Last time on Unsee The Future, we indulged ourselves with a bit of Toy Brain view of our twenty-first century human planet travel challenges – the challenges of getting about the planet every day and banking on it in a time of environmental crisis. And we did so because, well, it can sound rather fun to some of us, and there are a lot of people investing a lot of time and money trying to crack the big engineering solutions to our challenge.
But in Part 3, I want to have a completely special episode dedicated to The Hopey Changey Bit. Because I think cracking a way into a more environmentally friendly way of getting around the planet, and still being able to bank on it, will start with the toughest thing a modern mind can do – challenge our expectations.
Lesson one in human geography: We are all in different places.
In our current times, if there is one name that seems unavoidable when talking future transport tech – Elon Musk – then there is another when talking future climate responses. Greta Thunberg.
The afternoon I wrote this, she was leaving Europe for the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. Allowing two weeks to get there, so she can cross the Atlantic with zero emissions. She chose to go by racing yacht. And the world has been watching.
“By stopping flying, you don’t only reduce your own carbon footprint but also that sends a signal to other people around you that the climate crisis is a real thing” she says, with her usual flatly quiet authority. This sixteen year old school climate striker. ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/science-environment-49331885/greta-thunberg-s-zero-carbon-journey-i-might-feel-a-bit-seasick )
As you likely know, her flatly quiet authority has garnered plenty of criticism. And some of it has been truly grim symptoms of our social emotions flooded age, I feel, with accusations of abusive misappropriation of a young person’s passions – by all sides of all sides. Sounding like banks of people who’ve forgotten what it means to be a young person, to me. And many nautical miles outside all the clicked-up outrage and digital heat, is Greta. Crossing a biting cold ocean, because of her convictions.
Borris Herrmann is skipper of the Malizia II and says simply: “Greta is an amazingly courageous person to be standing up against ignorance and injustice regarding the climate crisis”. His transatlantic co-skipper and team founder, Pierre Casiraghi, says: “Convincing governments and international institutions to make the step and enforce laws that will protect humankind and biodiversity is of the utmost importance for the future of humanity. Greta is an ambassador who delivers a fundamental message both for our society and for the survival of future generations.”
However you feel about Greta, or how canny the Malizia II team might be about PR, this pair of sailors looking after the boat and the girl along 49° latitude does have a passion for ocean science and education. Yet Malizia II is a competition machine – and it’s the real deal. ( https://team-malizia.com/en/home/ ) No frills. No heads – that’s no bog, to you and me, only a bucket. Two weeks of rolling north Atlantic swell and no usual privacy lay ahead. Days after competing in the Fastnet Race, the IMOCA class 18meter monohull set back out of Plymouth Sound carrying Greta, sporting its Global Goals colour wheel on the mainsail, all to make a big point to the news outlets and private jetters at the UN. It’s time we looked at global travel very differently.
Casiraghi renamed the boat Malizia in honour of the nickname given to his homeland Monoco’s dynastic father Francesco Grimaldi, who was apparently known as The Wiley One. Setting out from a symbolic enclave of worldly glamour to the gateway to the new world via the departure city of the American pilgrims, aboard a solar and water turbine powered racing sail boat with a big sense of a clock ticking and a very uncomfortable ride ahead for a vulnerable seeming young person. Yeah. Someone here is a wiley one indeed. And I think she’s leagues ahead of the landlubbing criticism.
I’ve come to think the principle of more planet-minded travel is about adjusting your perspective before you’ve left your house. And so I’d like to paint a picture of a different way of going about coming and going. Because, just like all sustainability, this principle is one that we kind of most don’t want to address with post-modern minds – changing our expectations.
Heaven forbid, any mortals dare dictate, eh? It’s why the whole climate crisis story grinds your gears, isn’t it – it’s lefties preaching disaster utopianism from very expensive yachts, right? Well, sure. But all I know is, in a different context, you can suddenly find yourself very grateful for a bucket.
Do you remember being a toddler? Particularly a time when, if she was any good at it, your mum said no to you about something you wanted more than anything in the world, right then and there? Don’t clutch your pearls just yet, they’re Mummy’s anyway. Stay with me. That something you really wanted could have been having way more sweets from the sweetie shop or running out of the front door into the street, or not going to bed. A boundary line she might have tried vainly to contextualise for you by saying you wouldn’t eat your dinner, or you might get squashed like Tufty’s football in the road, or you might be a grouchy selfish little swine if you didn’t get used to going to bed at a regular time – and you might enjoy your dinner rather more if you had room for it, and you might enjoy being alive rather more if you weren’t prematurely dead and, trust her, you might one day dream of afternoon naps and going to bed after CountryFile… but all you wanted in that denied young moment was exactly what you thought you wanted. And you just went purple trying to change her mind with brute force, whining until you cried, crying until you screamed, screaming until you pooed pleasingly into your nappy and got distracted with the dog.
