"Wherever man appears with his tools, deformity follows his steps." William Gilpin - 1798 -
by Robert Nanninga
reetings, my fellow Americans. I'm back from my semester abroad in the mother country, and not a minute too soon. I refer to England as the mother country because my stay made it quite clear to me how much American attitudes have been shaped, and continue to be influenced, by our association with the world's most powerful island nation. The cultural exchange is far from one-sided. From Britain, we received language, our puritanical bent and a fundamental distrust of authority.
America is currently returning the favor by exporting our culture of consumption. "Baywatch" is a major hit, as is US-style development, Americanesque politics and automobile addiction. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
The reasons I decided to study abroad were twofold: I was experiencing activist burnout, and the spring courses offered at California State University San Marcos were not supportive of my major area of study. With the help of an International Programs councillor, I was able to tap into a great opportunity to study in Bath, England. Joining my fellow students in San Francisco, we boarded the plane and began what was to become, for me at least, a very educational experience, and I'm not just talking class work.
England is a culture of dualities that goes back hundreds of years. For example, the British are well-known pet lovers. Yet the fact that cats surpassed dogs as the nation's favorite pet did nothing to reduce the amount of abuse inflicted on companion animals cats, in particular.
Another example of British duality is demonstrated by declining bird populations in the country that gave the world the Audubon Society. The last week I was there, 36 bird Species had been "red listed," including the bullfinch, the hen harrier, and the reed bunting.
Hunters, claiming to be naturalists, hunt stag and fox with packs of dogs bred solely for the hunt. And then there is the sport of "hare coursing," in which people gamble on which greyhound will reach the hare first. Both dogs then proceed to rip the animal to shreds.
Again this is from the society who gave the world the concept of animal rights in 1809 when Lord Erskine introduced a bill against cruelty to animals. The Members of Parliament believed that animal abuse would lead to cruelty towards humans. At the time it was considered a radical notion, but by 1824 the Royal Society For The Protection Of Cruelty To Animals had been established. If only they could have stopped the beef industry from mixing the parts of dead cows into the feed being given to the ones still on the hoof. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, beef farmers were turning cows into cannibals. Mad cow disease is the result of Stupid Human Syndrome (SHS).
British vegans are the polar opposite of their countrymen who regard a square meal as something that contains the four basic food groups: pork, beef, poultry and potatoes. Another British import that has become very American is our addiction to sugar and caffeine. In return, we have perfected the art of junk food and shipped it back with relish. This culinary nightmare has culminated in the introduction of Wacky Foods, a brand name that features Pizza flavored corn and chocolate flavored carrots. Coke and Pepsi are the beverages of choice behind coffee and tea. When ordering water in a restaurant, you have to specify "still water," if you are to avoid carbonation. Obesity is also on the increase, with critics blaming American style dietary trends on the ballooning of Britain.
I have to admit England has come along way in improving air quality. Coal use had created a health crisis in London as early as 1578, the industrial revolution only adding to this problem. Although coal is still being used, it has been surpassed by auto emissions as the number one cause of pollution. England does not require catalatic converters on vehicles.
The city of Bath must constantly clean a black coating off its buildings. Exhaust from tourist buses is so bad that these double-decker monstrosities have been banned from one of the city's major attractions and an example of Georgian splendor, The Royal Crescent.
Instead of reducing their dependence on the private auto, the government is currently involved in an unprecedented road building spree. Road protesters have turned demonstrating into a full time occupation, with people young and old taking to the trees and tunneling underground to delay the inevitable. The people are saying: "less cars, less habitat destruction, and less pollution," yet the official policy is decidedly pro-automobile.
While I was in England, I watched as rail transportation was privatized, including the London Underground. Regional train stations were closed due to a low profit margin, and the stations that remain in service have had their schedules reduced. This is the kind of policy that forces people into the metal box.
American style development has come to England in a big way. What we in America call strip malls, the British refer to as "green field developments." And just like here in the States, mega-chains are ringing the death knoll for small businesses all over the country, not to mention the damage to breeding habitats for kingfishers and hedgehogs. Urban sprawl is beginning to swallow the countryside, replacing the agriculture that replaced wild Britain. Sound familiar?
Now, before you say "poor Bob" you were going to say that, weren't you? let me say that I was in my element. I had plenty to complain about and, odd as this may sound, I began to feel a bit patriotic. My studies covered everything from British History, Nature and Society, Media Ethics and Argumentation to a misplaced American Law class.
The only thing I could not adapt to was the amount that people smoke and the amount of dog feces that foul the sidewalks. The smokers were, for the most part, impossible to avoid; the doggy mines were easier to negotiate. My British host, would constantly tell me to look up, as it was the only way to truly grasp the beauty of England's historical buildings. My response was I would rather grasp the beauty of clean shoes. And besides, after a while the glamour of buildings being eaten away by toxic air starts to wear a little thin.
Robert Nanninga is also a Green political activist and video producer