minutes by car.)
Depressingly, in this particular job, promoting the unpolluted wonders of nature is only possible with possession of a polluting car.
‘Possession’, really, Dave? Yeah. I borrowed my parents’ car for the expeditions I led last year—saving me from the burden of ownership, but fruitlessly adding a couple of train journeys to the carbon footprint of my work.
As a secondhand petrol car owner, I want to be the best secondhand petrol car owner imaginable.
I don’t want to normalise my car ownership. I don’t want to forget that every time I use a car I am striking a deal: my personal convenience (including valuable things like time, opportunity and money) on one side and the environment we share on the other.
(Side note: You might think I’m being unnecessarily severe on myself. As someone who doesn’t fly and who eats little to no dairy or meat, my carbon footprint is lower than the average EU citizen’s. But I can’t dodge the fact that my carbon footprint is rising at a time when everyone else’s is falling. Not a good look.)
To that end, I’m recording each of my car journeys, noting details like mileage and carbon emissions, and reviewing them every week, in the same way that I monitor my finances, my conversations with friends and the number of press ups I complete. These numbers tell me, unequivocally, whether I am the person I like to think I am.
So far, over the course of seven car journeys and 763 miles, I have racked up a 165kg carbon debt compared to taking the same journeys by public transport. (Yes, I exclude from the public transport carbon estimate those journeys I would never have made had I not owned a car.)
(Side note: I’ve been surprised that public transport isn’t as expensive as I’d always assumed. The petrol cost of driving has so far hovered around 75-85 percent of the train fares I could have bought. Of course: that is still scandalous, but it’s not as extreme as I thought.)
Perhaps one definition of adulthood is taking responsibility for tough decisions and living with the consequential reality.
As a lapsed historian, I’m well aware that, in my part of the world, my generation has had it easy with tough decisions up to now. Go back a generation or twelve and adults like us were expected to make properly tough decisions:
Hey honey, wanna try for another kiddo and risk killing you in childbirth?
I’m rather parched from a long day slopping out chamberpots for my lord and master, but I’m also not totally convinced that this Medieval water supply is safe.
In Napoleonic warfare, it’s very much blunderbuss or be blunderbussed and—I do declare!—this handsome young French soldier is raising his weapon…
(Side note: I feel like the pandemic has been an exercise in tough decisions: at what point is the risk of transmitting the disease to others outweighed by our personal desire for toilet roll? Many of us haven’t had much practice with such properly tough decisions and the heaviness of day-to-day life has taken its toll.)
But what excites me about adulthood is what comes immediately before we take our tough decision: our imagination. Every tough decision is an act of imagination. Right before we decide, we visualise based our past experience (and usually a huge dollop of misguided optimism). What might our future be like under Scenarios A, B and C?
Owning a car enables a future where I can work as an outdoor leader and help introduce others to the natural world I cherish. But it’s not the only future I can imagine. It’s just Scenario A. Imagining Scenarios B and C are the exciting part.
The onus is on me to imagine a carbon-free scenario for my outdoor work, to take responsibility for making that future a reality—and to acknowledge with grace the incongruous unease I feel during this intermediate transition.
This has been quite a serious article so I’d like to end with some optimistic news.
Between 2005 and 2019, the United Kingdom reduced its territorial emissions by 37 percent, while increasing its GDP by 21 percent.
You can argue about whether this counts as ‘decoupling’—where are China and India on that chart?—but you can’t argue that it looks optimistic.