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Recessions and traffic jams: looking for the green shoots

October 27, 2009

It’s half-term for many this week, which is good news for the kids and good news too for anyone who, in the struggle for road space each morning, loses out to large cars with a solitary school-uniformed small person in each front passenger seat.

They are all heading for pretty much the same place – there aren’t that many schools in any one town – so surely a creative solution involving redesigning school bus systems shouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility? Meanwhile, the regular car commuter may have noticed less congestion in the last year or so, as reported recently by the AA and Trafficmaster. This is due to the recession, apparently.

However, this situation isn’t likely to last when the economy grows. There may be fewer cars on the move, but it’s a result of unemployment. Not so many people are using them for work purposes. (But also, interestingly, it’s because people are increasingly working from home: how much of this office-in-the-spare bedroom stuff is due to the recession and how much an evolving lifestyle change?). Reports confirm that Bank Holiday traffic this year has actually risen, so the nation’s attachment to the motor is still no less strong than its love for Strictly Come Dancing.

So do we need a recession to make us green?

Doing green things comes naturally if money is tight. Many have discovered that acquiring furniture through Freecycle or growing their own vegetables in the allotment is good for their finances, with sustainability an attached bonus.

However, this doesn’t mean welcoming recessions. They are unarguably negative vehicles for sustainable development (no one wants to see the human cost as companies lay off staff), and in any case do not normally last.

The Arab oil embargo of the early 70s provides a lesson in the limitations of temporary economically-driven shifts in behaviour. Although it prompted the US government to look for ways of reducing its dependence on Middle East oil and invest in the technology behind solar electricity, the drop in the cost of this renewable energy source was eventually matched by a fall in fossil fuel costs as the oil crisis eased. Incidentally, for a short time during Jimmy Carter’s tenure the White House had solar thermal panels.

Many blame our consumer culture both for the recession and our environmental woes. There is a way out in the shape of green growth: incentives, investment and job creation in the renewable energy sector would drive this. In our ideal future, the lines on an economist’s graph plotting carbon emissions and unemployment would be heading steadily downwards in tandem. With school-run congestion going in the same direction, hopefully.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Janet permalink
    October 29, 2009 8:11 pm

    How right you are about the “small solitary child” sitting in the front of a large car going to school – such a waste if the journey can,t be shared. However to share a school run, you will probably have to be vetted that you are safe with children, thanks to our over zealous government.

    A sensible article in all.

    • Jemma J permalink
      December 1, 2009 11:47 pm

      Omit the word ‘probably’ and you’ve hit the nail on the head …

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