Peter Walker — The Miracle Pill

I’ve mentioned several times in the preceding chapters that this book is being written amid this lockdown. In fact the process has more or less completely coincided with the peak of restrictions in the UK. And it is an undeniable paradox to have spent my days chronicling successive government failures over one public health disaster when, at precisely the same moment, many of them are tackling another life-threatening crisis with genuine boldness.

Les ouvrages de « pop science » sont souvent simplistes (et pourtant débordant de répétitions) et hautains (et pourtant perclus d’erreurs). Peter Walker ne dit rien que la science n’ait prouvé maintes et maintes fois, et le dit avec le sourire béat du type qui croit sincèrement que le vélo peut sauver le monde. Rendez-vous compte : le mec s’appelle walker, mais semble incapable du moindre cynisme, et parvient même à reconnaitre ses propres lacunes.

Certes, The Miracle Pill est moins un ouvrage sur les bénéfices de la marche qu’une compilation de petits essais sur tel ou tel bénéfice de telle ou telle forme de mobilité. Certes, Walker survole fort rapidement la question des handicaps, alors qu’il aborde fort délicatement les sujets de l’obésité et de la vieillesse. Certes, cette histoire s’écrit en marchant1, et les immenses transformations des derniers mois remettent en cause des années de certitudes.

Mais « plus ça change », comme les Britanniques aiment dire en-français-dans-le-texte, plus c’est la même chose. Les coronapistes ont été pérennisées pour livrer les courses avant le début du prochain épisode que l’on regarde au fond du canapé, les carburants fossiles sont subventionnés pour que les parents les plus aisés puissent déposer leurs sacs de patates enfants au coin de la rue, la « pilule miracle » n’est toujours pas passée. What a shame.


À bicyclette :

In 1950, around 25 per cent of all trips were still made by bicycle. These days that figure is somewhere near 1 per cent, with cycling levels so low it is difficult to be more precise. About a quarter of all journeys of less than two miles, the sort of distance you could cycle fairly sedately in ten or fifteen minutes, are done by car.

Le sophisme du choix individuel :

It can be difficult to read studies about the seemingly unstoppable decline in human movement without viewing the film as prophetic, as well as an indictment of humanity’s collective decision to slide towards a future of indolence, lethargy and pharmaceutically managed ill-health. But such a judgemental stance is a grave mistake. The decline in physical activity has had many drivers, but a sudden, global outbreak of idleness is not one of them. This is a crucial point to stress. In fact, one of the reasons the crisis has advanced, largely unchecked, for so long is because governments have ducked responsibility by falsely portraying the issues as based on individual choice and willpower.

L’activité accidentelle :

This is the central point: if you really want physical movement to embed in someone’s life, it has to be in the form of another beloved public health term – ‘incidental activity’. This is, at its simplest, activity which takes place almost as an afterthought, because it forms part of your regular day. It is what happened in the past when people did farm chores, or carried in wood for the fire, or walked to school. This was just life. In contrast, sport and exercise generally happen in discretionary time, which is one of the main reasons they are so unsuited to replacing regular exertion as a population-wide driver of better health. The distinction between these two very different things is often missed, not least by governments.

Un monde conçu pour favoriser l’inactivité :

This is a vital point to consider in our story of vanishing everyday movement – it is a far broader issue than slightly trite discussions about personal responsibility. As soon as you start examining the world from the perspective of adding activity into your routine, you quickly see how thoroughly, how carefully, and at times how cunningly the built environment that surrounds us has been redesigned over the past seventy or so years to make regular exertion an increasingly difficult, at times almost impossible, choice.

Les gens morts ne coutent pas cher au contribuable :

The brutal truth is that dead people don’t cost the taxpayer much. I once asked a professor of epidemiology to privately outline what would be the ideal lifespan of a citizen purely from the point of view of government economic efficiency. He replied: someone who works diligently and pays taxes their entire adult life, and on the day of their retirement, collapses and dies instantly from a massive heart attack (ideally, he added, with a demise so instantaneous and obvious that the bereaved family don’t even bother to call an ambulance).

Le droit humain de traverser la rue :

Gehl is passionate about the ability of people on foot to be able to meander around the city as they choose, and not have to walk 200 metres to wait at a dedicated pedestrian crossing. He is particularly scathing about the idea, ubiquitous in the UK but unknown in Copenhagen, of having to press a button to activate a pedestrian green light. ‘It’s a human right to get across the street,’ he fumes. ‘It’s not something you should apply for.

Dessiner la ville avec l’aide de la gravité :

Just before I leave following our much-longer-than-scheduled talk, Gehl rummages in a folder and hands me a piece of paper. It is a street plan for a small housing development in the Danish town of Hobro, on the Jutland peninsula, for which his colleagues have been offering advice. Gehl shows me the many ways in which residents will be gently nudged towards activity. While there are roads circling the estate, and a couple within it, the houses are crisscrossed with a network of smaller, walking and cycling paths, making such rapid connections easy. Gehl then points out something not obvious from the plan: all the car parking for the development has been placed at one side, with public transport at another. The estate is on a hill, and if people want to reach their cars, they will have to climb up it. In contrast, the public transport is downhill. In their many efforts to invite people to be more active, Gehl’s colleagues have even enlisted the assistance of gravity.

Oui oui oui oui oui :

History might prove me wrong, but if towns and cities have a future in which physical activity becomes the norm, I’m not sure that technology, robotics and automation will be the primary reasons why.

Les enfants—sacs de patates :

A risk-averse culture has curtailed children’s ability to roam under their own power. At the same time the dominance of motor traffic has created genuine peril to outdoor play, setting in place a vicious circle in which parents think the only way to keep their children safe is to drive them everywhere. Meanwhile in schools, ever-more intense academic curriculums have eroded time for play and sport, keeping children seated and docile during the moment in their lives when they should instead be at their most mobile, noisy and anarchic. […] If you take a sort of historical view, you could almost say that the story of children and urban areas over the twentieth century was about the battle between children and cars. And in simple terms the children lost.’

La vieillesse comme projet :

Of course, there are people in their sixties, seventies or older who acquire their daily dose of movement as they go about their business, for example cycling and walking around, or gardening. But for many people, this simply does not happen, not least because regular active travel is often tied to a commute. However, one advantage enjoyed by many older people is more time. That is why many experts on activity and ageing advise people to, in effect, see healthy ageing as a project – not a job, but certainly important enough to set aside time for every week. When people retire, they need to construct a new schedule for their days based around something other than the workplace. As part of this, the guidance goes, why not include some formal exercise?

  1. Je ne suis absolument pas désolé. ↩︎