Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Beat Goes On

The same issues that plague our politics are on display in the British election. The central issue is what should be public and what should be private. George Monbiot writes:

Imagine designing one of our great cities from scratch. You would quickly discover that there is enough physical space for magnificent parks, playing fields, public swimming pools, urban nature reserves and allotments sufficient to meet the needs of everyone. Alternatively, you could designate the same space to a small proportion of its people – the richest citizens – who can afford large gardens, perhaps with their own swimming pools. The only way of securing space for both is to allow the suburbs to sprawl until the city becomes dysfunctional: impossible to supply with efficient services, lacking a sense of civic cohesion, and permanently snarled in traffic: Los Angeles for all.

Imagine designing a long-distance transport system for a nation that did not possess one. You’d find that there is plenty of room for everyone to travel swiftly and efficiently, in trains and luxury buses (an intercity bus can carry as many people as a mile of car traffic). But to supply the same mobility with private cars requires a prodigious use of land, concrete, metal and fuel. It can be done, but only at the cost of climate change, air pollution, the destruction of wonderful places and an assault on tranquillity, neighbourhood and community life. Such a society is ultimately unsustainable -- because resources are finite.

Theresa May is arguing that resources are infinite. Jeremy Corbin is arguing that they are not. But, unfortunately, the Labour Party  has bought into some of the same principles which animate the Conservatives:

Labour, through its proposed cultural capital fund, will reinvest in public galleries and museums. It will defend and expand our libraries, youth centres, football grounds, railways and local bus services. Unlike the Conservative manifesto, which is almost silent on the issue, Labour’s platform offers a reasonable list of protections to the living world.

But it also promises to “continue to upgrade our highways” (shortly after vowing to “encourage and enable people to get out of their cars”) and to provide new airport capacity. The conflicts are not acknowledged. Progress in the 21st century should be measured less by the new infrastructure you build than by the damaging infrastructure you retire.

The same battle we face here is being fought in Britain. And, Monbiot writes, we keep missing the point:

It is impossible to deliver a magnificent life for everyone by securing private space through private spending. Attempts to do so are highly inefficient, producing ridiculous levels of redundancy and replication. Look at roads, in which individual people, each encased in a tonne of metal, each taking up (at 70mph) 90 metres of lane, travel in parallel to the same destination. The expansion of public wealth creates more space for everyone; the expansion of private wealth reduces it, eventually damaging most people’s quality of life.

And the beat goes on.



Toby said...

That's a fascinating article, Owen. Some of Monbiot's thinking on this reminds me of Jane Jacobs.

My take on it is that humans are addicted to the infinite growth model. Whatever we do looks to be successful at first but later becomes swamped by over use, over consumption. We build a new road to solve a congestion problem and in a matter of weeks it is over crowded. We can't add 100,000 cars per year to regional area without eventually causing gridlock. But why so many cars added? Because the population grows to fill any gaps. Build that new road, shopping centre, parks or whatever is attractive and people move close to it. Infinite growth is the problem.

Owen Gray said...

It's the mantra behind Field of Dreams, Toby: "Build it and they will come."

Steve said...

We spend billions on airports but how much of that convenience does joe six pack ride in?

Steve said...

there are solutions to every problem in Singapore. Does it have to come with canning, why not?

Owen Gray said...

That's the way authoritarians solve problems, Steve.

Owen Gray said...

Good question, Steve. Whose interests does government serve? Increasingly it seems to be the people with the money.