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Romans Go Home!

Not many people in our affluent, comfortable nation are prepared to risk their comfort or their liberty for the sake of ideas. If philosophers are to be involved in society and it’s problems, they should find out about the views of such individuals. In this spirit, two intrepid souls from Philosophy Now went down to the site of the planned M11 motorway extension in Leytonstone, east London, to ask some antiroad protestors about their values and their views on society.

Fillebrook Road: a terrace of derelict Victorian villas in the path of the motorway has been occupied by anti-road activists, who are fortifying them against the expected arrival of the demolition teams. Some are preparing to chain themselves to the walls or cement themselves into the cellars to prevent the buildings from being pulled down.

PN: Why are you against the M11 extension?

Phil: Specifically I’m opposed to the M11 extension because it’s going to totally destroy a community along a 3.5 mile stretch of straight line in East London. 350 homes are being destroyed; that’s the human social implication; there are also quite rare areas of natural land which are going to be destroyed for ever. So the children in the area are going to be deprived of what I consider and many people consider to be a very important part of their lives, which is seeing life.

PN: Yes I see. So are you opposed to all motorway schemes or are some OK by you?

Phil: New motorways and new roads full stop are unnecessary and are in contravention of the government’s own White Papers on sustainable development. They increase air pollution, in respect of which the government have said that by the year 2005 they want to stabilise carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels. The road programme at present is costing £23 billion and is going to increase the road capacity by 20%. The Department of Transport’s own figures for the traffic increase in the same period is between 83% and 142%. A bit of simple maths shows that 120% of the cars that are on the road today are going to have nowhere to go and the pollution implications are just ridiculous. Cars are the biggest cause of air pollution in the country.

PN: So what’s the answer? No more cars?

Phil: Instead of investing in £23 billion in roads as they are doing, they should be investing that into public transport and regenerating the rail infrastructure and the canal infrastructure that is already very, very strong or would be if it wasn’t treated as a second best. You’ve just got to look at the way the government refer to money going into these different areas. When they’re talking about roads they call it an investment and when they’re talking about public transport they call it a subsidy. Just the two words say it all, because ‘subsidy’ is like something for nothing, whereas ‘investment’ is a very positive word.

PN: What about individual freedom? The car gives you such independence as an individual.

Phil: It’s freedom to breath or freedom to drive. It’s got to a stage where it’s that critical. I’m not a doom and gloom merchant, I’m a very positive person about life, and I’m doing what I feel I should be doing. But you don’t need to be a scientist to see the dead trees at the side of the motorways. You don’t need to be an expert to see the pall of thick smoke over the Thames Valley. It’s got to be challenged and individual people have got to take into account that it’s their cars that are causing the problem.

PN: You’ve been involved in other road protests in the past. What sort of values do you have that your commitment springs from? What matters to you?

Phil: My connection with our environment. Most people seem to think the environment is just the human environment but I take a sort of biocentric angle. I feel that we are all part of a very big system and at the moment we humans are a bit like an out of tune violin playing above a large orchestra and causing that whole beautiful or possibly beautiful sound to be totally out of balance.

PN: You mentioned Gandhi when we were walking down the pavement outside. Is he one of your role models?

Phil: They’re not role models. I’m speaking for myself but I know there are a lot of people that share this belief, that we must work non-violently, because if you use violence you alienate people. We must bring about non-violent social change including environmental change, encouraging respect for the environment, respect for people, respect for all forms of life. The effect that we’ve had so far using nonviolent protest has been quite amazing.

PN: Do you think you’ve actually got a chance of stopping this particular motorway? If not, what’s the purpose of the protest?

Phil: Well, we’ve always got a chance of stopping anything. There’s obviously a very powerful roads federation and roads lobby who are going to push and push and push for it; car manufacturers, oil companies, roadbuilding construction companies, who are all giving money to the Conservative Party, but it’s a three and a half year long project, this road, and a lot of things can change in three and a half years. Whatever the outcome of this particular protest, the number of people it will have directly or indirectly affected by them getting involved here even if for just one or two days or reading about what we’ve been doing in the newspapers… they will realise that they can make an effect, if they’re dedicated to it. Margaret Meade said “never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” That’s exactly what we’re doing here.

* * *

PN: You said earlier that you were in favour of a more decentralised society.