Can you re-feel that innocent infant moment a tiny bit?
Nah. You never did that of course. You were a delightful child. Plus, you’ve had way too many Jager Bombs between then and now to remember. But if you can remember anything of that emotional certainty and put it together with your more potentially parental view of this now… you might be primed helpfully here to deploy a little empathy to us all as consumer travellers facing the rest of the 21st century.
We don’t want to be told our travel choices and travel businesses might have to have significantly modified expectations applied to them. But it seems very unlikely they won’t have to be. The adult upside being, beyond the petulant tears, a much deeper, richer experience of what travel even is. And the human planet itself.
The parent here isn’t any preachy greeny. It’s Earth. And the patterns of data she’s giving us. The signals about our own behaviour trends. A kind of call to become better parents ourselves – whether our parenting style is to rally to a righteous mission or to rebel against our idea of the status quo.
Looking around me, it’s obvious some of us are a ways further down the road of discovering and feeling this sort of Earth ship thing than others. I’m not sure I’m even half way yet, or what there is supposed to look like. But as individual people, we aren’t simply all in different geographic contexts when we think about travel, of course, we’re in a very wide range of perspectives and experiences. And expectations. So to tackle the converging crises of our criss-crossing age it’ll be no help telling each other, while feeling lost: “I wouldn’t start from there, mate”.
We all have to start from right where we are. And no two journeys will be the same.
Sustainability mate Gwyn Jones sent me this poem by David Wagoner a few days back. ( https://beyondmeds.com/2015/05/17/stand-still/?fbclid=IwAR0VFKW4dYeW46mMXI1JqY2DTGAX7KBp4y3jydoBQ2E921NWzxmY1W8_KIE )
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
..Yeah, you might not be ready for that. The secret to traveling well is standing still? What, mate? Or it might be obvious to you – you go to different places to find moments. Of clarity. Of renewal. Of Inspiration. To ‘be’ somewhere else.
If there’s a central principle to the very idea of travel, it’s the same as that of Unsee The Future – making connections. And so is the implication of doing it – it can inspire your sense of context to come alive. And that can change the way you see your whole life. It has mine.
The original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road looks like a road. One long reel of typed paper. It’s almost a stream of consciousness that book, from a time when forms of storytelling were being challenged and changed yet again by raw creative instincts wanting to break out of all kinds of social contexts. Published the year Sputnik was launched and old human perspectives at ground level must have seemed suddenly so small. On The Road is an instinct enacted – to just go. Go and keep going and just listen to the road as it travels to meet you. And maybe, though I’m due to reread it I suspect, the Beat Gen bible is a book that if nothing else re-iterates what everyone I know who’s ever traveled demonstrates when they come home, even if they don’t realise it consciously – you won’t exactly find yourself somewhere out on the road, the road might help you see what you’ve already got inside you. Facing that is the real work of discovery.
Ol’ JK there is really following the urge to do more than escape, but peel back his immediate context to get to something deeper. Something gnawing at him. A particular act of travel that most gets to the human heart of it, perhaps. A type of expedition rooted in ancient traditions the world over which you might imagine has been lost by modernity. Pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage sort of combines a funny human need, that won’t go away, for ritual and repetition with the need to live a shared idea as a personal experience for ourselves. Walk through it, feel it. But combined also with the even more basic desire to get outside and connect with terrain, pathway and journey. Pilgrimage can make some powerful emotional connections in us. Partly because it is a stepping out of the usual flow of our lives for symbolic purpose, pausing the normal. And you bet we find ourselves trying to pull a sense of it into all sorts of modern experiences. You at Burning Man. Me at the Zeppelin Museum. Or Hansa Studios. Your dad at Lords. Half the Southern Hemisphere thinking of Old Trafford.
And I think this is very interesting, especially thinking about travel in the context of researching the state of the current human planet for Unsee The Future. Because if there’s one thing I’ve been gently surprised at coming home to me so strongly from this coalescing picture in my mind, it’s the clarity with which I’ve come to see kinetic learning. Habits. Physical repetitions to change your synapses. Using your body to reform your brain, and so your perspective and feelings. By doing stuff, not just thinking about stuff. We are simply wired to do this – and modernity has turned this basic truth of us into a revelation, apparently.
