JONI Mitchell spotted the problem a lifetime ago.
It’s more than half a century since she wrote Big Yellow Taxi, though the youthful Joni could hardly have realised her words would turn into quite such a timeless environmental anthem.
Inspired by the juxtaposition of her hotel parking lot against the backdrop of the Hawaiian mountains, she wrote:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
It was 1969 and she was just 26 when she penned her “little rock and roll song”, which originally appearing on her Ladies of the Canyon album and was released as a single in April 1970.
It was her first trip to Hawaii and she later recalled how she took a taxi to her hotel late at night without getting to see much of the island.
“When I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart,” she said.
Initially a regional hit in Hawaii, it took time for the impact of the music to gain a true international audience.
“It took 20 years for that song to sink in to people most other places,” she later recalled. “That is a powerful little song because there have been cases in a couple of cities of parking lots being torn up and turned into parks because of it.”
Hey farmer farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Flash forward to Britain in 2023 and that concrete jungle has become not just an everyday reality but is posing an existential crisis for our wildlife.
Somehow we’ve become blind to the issue and the insidious way in which the motor car has come to completely dominate our lives.
For a few brief months in the heart of lockdown we were exposed to an alternative reality, where families went out for walks together and we suddenly started to hear the birds and insects above the steady drone of traffic.
But as Paul Donald examines in his new book, Traffication, it seems we have very quickly forgotten any lessons we might have learned during the pandemic.
And as Mark Avery suggests in his review, Donald’s book could be very timely and significant for all those interested in wildlife conservation.
It’s not just that the trillions of miles of driving we do each year are destroying our natural environment, but that we have become almost oblivious to the scale of the threat.
Our streets and driveways are overflowing with cars. Whereas car ownership was once a dream for poorer families, it’s become a prerequisite of 21st-century life, as much as smartphones and Netflix.
And whereas we once ridiculed Americans for their reliance on gas-guzzling limousines, their endless highway traffic jams and sprawling out-of-town shopping malls, we have hardly noticed how our small island has been transformed in the past 20 years.
More than a decade ago, a report showed millions of the UK’s front gardens had been paved over to become parking spaces, a trend that has continued ever since, with fewer and fewer front gardens boasting any refuge for wildlife.
Such lifeless hardstandings are often actively encouraged by estate agents, boasting that a driveway could add to the value of the property, yet this doesn’t just deprive birds and insects of vital food but increases floodwater run-off, making drains more likely to overflow.
Over the past half-century our lives have changed in many subtle ways. But during that time, car ownership figures have exploded. In 1950 there were just four million vehicles on the road. Today it’s more like 33 million, and they are clustered everywhere: on verges and roadside, car parks and front drives.
The proliferation is every bit as damaging to nature as habitat loss or intensive farming, and not simply in terms of roadkill: a busy road can strip the wildlife from our countryside for miles around and the impact of traffic all-pervasive, affecting every aspect of animals’ lives.
Couple all this with the growing popularity of artificial grass and the fact that our roads are lined with litter and pockmarked by flytipping, and it genuinely feels as if the natural world is increasingly under siege in our urban landscapes.
It’s also not a problem that’s just as bad everywhere else in Europe. Take Amsterdam, for example, where cycles, trams and boats outnumber cars – and where the air quality is much cleaner as a result.
Back in Britain, it feels as if we’re running out of time to protect what’s left of our countryside.
As the wonderful Joni wrote all those years ago:
They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them
No, no, no
We’re not quite there yet, but we desperately need to reverse the trend. We have lost billions of birds, insects and mammals in recent decades, and wildlife needs all our help to survive and flourish in the coming years.
Large-scale rewilding partnerships are wonderful, but millions of ordinary householders could be doing their own bit to stop the rot…before it really IS too late.