By Peter Matthews
When I took my driving test in England in 1979, one of the compulsory manoeuvres was an emergency stop.
The gentleman charged with deciding whether to let me loose on the roads informed me, before we set off, that at some point he would slap the roll of papers he was holding in his left hand, onto the dashboard, like so. At that point I was to stop the car as quickly as possible, paying due regard to the driving conditions and, of course, any other traffic or pedestrians which may be nearby.
The effect of this forewarning was that I spent the next 10 minutes in a state of tense dread, keeping one eye on the road and the other on his left hand. At one point I began to slow down as we approached a pedestrian crossing to allow an old lady to cross the road. I must have applied the brake a little too strongly because the man with the roll of papers next to me reached out his hand towards the dashboard as if to steady himself. Noticing this movement I immediately jammed on the brakes, which had the effect of shifting him quite a long way forward in his seat, and startling the old lady on the crossing, not to mention the driver in the car behind me.
Skip forward a couple of years and I saw a sketch based on the very scenario I have just described on ‘Not The Nine O’clock News’, a comedy show which launched several careers including that of Rowan Atkinson. The sketch involved the late Mel Smith as the examiner, and I think Griff Rhys Jones was taking the test, except that the vehicle was not a car – it was a super tanker in mid ocean.
The joke, of course, was that when Mel struck the dashboard with his roll of papers Griff was supposed to perform an emergency stop, which in a vessel of that size takes about four miles.
The point to my story is that it is a fitting allegory to the environmental situation in which the world finds itself today; for the last 200 years or so the peoples of the developing world have enjoyed ever better lifestyles, comforts, and luxuries as countless factories have belched greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels have been extracted from the earth and burnt with no regard for the consequences. Rubbish has been discarded back into the environment almost indiscriminately, all as the human race has engaged in an unfettered scramble for economic progress.
Now the examiner has slapped his papers on the dashboard and it turns out that the supertanker we have created can’t be stopped just like that. It’s going to take some time. What remains to be seen is whether the manoeuvre can be executed within the time available.
Needless to say, I failed the driving test. Let’s hope the human race doesn’t.
Let’s hear about Waipa’s environmental heroes – Contact Peter Matthews at: firstname.lastname@example.org