Sheila: Yes. I think we should organise society so people live closer to where they work. That’s a long term plan, but an awful lot of what you see on the roads is people going back and forward to work, maybe driving 15 miles to work, or maybe commuting over long distances. Which really isn’t necessary. When you’ve got a big city, of course, people will come in from the suburbs, but there you should have good public transport; you shouldn’t need to bring your cars into town.

PN: Isn’t there a contradiction between wanting a decentralised society and at the same time trying to discourage the use of the motor car? I would have thought that one thing about the motor car is that it allows you to be independent and free of the system so that you can go away and work from a cottage in the Scottish Highlands or whatever.

Sheila: Well, that’s a sort of computerised world you’re thinking of and that wasn’t really what I had in mind. I was thinking more in terms of using local produce, for instance. What’s the point in getting things from halfway across the globe, completely mad things like eggs from Holland? There are plenty of chickens in this country. Countries and areas and regions should be much more self-sufficient.

* * *

Nearby, on a small wooded site also in the motorway’s path, a group of protestors are living in the open in tents or ‘benders’ made of tarpaulin and canvas.

PN: Why are you opposed to the M11 extension?

Helen: Because it’s going to cut down trees that we need to produce air to breathe, and replace it with pollution. Cars produce pollution, which we can’t breathe, which causes asthma. We can’t afford to lose any more air.

PN: So it’s the trees that really matter to you, that’s why you’re out here rather than down the road in the squats?

Helen: Yeah. I don’t personally like living in a house and wouldn’t put my life or my freedom on the line for a house. For a tree I would. They’ve got rights. They’ve been here longer than we have. It’s not up to us to decide what comes and what goes.

PN: I really like trees, but I’ve never thought about whether they have rights. I don’t know how you’d go about looking at that.

Paul: I think they have rights as much as anything has rights.

Helen: They think, they feel, they…

PN: You say they are conscious, but presumably you mean at a very low level? Or in a very slow…

Helen: I’d say at a much higher level than us. Because they live a lot longer, they see things differently. And especially yew trees; they live to an incredible age.

PN: What was the tree that was cut down here recently that there was all the fuss about?

Helen: A chestnut tree. She was beautiful. She was a tree that was producing pounds and pounds and pounds of sweet chestnuts every year. Loads of people were going there to pick chestnuts and taking them home to eat. All the locals. The only real connection with nature for a lot of them was this chestnut tree, where they could go and pick stuff off the ground and eat it, you know? They saw the importance of it.

PN: What sort of society do you want to live in?

Paul: I don’t want to live in a society. I just want to be a free individual, in a community.

PN: So you’ve nothing against communities… ?

Paul: No, communities are brilliant.

PN: What’s the difference between a community and a society?

Paul: I think a society has more of a structure. Society to me seems to denote some kind of order. Community doesn’t have that. It has order but it isn’t laid down formally or anything. I mean the word ‘community’ links to ‘communication’ and ‘communion’. It’s a lot more closely knit than this business of “oh well we’re all in this together we might as well try to get along.”

PN: What matters to you? What do regard as the most important thing in your life?

Paul:Well, there’s quite a few things. A lot of things matter to me. Children matter to me a lot…. [pauses] You know, the environment is incredibly important to me, because it embraces every other issue that there ever has been. It’s not just about destruction of humans or of human rights. It’s about the destruction of life on this entire planet, and the existence of this planet. It should be obvious now after two hundred years of industrialisation that it is that sort of thinking which is destroying this planet. Because that’s the only time period it’s happened in. Other than when the Romans came over and built their roads and stuff. Mass destruction of the surface of the earth, and the atmosphere, has only really taken place in the past few hundred years.

Helen: There’s a good book, called The Ultimate Heresy by John Seymour. It really makes sense of how in history man first started to separate himself from nature. And I say Man predominantly definitely for a reason. That was when the problem started, y’know? We started to think that we were dominant over this world and by dominating it we are destroying it. It’s a very patriarchal thing. If we were living in the way that the pagans did, worshipping the earth and worshipping the act of creation, then we wouldn’t be having all this destruction, because if you worship the earth then you can’t destroy it. Ideally we don’t want to be putting any of this shit back into the world. We should put only goodness back into it, and take only goodness out of it. Put shit back into it and you’re only going to get shit out of it. It’s quite a simple sort of idea.

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