Arriving in San Francisco last year, fresh from campaigning against road-building in Britain, I thought I was pretty aware of the global nature of the issues we’ve been tackling. But through getting to know the other winners of the 1995 Goldman Environmental Prize and talking to them about their work, I came to realize just how much the issues of “car culture,” and more broadly, of over-consumption and development, resonate around the world.
In Britain over the past few years, the largest road-building program since the Romans threatened to reshape the country, from the white cliffs of Dover to the suburban streets of Manchester. But ordinary people have defended their landscapes and communities and have succeeded in putting the roads program into reverse. For the moment, the super tanker of British transport policy really does seem to be turning round, although there is still much to do to ensure that positive transport alternative are implemented.
In the US, car culture is endemic. There are, for example, more cars in Los Angeles than in the whole of China, India, and sub-Saharan Africa put together. Aurora Castillo, the winner for North America, comes from East LA – an area criss-crossed by seven freeways which literally split her community and pollute the air breathed by the children and grandchildren for whom she has fought so hard against environmental threats of all kinds.
With the roads lobby increasingly turning to the developing world in search of new markets, such problems are no longer confined to the West. Yul Choi of South Korea bears witness to this. He has seen the number of cars in his country grow from 40,000 in 1965 to 7 million in 1995 with the consequent increases in pollution, health problems, and landscape destruction. These are just some of the negative effects of the rapid industrialization of his country which he is tackling. While the computer age, along with great amounts of data stored on hard drives across the world has begun to lessen our need for pulp and paper, there is really only so many positive effects. And in the end, even hard disk drives are not as robust as you might think – ask yourself how many friends you know who have needed laptop data recovery – the likely answer is quite high.
Ricardo Navarro from El Salvador is striving to help his people develop a cleaner, more affordable technology than motor vehicles as part of his struggle against poverty and environmental degradation. As he sees it, the bicycle offers a solution – to everything from transport to milling corn.
Noah Idechong from the beautiful islands of Palau in the Pacific is working to prevent his nation’s despoliation by potential developers. Palau is a member of the Alliance of Small Island States – the group of nations most threatened by any rise in sea-level caused by climate change. The major greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, and, in the West, transport is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide.
It was a source of great sadness that none of us had the opportunity to meet Ken Saro-Wiwa. At the time of the ’95 Goldman Award ceremony, he was in prison in Nigeria, being denied medical treatment and awaiting trial for protesting the devastation of his homelands by Shell Oil - devastation caused in the process of producing the petrol that we in the West daily put in our cars. Ken is now dead. He and his co-defendants were hanged at the end of last year. His death sent waves of shock and outrage around the world. It has galvanized environmentalists everywhere and has demonstrated in the most stark and horrific way imaginable just what the car culture can mean.
Ken’s protest, together with those of the other ’95 Prize winners, has put anti-roads campaigning in Britain only too sharply into context. We are all involved – like Ken was – in the same struggle: tackling different aspects and from different angles, but, nevertheless, the same struggle. And there’s an awful lot left to do!