The Hajj is just one big ritual pilgrimage, still going very strong, from centuries before modernity. Something you could do every year as a muslim, but which a person of this faith is called to attempt at least once – to go back to the symbolic source of the cultural voice of Islam, Mecca, the holiest city, and more specifically to the House of God, the Kaaba. I’d be interested to chat with folk returning from their first one, to hear how it felt for them. I can only try to imagine that were I to feel the roots of the Islamic story grown through my own life, a sense of myself or of something beyond me so connected to the sounds, tastes, rhythms and scents of the middle of the world, that I might take for granted in parts of my normal life as a muslim, wherever I lived… yeah, I can only imagine the effect it might have on me taking this trip for the first time. Seeing it all reflected back to me. Because, maybe above all, the Hajj is a physical statement of solidarity.
Talking about the history of skiffle and folk and rock & roll and how punk followed what these records and bands started in modern British culture, Billy Bragg said this: “It wasn’t The Clash, it was the crowd.” Back in the day, the late seventies and early 80s, as a young singer songwriter in new times of tough social calls and challenges, reflected with fresh energy in so much music of those times in the UK, the heartfelt desire to see such a symbolic band for him live for the first time, delivered to him, in the end he says, a visceral experience that wasn’t really about the band. It was being in a space packed with people there for the same reason, the same heart, as you.
A crowd can give you a strong private sense of how much you belong or not, to your context, your traditions, your identity, your politics. Which means, you should probably go find a few and stand still in the middle of them, to see what comes to find you from each.
“For the first time, I felt I belonged” Patrick Colucci tells George Pierpoint in a BBC article. Because Patrick was at Woodstock – fifty years ago this summer. A big music festival that has come to symbolise the true emergence of the counterculture of the late sixties, of which On The Road was a mere starting gun, twelve years before. ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-49276979 )
At 19, Jim Shelley felt like he didn’t fit in with a more conservative America but finding himself also on that overwhelmed farm in Bethel in the summer of ‘69, he recalls: “I remember looking around at the crowds of people like me and thinking, ‘Look how many of us there are’.”
Look how many of us there are. Half a century ago.
It was a life-affirming experience, rather than life-changing, Jim says: “”My wife and I cared about the environment so we used recyclable nappies when our children were born. She was the only woman on the maternity ward to breastfeed. I was the only man to be in the delivery room. We wanted to do things differently, and we did. Woodstock didn’t teach me those ideals but it made me confident they were legitimate.”
In a way then, it’s the journey not the destination that is the real lesson of any pilgrimage. Every festival, every journey of faith, every adventure, is about surviving the flies, loos, crowds, hunger, blisters, boredom, scammers, weather, lostness and the smell of rotting hay to recognise what’s magical in your life. What’s possible.
Greta Thunberg is on a kind of pilgrimage across the Atlantic right now, as I sit here pondering. But not to New York, to the possible more inclusively sustainable future. The more hopeful human tomorrow.
Artist, writer and performer and great art mate Hazel Evans undertook her own pilgrimage in 2015, deciding to pause other work for forty days to walk the Camino de Santiago. A route of pilgrimage in various ways over the centuries that she used as a path symbolic of an inner landscape.
“Pilgrimage. It’s a surrender to the route and the discipline” she told me. “A surrender to the path. The unknown path and what it may or may not bring. A letting go and facing of fears. Then at the end, a celebration of achievement and acknowledgement of how far I have come as well as a deep gratitude for the landscape and all the landscapes that have supported me on my way and the people who I have met along the way.”
And her motivation was more than just storytelling.
“For me, I wanted to face walking alone as a woman. My biggest fears of walking through the woods alone, sometimes stopping in the face of all the fears rising up inside myself and choose to keep making those steps. Sometimes, other times, the route and the body carry my spirit so obviously, it is not even me doing the walking anymore.”
“As I see it reflected in me years after,” she adds, “the pilgrimage keeps growing inside of me. Teaching me courage, making me a stronger being. The path let me be free to explore and feel and clear parts of myself that, when coming back into everyday life, I was lighter, more free to feel more truth of myself.” ( https://www.hazelevans.co.uk/40-pages-of-pilgrimage#1 )
Everyone, she says, should do a pilgrimage.
