Screaming in the tunnel

We are back in the country where bicycles are a respected mode of transport. In Gillingham, our street was packed with cars taking children to school every morning, but here the rush hour mainly takes place on the bicycle path. This morning I heard a lot of noise and saw that it came from children racing through a bicycle tunnel. Suddenly I remembered the elated feeling: going down the tunnel as fast as you can, feet off the pedals and screaming your heart out.

Surrounded by all those cyclists I easily get the feeling that Dutch people are living very environmentally friendly. But in the new book by Marianne Thieme that I’m reading, it strikes me again how the impact that we as western consumers have on the planet is mostly invisible to us.

An example is water use. It’s all good and well to have short showers, but the 60 liters of water I use per shower does not amount to much when you compare it with the 1700 liters required to produce an average chocolate bar. In the Netherlands, our domestic water use only accounts for 2% of our total water footprint (Van Oel et al, 2009). The vast majority of our water use is hidden in the production of our food.

Irrigation in Ethiopia

I came across a second example this week when I watch the aptly named documentary Sea Blind. Almost everything I buy has been shipped or flown in from all over the world. Ninety percent of this is transported by ship, but most people know very little about this industry. This interactive map of Kiln helps to make it visible. The map shows all the container ships that sailed around the world in 2012. You can use the ‘play’ button to watch a video with some explanation.

All of these ships sail around the world for our convenience. Nowadays, we can buy whatever we want, whether in store or online. Shipping is a relatively efficient means of transport. However, there is a problem: Ships use very low quality fuel that causes massive CO2 emissions and other types of pollution. If innovations like clean fuel and the use of sun and wind have a chance, this sector can become more environmentally friendly.

Attention for things like the water footprint of our food or CO2 emissions from transport is increasing. That makes sense, because we have to take responsibility for it. However, I think we should not just worry about the excesses, but rather about the foundations of our consumer society.

We can be conscious consumers and try to buy local produce or eat less meat, but in the end we are living beyond our means as a society. The big global inequality between rich and poor, the disproportionate power of multinationals and the destruction of ecosystems is not caused by fate or necessity; it originates from very concrete political choices. That means we can also change it. And for that we need each other: the business community, activists, politicians, and not in the least people on bikes, screaming in tunnels.

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  1. My youngest daughter would approve of this piece as she’s a cyclist in London and a vegan. Greetings from Aquitaine.

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