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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 23rd April 2010
Volcanic ash and a theory about the earth both have lessons for Ripon, argues David WInpenny

The coincidence of a television programme about James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Theory, and the cloud of volcanic ash that has been disrupting travel over the last week or so gives pause for thought.

Lovelock, an independent scientist now in his 90s, was long regarded as maverick – and for many scientists his ideas are still eccentric. He formulated the Gaia Theory 50 years ago after working on the possibilities of life on Mars for the space agency NASA. As he first put it, Gaia is ‘a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.’

To simplify the idea – rather unfairly perhaps – the idea of Gaia is that the earth is a self-regulating planet, in which everything works together to keep life going. On the television programme Lovelock gave examples – how, for instance, sunlight acting on algae in the sea helps to regulate the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Lovelock seemed pessimistic about life today. Our reckless burning of fossil fuels has tipped the balance of nature, he suggested, and the earth is finding it more and more difficult to regulate itself.

And then came the clouds of volcanic ash from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjöll. Suddenly aircraft stopped flying in Europe and across the North Atlantic. There was, of necessity, rather less frantic movement around the planet, and less pumping out of dangerous greenhouse gases. The skies have been quiet, airports deserted and birdsong heard around them.

Does this suggest that, in accordance with Gaia Theory, the earth is fighting back? Or is it just coincidence? Is global warming really happening, anyway? It’s not the purpose of this column to answer those questions – even if it had the answers. But there may be things that Ripon can learn from what is happening.

Travel is a fine thing. Few would deny that more accessible and cheaper air travel has opened up the world to many more people. Broadening the mind is all to the good, especially if it means we are able to view foreigners with less suspicion. There is no substitute for seeing things for yourself. The point of E M Forster’s short story ‘The Machine Stops’, which has been mentioned in this column before, is that even though you could sit in your room and view things on a screen, there comes a time when you want the real experience.

Yet, as in Gaia Theory, there must be a balance, and we may have tipped too far. The pace at which we rush around – because planes and cars in particular make it possible to do so – gets more frenetic. And not only does this have an effect on the skies above our heads and on our road network; it has an effect, too, in the streets of our city.

Because we have been pushed (rushed?) into thinking that our time is particularly valuable, we believe our daily business depends on driving to a parking space immediately outside our destination. And we certainly feel that we should not have to pay for the privilege if that can possibly be avoided. Hence the regular sight of the cars queuing for the free spaces in the Market Square rather than turning up Moss’s Arcade and into the car park behind Sainsbury’s store.

This is old-fashioned and unsustainable thinking. Raise your eyes from the Ripon horizon for a moment and you’ll see that in other places things are different. There are towns, some of them no bigger than Ripon and with similar problems of historic streets, which have managed to become largely traffic free, allowing only drivers with disabilities to use the streets and to park near the shops, businesses and attractions. They also regulate deliveries to certain time, leaving the streets free from lorries for the majority of the day.

Parking, too, is sensibly regulated; the nearer you park to the centre of a city, the more it will cost. In Ripon, though, if you come right into the centre, it is free to park. This is plainly nonsense. It should be more expensive to park in the Market Square than anywhere else in the city.

It is surely not too much to ask that the people of Ripon and the surrounding area, as well as visitors to the city, should, if they are able-bodied, be required to walk a very short distance from a car park. Once we get out of our metal boxes we really notice and understand our surroundings. Being prepared to walk a short distance would achieve several things. It would free the city from a great deal of unnecessary traffic, thus reclaiming the streets and enabling us to appreciate Ripon’s ‘ancient charms’ more easily. It would help slow down the busy pace of life a fraction. And it might help to make us all fitter!

If the earth can be self-regulating, is it too much to ask that Ripon might be, too? Or are we perpetually doomed to wander about in the ash-cloud of indecision that has for too long hung over the city?

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