Meet the green man…
Here, Dan Carrier talks to the social scientist Mayer Hillman, whose warnings about how we treat the earth have fallen on deaf ears for decades. And below, he talks to contributors to a new Extinction Rebellion handbook
22 August, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
LIKE a canary in a coal mine, Mayer Hillman has been pointing out the follies inherent in the fabric of urban life for the best part of 50 years.
Unfortunately, too often what he has to say has been wilfully ignored and the uncomfortable truths he speaks, that turn accepted behaviours on their heads and are often in direct conflict with powerful forces whose interests go hand in hand with the status quo, are seen as indigestible to entrenched power.
But Mayer, a social scientist whose interests and expertise span a broad range of fields, has been right too many times for his views not to be heard and acted on as a matter of urgency.
For the past 50 years Mayer has called for public policy to take into account the environment . He has written more than 50 books on issues ranging from the environment and quality of life to climate change and transport – and has warned for years that unless we radically alter how we live, ecological catastrophe is irreversible and will lead to mass extinction.
Today he believes the damage we have wreaked on earth is so severe, and the problems so complex and intractable, that there is no longer “any light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “Instead, it is a case of how long we can make that tunnel last.”
Grim stuff – but tinted with the optimism of a man who can see through the fog of ideas and think clearly and critically. It has been the hallmark of his academic life, starting with architecture and urban planning, and then radically challenging the development of our relationship with car and cities. In the 1970s, when large out-of-town shopping centres were seen as the answer to modern life, Mayer warned the effect they would have on town centres, and their long-term social and environmental costs. “I do feel like a Doomsday prophet,” he smiles – and how he must be used to it.
Born in West Hampstead in 1931, he came from a family who could trace 40 generations of rabbis. His father David broke the lineage to become an artist.
Aged 22, Mayer designed a new townscape that would reclaim our streets from the scourge of the car, a radical stance in a period where car ownership was seen as essential.
Extinction Rebellion protesters brought Camden Town to a standstill in June
“It was assumed that there would be universal car ownership and this was a good thing to aim for,” he recalls. “My instinct was to look at the wider implications of this and how it would affect society. I felt it was fundamentally wrong. This line of thinking has inspired me all my life. All the research I have done through my life is based on that simple point of departure.”
While what he has been arguing for decades is beginning to become more mainstream – from encouraging bike use, looking at the way the car’s domination of our cities has directly affected the freedom of children – the car lobby still ignore facts.
“Why do we still talk about making space for pedestrians and cyclists? Why isn’t it giving them priority? I think it is utterly outrageous it isn’t the other way round,” he adds.
While his research in recent years has been about the causes and effects of global climate change, his early work on cars, people and cities acts as a template that shows his approach to problem solving.
In 1956, as a part of a post-graduate project, Mayer designed a “pedestrian-orientated” new town. He went on to write his PhD thesis in 1970 considering individual mobility and travel – and how different forms of transport have different social, environmental and economic costs and benefits.
It led him to warning that increasing car use was having a damaging effect on our cities – and on children in particular.
“Our children have less freedom today than ever before,” he says. “Children are not allowed to go out on their own. We constantly worry how we can get our children to school safely. More and more people made the decision to take them by car. They feel they have to or run the risk of them being run over, and the loss of children’s independence is phenomenal.
“Childhood is the period of your life where the whole of your character is moulded, so much more than in later life – and our children’s lives are stunted because of cars.”
He argues that fundamentally children’s lives – and it isn’t the mere walk to school – are dictated by the car: they cannot play out with friends; they cannot walk to others’ homes; they are perpetually told of the danger of cars – yet we allow them to dominate our world.
“Children are only at school for one in two days – the rest are holidays and weekends. They want to be with other children playing and learning – and they can’t do that. Their basic freedom is denied to them.”
His eyes are lit with fury at the way such basic truths are wilfully ignored by those with a selfish interest in keeping the status quo – the car driver who is blinkered into thinking their personal comfort is enhanced by driving, and the powerful car lobby who have economic interests to protect to the detriment of all.
