Going global against 4WD

Last week was a milestone in the battle against gas guzzlers - the first ever international conference of anti-4×4 campaigners.

Since the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s started two years ago, groups have been springing up in cities across Europe as the deadly 4WD trend has spread. We have been sharing ideas and artwork by email for a while and on Wednesday arranged a meeting, labelled it grandly ‘a summit’, and caught the early train to Brussels.

There are differences between our campaigns, mainly due to our different cultures (while parking tickets are an issue in most countries, only in the UK do teachers in caps and gowns strike a chord). However, we are all facing the same challenge of the motor industry selling more and more 4×4s to freedom-craving mums and dads as urban family cars.

First to present their ‘story so far’ were the hosts of the summit, Joeri and Jeroen from 4×4Info in Belgium. They are lucky to have the European Commission on their doorstep so can target the people responsible for setting (and we hope enforcing) Europe-wide targets for vehicle emissions.

Joeri recently infiltrated a popular Belgian news show to embarrass Commission President José Manuel Barroso on live television, showing a photo of his gas-guzzling 4×4: the massive VW Touareg (an anagram of ‘outrage’ as a helpful supporter pointed out the other day). The group has also invaded the local motor show and, for car-free day last month, created ‘the day of the living crash test dummies’ to highlight the dangers of 4×4s. They have kindly lent us their excellent costumes and we are now wondering if we should chuck ourselves in front of Chris Martin’s X5 or Jamie Oliver’s Range Rover.

Next up was the Swiss Stopoffroader group, represented by a pair of energetic Young Greens called Matthias and Marc. The main tools of their campaign have been stickers for the rear windscreens of 4×4s with surprisingly humorous slogans including, ‘Ich bin auch ein Panzer,’ ‘Gib Kindern keine Chance’ and ‘Ich saufe fur drei’ (‘I drink for three’ – the others are pretty obvious, even in German).

Thanks to a court decision clearing them of breaking the law, they are getting away with this tactic, which is something for us to think about as we have always steered clear of producing stickers for the UK.

Matthias and Marc also have the advantage of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy. Collecting 100,000 signatures will earn them a national vote on a Volksdirectiv, a ‘people’s law’ keeping cars that exceed emissions and weight limits out of cities. I expect they will succeed - their zeal has already gathered nearly 60,000 signatures in just a few months.

The Finnish 4×4 campaigner Lauri Myllyvirta was unable come to Belgium after being hit by the door of a 4×4 while cycling (the irony was not lost on us all). Instead he sent his apologies and a powerpoint presentation showing how his JunttiAuto campaign has made an impact in Finland even receiving legal threats from Toyota for their adbusting efforts. The campaign has also added a new word to the Finnish language. ‘Juntti’ means a backwards or ignorant man and combined with ‘auto’ sums up the 4×4 craze perfectly.

Sarah Connolly from the American organisation, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) was on an intercontinental mission to tell us about the progress of their Jumpstart Ford campaign, which has been targeting Ford’s SUVs for several years as part of a call for zero-emission cars. They have done a huge amount to expose the madness of a situation where the top-selling Ford SUV has lower fuel efficiency than the original Model T.

Helped by rising fuel prices, the campaign has been so successful it is temporarily on hold, with US car-makers (who rely almost wholly on SUVs for their profits) in turmoil after sales fell through the floor this year. RAN’s ‘Adopt a Dealer’ programme - taken up by groups ranging from students to nuns - has morphed into ‘Console a Dealer’ as car salesmen across America wait for the conclusion of merger talks. As well as passing on their wisdom to groups in Europe, RAN is now trying to work out a nice way to say, “We told you so. Now make us the clean cars we deserve!”

Charmingly calling 4×4s ‘les quatre-quatres’, French representative Stéphen Kerckhove, from green think-tank Agir pour l’Environment, told us how they set up anti4×4.net last year. He said that French citizens tend to expect government to deal with social problems like 4×4s and showed us their sticker and postcard campaign demanding eco-taxes for gas-guzzlers and calling on the mayors of large cities to bring in exclusion zones.

French manufacturers have been notable in steering clear of 4×4s so far, but news that Renault will be launching an SUV in 2008 has made them the target of action this week by Stéphen’s group. This event will also mark the launch of our new website: 4×4network.org, which includes the joint mission statement agreed on Wednesday and links to our campaign websites.

After a lot of discussion, we resolved at the end of the meeting to link up and work for common aims in future. After all, with a globalised motor industry insisting that controls on car emissions should only be introduced on an international scale, it’s about time we globalised our efforts too.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism