If I ruled the world: Chris Mullin

Away with the motor car, plastic; and factory farming
July 19, 2012

If I ruled the world, my first act would be to phase out the private motor car. I regard the motor vehicle (and yes, I have one) as a disastrous invention. It has laid waste to our cities, polluted our environment and kills the best part of half a million people a year worldwide.

My aim would be a return to that brief golden age when the bicycle was king, when every little town and many villages were connected to the railway network and when our inner cities were habitable.

It is not an impossible dream. I knew Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, before the coming of market forces. Until 20 years ago it was a city of a million bicycles. Even ambassadors travelled by bike. The only vehicles were a few rattling trams (long since abolished), a handful of military vehicles and a few aged black Volgas for members of the Politburo. There were no traffic lights. The bicycles drifted in great, lazy rivers. At junctions they intermingled, emerging miraculously unscathed.

Today, in the grip of a bout of market forces that not even Mrs Thatcher would recognise, Hanoi is a city of Honda motorcycles, wave after noisy, polluting wave. They flow in all directions, along pavements, across forecourts, even into oncoming traffic. Very soon one in ten of these Hondas will turn into a motor car and when that happens, nothing will move. At which point the Vietnamese authorities will make their next mistake: they will start demolishing large swathes of their historic city to build super-highways and in due course nothing will move on those either.

The Chinese, who never do anything by halves, are now the world’s biggest market for the motor car. Think about it: a country of 1.3 billion people in which every family aspires to car ownership. Already the Chinese are killing a staggering 90,000 people a year on their roads and in 2010 they chalked up a new first: a traffic jam that took ten days to negotiate.

So that would be the first wave of my magic wand: the abolition of the private motor vehicle.

My next would be to uninvent plastic. It was invented in 1909 and, with the exception of small quantities that have been consumed by fire, just about every piece of plastic ever produced still exists in some form or other somewhere on the planet. Vast quantities of it are washing around the oceans, reduced by the sun to tiny particles which are killing much of the ocean life.

In the UK, rather late in the day, we have begun recycling plastic, but that is an inefficient, energy-intensive process which, in any case, fails to capture more than a small percentage of the huge quantities of the plastic we use in our daily lives. Much of the rest ends up in landfill.

Any attempt to deal with plastic will require us to take on the supermarkets. These days virtually everything (even bananas) purchased in a supermarket comes swathed in plastic. Despite slogans, the occasional token gesture and pious statements, most supermarket chains have resolutely refused to change their ways and no amount of exhortation by government or anyone else has made the blindest bit of difference. What is required is not a magic wand, but political will. I favour penal taxation of the unnecessary use of plastic by the supermarkets or anyone else.

The third wave of my wand would be to abolish factory farming. I more or less stopped eating meat 20 years ago because I simply could not justify the mistreatment that factory farmers inflict upon their animals. Of course, this too is more complicated that it seems. Merely to abolish the crudest abuses in one country or even across the entire EU solves nothing, if the supermarkets are allowed to carry on importing cheap meat from countries that mistreat their farm animals. The only viable way is to ban the import of meat from countries that do not enforce decent standards. On second thoughts, since we are in the realm of fantasy, I would just wave my wand and turn us all into vegetarians and dismantle the entire grisly apparatus of the meat industry. If we didn’t have to feed millions of livestock, there would be far more for human beings to eat.

That, I think, is enough to keep me occupied during the first week of my reign. In week two, I would dynamite all the junk architecture of the 1960s and 70s—preferably with those who designed and authorised it inside.