It makes me sick

Two hundred protesters stage a die-in during Wednesday's rush hour to speak out against air pollutio

London hums with activity. It is always doing more, never stopping to draw breath.

Or so I thought until last night. At 6.30pm, two hundred protesters lay down in the middle of the thronging Euston Road during rush hour and brought traffic to a halt. The aim was clear: to make a poignant statement about the inadequate measures currently in place to address air pollution in the Big Smoke.

Chalk marks line the protesters. 

"Boris's policies are failing us. It's a no-brainer - Boris needs to get the most polluting vehicles out of the most polluted places", said Alice Haworth-Booth, spokesperson for Climate Rush.

The die-in itself was a moment of clarity in the midst of six-lane chaos. Having met in Soho Square - where large numbers of police had also gathered, intrusively filming and photographing everyone present - the crowd set off through the streets of Central London, many wearing the red sash that has become a tell-tale style of a Climate Rush action.

Bike bloc sets off through the streets of London. 

On reaching our destination, we forged forward, onto the road, 'dying' for fresh air, and for several minutes we owned that patch of tarmac; no cars, lorries, motorbikes or buses could stop us. The police were not happy, one in particular taking it upon himself to pick up people's bikes and lug them off sans-owner, tussling with people if they tried to hang onto their trusty steeds. His colleagues followed suit but the protesters were unperturbed, not willing to let themselves be distracted by those paid to keep the streets clear of political protest.

A FIT poilceman makes his presence felt. 

As we lay on the road - an incredibly odd experience at the best of times - nurses drew chalk silhouettes around us, marks aptly doused in car exhaust fumes minutes later, marks that sustained our message even once we had gone. And that message is a clear one: "atmospheric pollution is an invisible and unacceptable health hazard that few in power are taking seriously", said Mark Blake, cycling off into the traffic on his way home.

Air pollution in London is a two-fold problem. On the one hand, it poses significant problems to human health. On the other, it is leaving us vulnerable to extensive EU fines for failing to comply with legal limits. Where public health is concerned, NHS reforms have been under the spotlight recently as austerity measures have spread their suffocating tentacles into the far-reaching corners of some of the most fundamental of services. What has been apparent throughout is the misguided political will, which favours corporate profits and privatisation over quality and equality of services. The minority at the top - the Sir Philip Green's of this world - benefit from significant tax avoidance while the rest of us need to accept the closure or restructuring of local health services that play a critical role in our communities.

Where the economic aspects of air pollution are concerned, the UK is currently paying out approximately £2bn annually to address air pollution, with much greater fines in the pipeline if we do not start to address the issue head on. This is not what we need at a time when financial instability reigns. Mayor of London Boris Johnson's scrapping of the Western Extension Zone is a perfect example of the way in which people-pleasing - particularly of those who live in the wealthier Conservative constituencies - has taken precedent over the overall social and economic health of London's population.

Placards kept protesters on message. 

Nearly 5% of all annual UK deaths are attributed to poor air quality yet what is being done about it? Green Party candidate for London's Mayoral elections Jenny Jones was there last night making it clear that there are things that can and should be done immediately to improve London's air quality, including establishing very low emission zones and pushing ahead with Stage Three of the Low Emission Zone. Demonstrations such as the die-in push the issue into the public arena, as Haworth-Booth made clear:

"With the support the Roadblock got from the public, the media and from mayoral candidates Jenny Jones and Ken Livingstone - who sent us a message of support via Twitter - a spotlight has been shone on the public health emergency caused by poor air quality in London. We're incredibly impressed by the number of people who showed up and we will continue to put pressure on Boris until meaningful progress starts to be made."

So, are our politicians and Mayor going to do the right thing? Unless air quality improves, you might just have to hold your breath.

Protesters wearing suitable garb. 

Tess Riley is a freelance journalist and social justice campaigner. She also works, part time, for Streetbank, and can be found on Twitter at @tess_riley

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.