We are facing a catastrophic decline in our health, with epidemics in obesity, diabetes, and asthma.
A full third of American adults are now obese. Britain is hurrying to catch up, with a quarter of adults and a tragic one in seven children suffering the same way. Few of these people are likely to see their biblical three score years and ten, never mind match their parents longevity.
As if this curse were not enough, the proportion of children afflicted with asthma has risen sixfold in the last quarter-century.
While it is accepted that all this must have something to do with our ‘modern’ lifestyle, few yet face up to the rôle of the car.
Obesity is primarily caused by indolence, not by over-eating, as is often assumed. The Director of the UK Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development once told the BBC News (1999) that a complete change in children’s lifestyle had taken place. He added: “In 1950, … although the fat and overall calorie intake of the 1950s child was higher, generally children were more active than their 1990s counterparts.”
UK Department for Transport figures tell of just one in twenty children walking or cycling to school in 2006, whereas four out of five did so in 1971. Half of British children fail to achieve 2hrs of physical activity per week. They expend 600cal less per day than they did 50 years ago. According to the charity Play England, two thirds of children aged 8-10, and a quarter 11-15, have never visited a park or shop unaccompanied by an adult. This is not stranger-danger. This change has occurred because of the threat posed to their safety by road traffic.
Air pollution, most of which is due to road traffic, correlates well with the meteoric rise in childhood asthma. Oxides of nitrogen, emitted by internal combustion engines, react with oxygen in sunlight to create ozone, which is known to exacerbate asthma. There is evidence that it also causes it. A US study found that the prevalence of asthma among pupils at Elementary Schools near urban highways ran to 24%, against a comparable national average of just 9%.
Our mental health also suffers as a result of light and noise pollution. Roads are the dominant source, causing the most damaging kind of noise — continuous and almost ‘white’ in its frequency spectrum. The same kind of sound has been used (illegally) for military interrogation. You may think you “tune it out”, but will experience a dramatic sense of relief when silence is restored. Which will now probably mean travelling a very long way.
Go far enough and you might even be permitted to see the stars once again.