Last Saturday afternoon, several hundred adults cycled stark naked along the world's busiest shopping street. For yours truly, this was a shocking experience. I was in central London to see a photography exhibition, not genitalia. "I have no desire to see 50 flaccid willies. It's disgusting," said my girlfriend, reassuringly. This was an ugly, ugly scene.
It was also inefficient. If you're naked, it's pretty difficult to communicate what you're protesting about. There were no t-shirts, no banners and no megaphones. One presumed they were anti-something-few protests are ever positive-but what? Anti-clothing? Anti-pubic lice?
Some protesters had taken to daubing themselves with slogans to make their point, but this was a mixed success. One particularly unkempt lady had daubed 'sniff my saddle' on her back. What was she protesting about? Anti-personal hygiene? Strangely, it was an invitation I did not accept. She wasn't even attractive.
Eventually, I plucked up the courage to ask someone what is was all about. "It's anti-oil dependency," he said. "And car culture." Apparently, the cyclists were demonstrating an eco-friendly alternative, revealing their vulnerability and "celebrating body freedom"-whatever that means. They wanted a "total ban on car advertising."
In Britain, we have an 'indecent exposure' law, which is supposed to prevent such wanton displays of flesh. If a solitary streaker interrupts a cricket match, then he or she will most likely be arrested. But if the numbers are plentiful and the cause deemed 'worthy,' such behavior is tolerated. One suspects that if I were to strip off and ride down Oxford Street next Saturday with the slogan 'In support of the V8' on my back, then I would be arrested in seconds.
These latter-day protests are, thanks to the globalizing force of the internet, well organized, but I find them slightly comical. Back in the '60s and '70s, there was a genuine spirit of social change. The conservative mores of yesterday were being replaced by a more liberal tomorrow. But for today's protesters, it seems to be more about a collective experience-a day in the sun. One guy was protesting about oil dependency and globalization, while riding his Chinese-made bike and making a call on his Chinese-made cell phone. He was being followed by a police escort powered by an oil-based product. And because the protesters had blocked the roads, other traffic had to drive further, creating more pollution. The carbon footprint of this escapade must have been huge. Was the irony lost on him? And more importantly, where did he put the cell phone when he'd finished his call?
I should point out at this stage that I am not Neanderthal man. The evidence that we're doing irreversible damage to our planet is damning, but the environmental cause is being compromised by those making the case. At present, you have naked wannabe-hippies on one side of the debating chamber and George W. Bush on the other. Is there any wonder that sensible, objective analysis is being lost in the middle?
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited onto a breakfast discussion TV program with a member of the Green Party: the political arm of the tree-huggers' union. Before we went on air, we fell into discussion about our roles in life. I admitted that, as a motoring journalist, I fly more than most and that this was not particularly 'green.'
"Well, you'll just have to get a new job," she exclaimed. "It's just a question of whether you want to drown in your bed at night." I wanted to point out that I sleep upstairs and not even the Green Party has claimed sea levels will rise 30 feet, but the matter was not up for discussion. I was a force of evil and I'd have to change my ways or die.
I changed tack, suggesting a belief in the old clich about travel breeding tolerance and broadening the mind, but even this was wrong. "Travel breeds intolerance," she said, "because people take their own culture with them." Her solution, it would seem, was for everybody to stay at home. There would be no migration and we'd all be forced to marry our cousin, or our sister. When the debate was over, she left in a diesel limousine paid for by the BBC.
The whole environmental debate is laced with so much dogma and hypocrisy that people instinctively take up entrenched positions. The issues are real enough, but if someone waves his willy at me on a Saturday afternoon, I'm more likely to run to my car than I am to select an energy-saving light bulb.
And if someone suggests I should instantaneously plunge myself into poverty by giving up my profession, then I'm unlikely to empathize with their position. If these people are as in touch with the natural environment as they suggest, why do they pay such scant regard to human nature?