This week there are three helicopters parked outside our local hospital. The Isle of Man is a small, mostly sleepy island (population 84,000) and there usually aren’t any helicopters at the hospital. The fact that there are three of them can mean only one thing: TT fortnight has come round again.
The TT (Tourist Trophy) races are an annual ritual peculiar to the Isle of Man. Billed as the most dangerous road races in the world, the only thing I can think of which compares to them is the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, except that in our case, the “bulls” travel at speeds up to 200 mph. The TT races are motorcycle races, but unlike conventional races, they are held not on a specially designed racetrack, but on a 37 mile circuit of public roads which are closed to normal traffic for the occasion. The roads contain all the things you normally find on public roads: lamp posts, bus stops, gateposts, houses and the like. There are frequent coming togethers of high speed riders and stationary objects, which usually don’t end well – hence the need for the medical evacuation helicopters. So far this TT we have had two deaths and one critical injury among the race competitors – and I don’t think anyone is counting the crashes by the ordinary visitors. For example, watch this YouTube video:
But be warned – it’s not for the faint hearted.
45,000 visitors come to watch the races, bringing with them 15,000 motorcycles and 8,000 cars. Pop-up tent cities, hamburger stalls and trackside seats spring up everywhere. There is a travelling fairground, fireworks, stunt riding, the Red Arrows aerobatic display team and a general carnival atmosphere. All schools are closed for a week. If you’re not into motorcycles, the effect can be rather overwhelming, so much so that many Isle of Man families take holidays over the TT, leave the island and rent their houses to visitors. For those of us who stay, getting to and from work becomes a bit unpredictable because of the scheduled road closures for the races, and unscheduled closures due to accidents among visitors.
Watching all this, I have a feeling of “fin de siècle”, which translates from French literally as “end of the century” but more metaphorically as “end of an era”. The first TT races were held in 1907, and I’d like you to put yourselves for a few minutes in the mind-set of that era and try to think what people were thinking then. The first oil well had been drilled 48 years previously (in Pennsylvania in 1859), various types of internal combustion engine had been invented to make use of the new fuel, which was much better than the whale oil which preceded it, and the Age of Steam was beginning to give way to the Age of Oil. Oil powered ships were starting to replace steamships, early motor cars were starting to replace horses, and the Wright Brothers had made their first powered flight four years earlier, introducing a totally new form of transport. It was therefore natural for the early manufacturers of motorised bicycles, such as Triumph, Matchless and Norton, to want to showcase their new machines and show the public what they could do. Hence, the TT races were born, in an era in which scientists and engineers were like magicians, conjuring up one new wonder after another, and seducing people with new technologies which seemed to hold unlimited promise.
Fast forward 111 years and where are we now? The complications and side effects of the course we set for ourselves at the beginning of the 20th century are much clearer to us now than they were to our ancestors four generations ago. Oil based transport by land, sea and air has made it much faster, easier and cheaper to move people from one place to another, but at the cost of making all places very similar. You could land by plane in Britain, the United States, Dubai or Australia, and if it wasn’t for the signs, you wouldn’t know which country you were in.
The world population has grown from 1.7 billion in 1907 to 7.6 billion today, thanks mainly to our oil based food supply chain. The side effect of that has been to turn over more and more land to human food production and habitation and to push wildlife to the margins, and in many cases to extinction. We have also gone down a one way street with no return: what happens to the food supply and the human population when the oil supply starts to decline?
We have altered the climate by pumping carbon waste into the atmosphere, a change which for all practical purposes is permanent, because it won’t be reversed within the lifetime of our species.
We have created an economy which depends on perpetual growth. In 1907, technological progress was an optional extra, a fun toy to play with. Oil powered machines, especially those which could fly, were a wonder to be marvelled at but our lives didn’t depend on them. Today, perpetual technological progress and perpetually increasing efficiency are essential, because without them our economy would collapse. We are like a hamster on a wheel, running faster and faster to stay in the same place.
Our fast paced and stressful society has resulted in more people than ever before taking antidepressants, opioids and benzodiazepines. In the United States for example, around 13% of the population takes an antidepressant, 5% a benzodiazepine and 5% an opioid – and those are just the legal ones.
Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy our TT Races and all the carnival atmosphere which goes with them, but I think we may be basking in the late afternoon sunshine of our Age of Oil before twilight sets in. While the music keeps playing, keep on dancing.
Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin