Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Terrapause – Could every day be a Sunday?
















Never mind the colourful language, just do it!








It was Thursday when I started writing this, but because we are in lockdown to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, it felt like a Sunday.  The streets were quiet, the noisy renovators had shut down, the sky was clear and you could hear the birds sing. It was certainly a lot more pleasant and got me thinking, economics aside, what good things could we glean from this experience. Certainly our emissions will be down, without having to resort to accounting tricks. Another big bonus is the extra couple of hours people will gain by not having to commute every day. Oldest son has been pondering whether future geologists will find a clean layer in ice cores from the Coronavirus Period like the carbon layer from the K-T Cretaceous Extinction Event.  It also shows how quickly society can adapt when it is a matter of life and death.

In the meantime, people are discovering both the joys and the limitations of working from home and being able to adjust their schedules more to their circumstances. Even having remote collaboration and social contact with co -workers and friends is possible with arrangements like Zoom, though our  66th ranked internet is feeling  the strain. Largely free of the tyranny of the time clock, people may well find that their productivity increases. Early experiments by Google and others with sleep pods, recreational facilities and the like, have shown promise along with ‘hot desking’ - meaning many workers use the same space at different times, suggesting the need for less office space, savings on cleaners, heating and other amenities usually supplied by workplaces.

Of course not all jobs lend themselves to more relaxed hours especially those with a customer service component or requiring a physical presence, but staggered hours would take the heat off peak hour traffic, reducing congestion and the need for ever more roads. Not having to attend the office or schools in person most of the time would do so as well. 

As far as schools go, the present situation will give online learning an enormous boost. For many children this will be a boon – the too smart ones and the slower ones, both of whom could now work at their own pace, and for most students basic skills such as maths and grammar and general practice could be acquired in a systematic and orderly fashion, [see for example Khan Academy re Maths], though teachers would still be needed for more subjective tasks such as analysing arguments in an essay. However, freed from routine teaching, marking and supervision or simply maintaining order in open classrooms, teachers could concentrate on other important tasks such as helping where students are having difficulty.  

Schools themselves would also still have important roles including providing a place for those children who lack support or facilities at home or whose parents have to work. [It's hard to focus on studies at home if your parents are fighting or listening to the footy, or your siblings are throwing spitballs].  Schools are also an important locus for the socialisation of children, where they learn to get along with others, make friends, hear a variety of opinions, learn to work collaboratively and in teams, and we wouldn’t want to miss the occasional sports carnival, concert or mass assembly, but do we really need to have fleets of SUVs all trying to park simultaneously, or roads chock- a -block at ‘school hour?’ I don’t think so. 

The Finnish model offers a way forward. Children attend approximately half the day and have no homework. The rest of the time they are encouraged to pursue interests, hobbies and sport and to discover things for themselves, particularly the things they would like to do. While China now outranks Finland in terms of educational outcomes, I believe the Finish model which lead the pack  for many years, still produces more well –rounded adults as well “achieving equality and excellence.” Perhaps the lower achievement rate reflects the cutting of  €1.5 Billion from the Finnish education budget between 2011 – 2018, but I’m not going to explore that further just now. 




Other ways we could reduce the need for transportation (aside from using electric cars to reduce noise and emissions) are having fast, reliable and preferably free public transportation.  Over a hundred cities have successfully implemented same, though we don’t hear much about them. When Aubagne in France adopted free public transport, usage increased by 135.8%. In Tallinn in Estonia, it increased 14% and was mainly among young people, the unemployed, the elderly, stay at home parents and others on low incomes, for whom public transport represented a much larger share of their earnings. [Most of this information comes from various articles in Curbed].

The problem in my state is, that roadworks come out of the state and federal budgets, but mass transit falls to the lot of usually cash strapped local councils. We should scrap this anomaly and see public transport as a public good for all – less pollution, less noise etc. as well as equalising opportunity for those stuck in outer suburbs. Despite similar jurisdictional squabbles, American mayors are starting to take the lead. Private transport is the major source of US emissions.

Getting people to use public transport is another matter.  Here inclement weather combined with infrequent service does not encourage usage and it doesn’t help that there are very few bus shelters and not even a seat in most places.  I think our state could do much better here.
While ride -sharing seems like an obvious choice to reduce congestion and traffic, this has not proved to be the case in New York City, according to Tatiana Schlossberg [“inconspicuous consumption,” (2019:226)] where 60% of trips would not have been taken, had other means – subway, bicycle etc. had to have been used. Furthermore, most Uber type services require not only a solo trip by the driver to the pick -up point, but the driver then usually has to drive back empty after dropping his passenger off, so in terms of emissions in the case of non -electric or use of non -renewable energy,  and congestion, there have been a slight increases, not a reductions.


In the long term, non -polluting workplaces should be located much closer to our homes or vice versa, to obviate the need to travel altogether and schools too. I have been banging on about this for years, ever since I saw the city of Våsterås in Sweden in the 1970s.  Built around a power station complex (a nuclear one, alas, but ignoring that for a moment) it had modern workers’ flats within walking distance of work and these were equipped with shops, a gym and a sauna. Round about were playing fields, parklands, bicycle and walking tracks and best of all, a wild space where nature reigned. Seven to ten Km away many workers had weekend shacks. The one I visited had no power and was situated in a natural setting on a lake where we enjoyed saunas and barbecues. A perfect getaway - accessible by car, bike or on foot, without too much time being lost in traffic and transit.

I was also impressed with Copenhagen’s bicycle access, but given both our weather and the hilliness of our city, I don’t think we are quite ready for this either, particularly if we don’t achieve greater separation for vehicular traffic. I was absolutely terrified while trying to cycle the narrow winding arterial road to university, where neither you nor oncoming cars could see what lay around the corner.  If there is infrastructure building to be done, as well as bike tracks I would include one decent ring road, so log trucks and north –south traffic that has no intention of shopping or stopping for a coffee doesn’t need to drive through the centre of the city, which would make it safer and more pleasant all around.

As for the countryside, what a pity we have let so much of our railway infrastructure die. It’s a great way to keep cars off the road, provided again that trains are frequent and cheap, and provided they run on renewable energy, which Tasmania could easily have done. The whole idea of user pays for sparsely settled places like Tasmania is wrong. It is what we gain for our money, especially now that we are concerned about our carbon footprint. What would it cost to add one passenger carriage to the freight trains which we still have? Think of the beautiful scenery as you travel under the Western Tiers or on the way to Mount Field. Both would bring new life and employment to rural towns. Take the cost from the unemployment budget. At the very least make the passenger train that still runs between Queenstown and Strahan (also amazing scenery) a lot cheaper. After all it doesn’t cost more to run a train for many as it does for one. Or better still make it free for Tasmanians as some popular tourist destinations as Mona have done. That way we could tell family and friends about it and possibly take them along. Visitation by family and friends is still the largest tourism component in Tasmania, so please think about it Heritage Railways. Tasmanians would love to come, but most can’t afford the $150 or so after travelling across the state, especially with our inflated petrol prices.


If it’s one thing the Terrapause could do, is allow us to stop and think about what we really need and how we could do things better. I would set that as a challenge for everyone who is grounded over the next few weeks and months and how we could still have a thriving tourist industry without having to add to our emissions.
 Amen and keep safe!

By the way, it's Earth Hour Tonight 8.30 - 9.30 pm (Saturday if you live elsewhere), so turn your lights off to show support.

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