Commuting: The life sentence?

The one aspect of the daily grind that is guaranteed to provoke an opinion is the commute to work. Congested roads, overcrowded trains, packed buses and sweaty tubes – it’s been said that if travel broadens the mind, commuting shrinks it back.

According to a recent report by the Rail Passengers Council, we are in ‘despair’, as one in four of London’s commuter trains fails to arrive on time. Trade unions criticise bosses for stressing out their employees by expecting them to commute too much. Some go further, linking what might otherwise be regarded as a relatively innocuous activity with high blood pressure, heart disease and blood clots in the leg.

Few would contest that the UK’s transport infrastructure is in a sorry state. But if the commuting experience is really so bad, why do so many of us continue to do it? This was the topic of discussion at the recent debate organised by the London-based Transport Research Group. (1)

David Young, project coordinator at Sustrans South-East, was keen to trumpet the virtues of cycling in the fight against obesity. This proved topical given the publication, the following week, of the House of Commons Health Committee report on the issue, with strategies to reduce people’s reliance on transport featuring prominently in its recommendations.

Continuing the theme of millennial moral panics, Nicky Gavron, deputy mayor of London, highlighted the issue of congestion. If we all worked from home, she suggested, there would be 20 per cent less traffic on the roads. However, co-panellist Timandra Harkness longed ‘for the two separate worlds’ of home and work that she has otherwise denied herself as a freelance journalist. As Gavron acknowledged, for many of us the daily commute is the price we are willing to pay for the dynamism of city life.

The ideal of mass mobility and the more familiar reality of congested commuting are arguably the essence of bustling cities. A member of the audience argued that we might even welcome the opportunity for quiet reflection that stalling commuter routes offer up, if admittedly by default. The RAC Foundation has discovered, to its evident horror, that even if our journeys were to double in duration ‘we’d just shrug and leave more time’ (2). So why has the act of getting to work become such a major cause for concern now, despite our reluctance to avoid commuting in practice?

Commuting today is an experience we share in common, not restricted to the ‘pinstripe suits’ of old. In his quirky The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton describes how we take our troubled selves with us when we travel. This, I think, can only be intensified in the routine journeying of the jaded commuter.  As well as ourselves though, we carry around with us the broader anxieties and frustrations of our times.

So it is striking how the discussion of the (im-) mobile metropolis tends to focus on the despairing angst-ridden commuter as much as infrastructural failure. The debate about commuting tends to become a metaphor for concerns that our working lives lack definition; and the sense that the commuter routes are falling apart as well only reinforces this sense of disengagement and confusion.

Consequently, as Austin Williams, chairing the debate, said, ‘transport is rarely discussed in its own terms’. For Tony Grayling, associate director (Sustainability) at the Institute for Public Policy Research, it is no longer about ‘trains, planes and automobiles’. Far from being a practical issue that needs addressing, transport has become an area through which a whole range of moral and political prejudices are aired. 

The policy response, in this context, makes more sense. Grayling went on to explain how he was interested in minimising the environmental and social costs of travel, and what he described as the undermining of ‘communities of place’. The deputy mayor was unapologetically intent on ‘reducing the need to travel’ altogether in the name of creating her ‘liveable city’. It seems that what might once have been regarded as a parochial, even eccentric contribution to the policy discussion has come to dominate both the transport agenda and the curiously pedestrian thinking on all things urban.

Indeed such tangential considerations as those posed by Grayling, Gavron and Young alike, are celebrated for their very joined-up-ness. Instead of dreaming up better ways of getting us from A to B, politicians and policy makers alike are increasingly concerned with engineering their particular take on society. Addressing everything from the environment, public health, and social inequality, to the work-life balance, community-building and civic engagement – it’s hardly surprising we’ve come to a stand-still.

(1) Commuting: the life sentence?

(2) UK Commute ‘longest in Europe’, BBC News, 22 July, 2003

How We Can Save the Planet

We will live in a ‘carbon-literate’ society, where carbon is a parallel currency and carbon credits tradable on ‘cBay’. We will exist within the confines of carbon budgeting, subjecting ourselves to a regime analogous to our present day penchant for calorie counting with weekly visits to Carbon Watchers. Our internal climates, that is, central heating and air conditioning, will be considered so much ‘thermal monotony’.

There will be no supermarkets as they will be deemed extravagances totting up the food miles of those foolhardy enough to desire the energy-guzzling exotic and convenience foods to which we had formerly been accustomed. Indeed, there will be a return to the larder. And if this all gets too much to bare, there are always the eco-helplines helpfully listed at the back of the book. This is a world in which the winners are domestic tourism and bicycle repair shops. This is the future according to Mayer Hillman.