“We have seen how the car lobby believe giving space to cyclists has negative impacts: arguments ranged from the fact cyclists do not pay road tax so why should they have a say, to it would only push cars elsewhere, not help with the fundamental shift needed to get us out of our cars forever.”
‘We have three choices: to die, survive or thrive’
From left: William Skeaping, Farhana Yamin and JA Rafaeli at the Owl Bookshop
THE urgent need to alter how we provide for our basic needs is so holistically linked to the fight for universal human rights that the two can never be seen in isolation, according to a leading environmental lawyer.
This Is Not A Drill: an Extinction Rebellion Handbook, which was discussed by three of its contributors at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town last month, is co-edited by environmental law expert Farhana Yamin and a range of other researchers, writers and campaigners. It is a collection that illustrates a wide approach to forging a political identity in a crowded field.
And the book is timely. Green politics can no longer be called a single issue, fringe topic and at the heart of the XR philosophy is the often previously unsaid truth that climate change is also a critique on the creation and distribution of resources. They argue this can no longer be ignored if we are to genuinely recalibrate societies to ensure the planet is habitable for future generations.
Farhana, who lives in Dartmouth Park, has worked for 30 years as an environmental lawyer helping shape new treaties, EU agreements and legislation all geared towards environmental protection.
She argues the “struggle for climate justice is also the struggle for racial, gender, sexual and economic equality,” adding “sadly, I know this emergency cannot be averted by governments signing weak compacts and voluntary agreements with the biggest polluters on earth.
“Not by tweaking carbon markets that have been gutted of climate ambition by fossil fuel lobbyists. We need to overhaul our political systems to limit access to government by big business.”
In her essay, Farhana argues the current parliamentary system, riddled with interests from powerful polluters and set in stone political philosophies who cannot look beyond accepted economic ideas of unsustainable growth, means we need to look beyond it.
For XR, it has started with grandstand political protests as a way of starting a conversation.
Farhana and the other essayists flesh out what the protests that make headlines are calling for: they are changes that “range from new citizens assemblies [which Camden Council have instigated locally] to laws that prevent ‘ecocide’. It means tackling fossil fuels subsidies – payments that are still being made by our government to polluters – and realise that without such actions, there is no hope for the future of the planet.”
She asks: “Are humans destined to become extinct as a species? Will we be slugging it out for what little remains by arming ourselves and building walls to keep out those less fortunate than ourselves? Can we really dismantle the toxic systems that have given rise to these gargantuan problems in the short window we have?
“At this point in human history we have three choices: to die, to survive or to thrive.”
The book argues that the breakdown of civil society contracts, shown by the rise of so-called populism, is a direct result of climate change. The environment has always had a profound effect on political stability as we fight for natural resources: for example, the French Revolution came after a number of years of poor harvests caused by changes in climate.
Today, the Syrian civil war, which has led laid bare the moral hollowness of Europe’s response to thousands of people seeking safe haven, comes off the back of a rapidly developing climate catastrophe. The same has prompted migration in south and central America, and the fascistic reaction from wealthy northern governments. XR argue it is a small taste of what is to come.
Other chapters show the range of thought that Extinction Rebellion is harnessing and how global problems need global solutions.
In a chapter titled Fighting The Wrong War, JA Rafaeli and Neil Woods discuss their research into how drug prohibition has effected the environment – an all too often overlooked aspect of the global trade in narcotics and how governments approach drug use. William Skeaping, an XR organiser, has written about recent XR actions and the tactics they used to get their ideas heard.
His chapter comes in the second part of the book, with contributions from Caroline Lucas, Susie Orbach, Clive Lewis and Rowan Williams among others. It offers practical advice and commentary on what XR are doing to help foster change.
“The good news is there are millions of people mobilising to stop humanity falling off a cliff,” adds Farhana and how XR is one of the ways this fresh urgency is manifesting itself. Whether you are a sceptic or a believer, their ideas and philosophies need thoroughly critiquing and evaluating before you cast judgement.
This book is an important introduction to doing so.
• This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, published by Penguin at £7.99