Striking Bus Drivers or Climate Warriors? Notes on Ireland’s Eco-Transport Struggles

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Could climate change become a catalysing force for radical social transformation in Ireland? Recent struggles around public transport in Ireland prompted me to think along these lines. Last weekend, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann workers went on strike over plans by the National Transport Authority to tender out 10% of public routes to private operators. A few days earlier, SIPTU’s banner at Liberty Hall had been unfurled to state: ‘Say No to Privatisation; privatisation results in fare increase, reduced services, a threat to free travel, a bad deal for taxpayers and job cuts’. SIPTU and NBRU members and strike organisers have emphasised the damage privatisation will do to society, primarily concentrating on the loss of community services and the race to the bottom in bus drivers’ terms and conditions [1]. The striking workers deserve our support and their claims should be taken seriously. This is definitely the case when the regime media adhere to a deeply unimaginative line, loudly declaiming traffic disruption to an imagined city of angry consumers and silently accepting the hollowing out of public services [2]. At the same time, however, we also need to think about what’s not being said, about the words that don’t make it on to the papers or the banner.
 

In this most recent clash between the defenders of public services and the agents of privatisation, an articulated concern for the planet’s capacity to sustain life is strangely missing. This is, perhaps, unsurprising. In Ireland, as elsewhere, the crisis of 2007 and ensuing recession have provided governments of both left- and right-wing hues with a pretext to accelerate fossil fuel extraction in pursuit of ‘growth’. Meanwhile, fighting austerity has swept discussions of climate change to the margins of electoral and movement-based politics. All the while, capitalism’s ‘grow or die’ imperative continues to take a toll on a finite planet. The same week as the Dublin bus strike, scientists observed record carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere. This 400ppm (parts per million) record is a milestone for global warming and comes nearly three decades after what is considered the ‘safe’ level of 350ppm was passed [3]. Public transport clearly plays a crucial role here: each full standard bus can take more than 50 cars off the road while a full train can take more than 600 cars off the road [4]. In these circumstances, failing to link public transport with environmental sustainability is not just strange oversight but suicidal blindness.

Part of not seeing the problem involves seeing phantom solutions. As Prole.info puts it, whenever the need for a real critique of the capitalist system is strongly felt, distorted, self-defeating, pseudo-critiques multiply [5]. The climate crisis will not be resolved in such a way as to sustain a life-supporting ecosystem by corporate philanthropy, by miraculous scientific fixes or by individuals greening their consumption habits or lifestyles. Similarly, the profit margins that might attract private capital into green production or sustainable transport are not there [6]. A good example of this occurred in March 2014 when air pollution in French cities reached dangerously high levels. Official in Paris decided to discourage car use by making public transit free for three days. Private transport operators would strenuously resist such measures, and yet these are precisely the kinds of actions that need to occur to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon. “Rather than allowing bus fares to rise while service erodes, we need to be lowering prices and expanding services – regardless of the costs’ [6].

While there may be debate and discussion about the best way to respond to climate change, there is absolutely no scenario in which we can avoid large-scale social transformation. Wartime mobilisations provide the closest historical precedent for reducing carbon emissions on the scale that climate scientists indicate is necessary. During World War Two, for example, as pleasure driving was virtually eliminated to conserve fuel, the use of public transport increased by 87 per cent in the US and by 95 per cent in Canada [6]. Today, it is no mystery where the vast work of ecological transition needs to take place. Much of it needs to happen in ambitious emission-reducing projects – smart grids, light rail and public transport systems, citywide composting systems, building retrofits, and urban redesigns to keep us from spending half our lives in traffic jams [6].

In Ireland, we have much work to do to arrive at even decent emission-reducing projects. In a recent Environmental Protection Agency report, 100% of respondents to a survey of local authorities felt that local public transport services were inadequate in their local areas; an estimated 380,000 people living in rural areas do not have access to the transport services they require [7]. While starving public transport of resources, boom-time governments encouraged private car ownership and usage. Between 2001 and 2009, instead of improving national and regional roads, the motorway system grew by 430% in Ireland. There are now 2.5 times more kilometers of motorway per person in Ireland than in Britain [8]. Meanwhile, the good people at Transport for Ireland encourage walking as the most environmentally friendly form of transport. (‘Walking can support local shops and businesses, as pedestrians have the freedom to ‘pop-in’ to pick up goods [9]). Like I said, we have a lot of work to do.

Climate change, however, provides us with compelling reasons not just for the defence of public transport services but for their radical re-imagination, reconstruction and expansion. The problem at the present historical conjuncture, in Ireland as elsewhere, is that we have ceded our capacity to shape our societies to capital, to an aggressive, for-profit logic that runs directly counter to the sustainability of the planet’s ecosystems and to humanity’s survival as a species [10]. Naomi Klein suggests that achieving a large-scale, green transition will necessitate combining direct actions against environmental destruction and mass mobilisations to pressure states into adopting green policies while supporting the popular creation and expansion of local, co-operative economies in food and energy [6]. In Ireland, similarly, we need to trace the green links from community opposition to extractive projects in Mayo, Leitrim and Fermanagh through struggles over inhabiting city centres to the development of comprehensive programmes that make low-carbon lives possible for everyone. These changes need to be fair, so that those people already struggling to make ends meet are not asked to make additional sacrifices to offset the consumption and carbon emissions of the rich [6]. Among other possibilities, this means cheap public transport for all.

So support today’s striking bus drivers: they could be tomorrow’s climate warriors. 

WORDS: Tom Murray

References

[1] See Scott Millar, ‘Save Our Bus Service’ in Liberty, April, 2015. Available at http://www.siptu.ie/media/media_19045_en.pdf

[2] Number of Irish newspaper Nexis results with words 'strikes' and 'chaos' in headline: 288. Number of Irish newspaper Nexis results with words 'privatisation' and 'public transport' in headline: 3. Via Richard McAleavey, Facebook, 1st May. See https://hiredknaves.wordpress.com/

[3] Adam Vaughan (6.05.2015) ‘Global carbon dioxide levels break 400ppm milestone’ in The Guardian. See http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/06/global-carbon-dioxide-levels-break-400ppm-milestone

[4] Department of Transport and Main Roads, Queensland, AU. ‘Benefits of Public Transport’. Available at http://translink.com.au/about-translink/what-we-do/benefits-of-public-transport

[5] Prole.info, 2012, The Housing Monster. PM Press. 

[6] Naomi Klein, 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate. London: Penguin.

[7] EPA, 2011, ‘Barriers to Sustainable: Transport in Ireland. Available at http://www.epa.ie/pubs/reports/research/climate/CCRP%20Report%20Series%20No.%207%20-%20Barriers%20to%20Sustainable%20Transport%20in%20Ireland.pdf

[8] Robert Emmet Hernan, 2011, Transport Policy in Ireland: Real and Imagined. Available at: http://www.irishenvironment.com/reports/transport-policy-in-ireland/

 [9] Transport for Ireland is the “single public transport brand” which the National Transport Authority has developed to promote and integrate public transport provision in Ireland. “Good for the Environment and the Economy”. See https://www.transportforireland.ie/wp_super_faq/good-for-the-environment-and-the-economy-2/

[10] Murray Bookchin, 2005, The Ecology of Freedom. AK Press.

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