Under headings such as ‘What should scare you most’ or ‘these figures should shock you’ the author berates us for our energy-profligacy. Rising expectations, he makes the equation, inevitably mean continued climate change. It’s as simple as that. We must divorce resource use from illusory notions of wellbeing without delay, if we are not to succumb to the threat posed by what he describes as the single biggest problem facing humanity. But the fiscal route advocated by many of those sympathetic to his cause lacks the ‘moral basis’ or ‘psychological resonance’, he says, to usher in a new Blitz spirit, and the kind of sacrifices we must inevitably endure. The energy embodied in manufacture, transport and retail must come to be seen as a social ill, rather than a by-product of the relentless motion of the wheels of progress, as might once have been the case. We must narrow our ‘spread-out lifestyles’ if we are to effect the necessary change to avert imminent disaster on a global scale.

Hillman tells the reader that Asia’s consumption has tripled since 1970. The developing world’s one third share of the global shop in 1990 is predicted to rise to two thirds by 2050. And China’s growth, standing at an annual rate on average of 8% since 1980, will result in its economy growing four times over within just two decades. Reason to celebrate perhaps? Except this will not herald the kind of world that the author deems equitable; at least, it offends against his tenets of thrifty internationalism and intergenerational leveling. The common-held belief that the generations to follow might expect to be better off than those that preceded them is anathema to all he holds dear. Instead Hillman claims to seek historical redress for a developing world that is both ‘least responsible’ for a world ravaged by climate change, and ‘most vulnerable’ to what this holds for the future.

Surely, you might argue, in a world committed to development, those nations so compromised might be better equipped to cope with, even influence, their fates. But that is to underestimate Hillman’s profound pessimism. He is blind to the past gains and dismissive of the future claims for ‘human ingenuity’. Fortunately, however, for those more optimistic and with an ear to historical precedent, the case against the author – as the figures he himself presents attest – tell a very different story.

The UK, given its now reluctant status as the first offender on the industrial roll call, has contributed 15% of global emissions since 1750. However, in its regrettably sluggish current period, between 1990 and 2000 the UK economy grew by 26%, with energy demand increasing by just 8%. Government too has recently played its part, with the cumulative impact of strict building regulations ensuring that new housing uses up just 60% of the heating energy typical of the existing stock. And, by 2008, new cars are expected to emit a quarter less carbon dioxide than they did in 1995 thanks to a voluntary agreement between manufacturers and the EU.

Other interventions – distorted by the eco-friendly orthodoxy adopted by officialdom, (despite Hillman’s radical pretensions and protestations to the contrary) – have been less welcome. Methane emitted from landfill sites, as the author acknowledges, has been the most fruitful of renewable energy sources to date. This will, nonetheless, be curtailed, consistent with the rationale of EU legislation aimed at reducing organic waste. The decommissioning of nuclear power stations – taken as a given by Hillman, who rejects the notion that they are a good contender for the solving the problem – goes unchallenged despite the author recognizing that they would otherwise have a future of at least 250 years from known reserves of uranium.

The coincidence of the decline of the UK economy – with the consequent rise of transport and domestic use to the top of the energy charts, meaning that today 51% of energy-use is by individuals – and the apocalyptic individualising of the environmental problem – are instructive. As Hillman freely admits, what divides him and his detractors is not the science so much as attitudes to risk and uncertainty. He prefers to dismiss both his critics, and the reader reluctant to follow his lifestyle tips, as guilty of ‘repression, suppression, denial, projection and dissociation’. Overconsumption is the problem and obesity the appropriate metaphor, we are told, for our decadent times. Rational debate and contestation don’t get a look-in. This can only delay things.

So far, says Hillman, all we’ve done is ‘muddle through’. If that’s the case, then we’d be well advised to continue doing just that.

Civil Society

The perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre had spent the morning bowling with their victims-to-be. Timothy McVeigh and his fellow bombers were similarly intent on strikes of a recreational character before they eventually unleashed themselves on Oklahoma City.

Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s thesis on the ‘decline of civic engagement’ is flawed says Michael Edwards, director of the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society Programme. The ills of society cannot be arrested at the level of voluntary association. So much for social capital, he suggests.

But the ‘associational model’, of which Putnam is the most prominent of advocates, does offer up some useful insights. Despite the rise of ‘self-help’ groups, for instance, traditional mass-based organisations, from the trades unions to the Catholic Church, are apparently in free-fall. Those that have found a footing have done so at the expense of a distancing from their ‘social base’, as Edwards puts it.

The author complains that ‘dilemmas remain embedded in polities that cannot resolve them’. True, but instead of radical solutions Edwards’ are of a kind with the Third Way ethos of ‘enforcing the civil’. His proposals for revitalising public life are already adopted by governing elites desperate to engage with their electorates. Indeed, ‘civic education’ and obsessing over political finances and voting procedure are already de rigueur both sides of the Atlantic.

Despite alluding to the vacuity of public debate, Edwards fails to address the problem head on. ‘Associational life was radically reshaped in the West at the end of the nineteenth century’, he says, and ‘it can be reshaped again’. But in the absence of the intellectual or political contestation that so characterised this earlier period, the revival of such a salon sensibility is surely a long way off.

What happens when the conversation ends?

Too often the care system fails to involve young people in decisions that affect their lives, or to engage them in any meaningful way. Where consultation or participation initiatives are pursued they are often short-lived or seen as an end in themselves. Quality Protects, the modernising fund which aimed to transform children’s social services, came to an end last month and other local consultation and participation initiatives are under threat.

The Children Act 1989 states, before making a decision, local authorities must “as far as is reasonably practicable ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child”. And citing article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England claims that the right to be involved in decision making, “is not dependent upon age or understanding”. This is typical of the increasingly uncompromising character of the children’s’ rights agenda. Indeed, consultation and participation have come to play an increasingly important role as a governing ethic in children’s policy circles.

In the green paper which preceded the much anticipated children bill, the government claimed to have the nation’s 11 million children on side. Or, some might argue, a dubiously complicit sample of them. Apparently, economic well-being, staying healthy, staying safe, “enjoying and achieving” and “making a positive contribution” were at the top of their collective wishlist. A cynic might find this all a little convenient for a government bent on promoting healthy lifestyles, risk-aversion and a newly engaged citizenry.

But is it accusations of thinly disguised ventriloquism that so discredit efforts to ascertain the views of children and young people? Or is the much cited consultation fatigue to blame? Certainly, deepening levels of mistrust seem to blight each and every policy endeavour whatever its merits. Either way, suspicion that consultation is being used as a stalling tactic, or an unconvincing distraction from policy vacuity or political indecision, is on the rise. Yet perhaps something more fundamental lies at the heart of this enthusiasm for connecting with such “hard to reach” constituents.

Does seeking legitimacy supposedly through the mouths of babes, itself, betray a shaky hold on the public confidence? Has “user centeredness” become an all-purpose and consequentially tired and ineffectual mantra? There is, I think, a danger in conflating misgivings about social work practice with the very different concerns of political or institutional legitimacy.

The social work profession is in a seemingly continual state of disarray. The relentless glare of adverse publicity in the wake of preventable tragedies, culminating in the momentous inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, has wounded it immeasurably. Consequently, the children’s rights agenda appeals to those seeking to relegitimise the social care enterprise or find a renewed sense of mission. But is hiding behind the kids really a solution to this existential crisis?

Designer Babies: Myth or Reality

Solent People’s Theatre, Portsmouth. The performance and discussion reviewed took place on 13 March 2004.

Following the performance of Brave New World, a panel assembled to discuss developments allegedly foreseen in Huxley’s dystopian tale, specifically pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and the ongoing furore over its use or misuse.

Juliet Tizzard, editor of BioNews, director of Progress, and a keen advocate of genetic science, went head-to-head with Josephine Quintavalle of Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE), an outspoken critic of the likes of IVF and cloning. For Tizzard, the state ought to extend access to reproductive technologies – including allowing parents to use the technology have a child who can act as a donor to a sibling with a life-threatening condition. This, instead of ushering in the state-directed cloning of the Hatchery, would promote parental choice.

Quintavalle, not one to understate her case, equated such parents with slave owners. The slave’s child doesn’t exist for its own sake, she said, and nor does a child subject to PGD. Ellie Lee, lecturer in social solicy and author of Abortion, Motherhood and Mental Health, countered that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has chosen to interpret the children’s best interest narrowly, ignoring reference to the interests of the family as a whole.

Caroline Jones, lecturer in law at University of Southampton, sought greater clarity on the status of embryonic cells, and guidelines on how to regulate disputes if ‘things go wrong’. Yet for Lee, the overriding problem is the increasing preoccupation with parenting, and an eroding of the autonomy of family life. More regulation would only undermine this further.

Whilst there is clear blue water between the positions held by Quintavalle and Tizzard (and by implication, Ellie Lee), most people occupy the agnostic middle ground. This was made clear by a number of contributions from the floor. Perhaps we shouldn’t be rushing ahead. Perhaps we shouldn’t be having the debate at all. Then again, if it were preferable not to have a debilitating condition, surely it would be logically preferable not to bring an affected child into this world. Can we trust the authorities not to go to far?

In an impromptu and perhaps mischievous poll by the chair, Tony Gilland of the Institute of Ideas asked whether we could trust parents themselves. There was a hesitant but majority ‘yes’ vote.