Which makes me think of another family member. One who felt drawn to a kind of pilgrimage at the dawn of her adult life – setting it up right, perhaps, by faithfully setting out to map the world a bit. And so maybe her life’s mission. At nineteen, Tara Geoghegan decided that she: “Wanted to find out about the issues that effect our world but see the issues first hand”. And so she devised 12months12issues.com ( https://www.12months12issues.com/blog-1 ) – a plan to turn her gap year into a tour of the world’s big challenges as a kind of template. Using the UN’s SDGs as her frame of reference. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised that the other had heard of the Global Goals, my niece or me. But it’s lead to some fascinating insights from her experiences – and a year after first leaving, she’s already seen the real challenges of the human planet better than her uncle and aunt have with three decades head start on her.
From looking at climate change and life on land in the Peruvian Amazon, to gender equality, reduced inequalities and sustainable cities and communities in Bangladesh, it was a crash course in Planet Earth today. Refugee support in Greece, education work in Cambodia, sustainable fashion research in Australia… Tara returned from working with people in some extreme circumstances, poverties and prejudices, all in the context of a heightened sense of where economic culture meets the climate crisis. All neatly filtering an understanding of it through the Sustainable Development Goals. It was a field BTEC in Unsee The Future, is what it was. Telling me it’s high time I really left my shed.
Tara has decided to lock down some background understanding with a degree in International Development & Media but how does she feel about it now?
“One of the biggest things that I learnt whilst doing these projects, that may seem obvious, is that volunteering really isn’t about swooping in and trying to make change” she told me. “It’s really about finding out how a community wants to improve their lives and giving them the tools and knowledge to achieve that. I think that’s the thing I found hard about the nature of my project. I stayed no longer than three months in each place so it was hard to tell whether I had helped at all, but really the biggest changes probably happened after I left.”
She explained she really didn’t want to do a year of “voluntourism” but wanted to work with a range of projects to piece together more of an overview, keeping sustainability in mind. And I wonder whether her Planet-saving 101 lesson was the word compromise. There’s no way to do this and get everything right.
“Even though I was doing charity work on my project, I dealt with a little bit of judgement for taking a lot of plane travel” she said. “I took coaches and trains when I could, but the reality is, you can’t do it all and I do think it’s unfair to judge people on this.”
Even when you’re wide awake, trying to help, trying to learn, it’s impossible not to be part of the problem. But then she said something that encapsulates why there’s no meaningful substitute for walking the real, physical miles and going somewhere.
“The trip also made me pose the question about poverty. I remember the ten-hour drive to our village in Bangladesh. On the way I was shocked at the constant ten hours of poverty I saw, and I felt sorry for literally anyone I saw. But then on the same journey after living in the country for three months I saw it completely differently. Instead I saw food stalls and shops selling many things like we have at home, they just looked different to ours. It made me question whether we have too much, not why they have so little.”
No one comes back from a pilgrimage unchanged.
“I’ve been back for nearly four months now and I can honestly say that I still don’t feel adjusted back and I don’t really think I ever will” Tara admits. “I can’t unsee anything that I have seen this year, nor do I want to. I definitely can’t walk away from it after seeing what I’ve seen. These global goals aren’t just news stories or statistics now, they are my friends and they are real people.”
Some difficult things you don’t quite want to unsee. Because they’ve changed your perspective meaningfully. Compared with this, FaceTime can feel like just another part of the global YouTube collage.
There’s something in the, I dunno, tone of pilgrimage that resonates a bit with the way I think future travel could be approached by millions more of us in the climate crisis years. Choosing where we go and how we go with the mindset much more of pilgrims than consumers.
I think it’s been happening for a while, unrealistic as it sounds now, already bubbling under as part of the angsts of our times. Our searchings, if you like. None of which has to be stuffy or worthy or lacking fun – it’s travel, for goodness’ sake – but planning a trip with that attitude would run deeper into you as a traveler, undoubtedly. If you could do it.
What about the idea of tourism for sustainability? UNWorldTourism.org thinks tourism is essential to meeting the SDGs! Apparently. Or what about the idea of tourism as peacemaking.
As Anita Mendiratta, International Institute of Peace Through Tourism Ambassador says: “It is through our differences that we learn compassion, we learn understanding, we learn respect. This applies to not only how we see and accept responsibility for our engagement with other people. It is also about how we engage with the environment around us, living harmoniously with Mother Nature. Powerfully, to travel is to also learn about oneself. It is through tourism that all of these prisms of life are brought to life, creating connection. That connection creates harmony, which in turn, at scale, creates peace.” ( https://peacetourism.org/anita-mendiratta-iipt/ )
The IIPT was founded in 1986 and claims to have introduced the idea of sustainable tourism at its first global conference a couple of years later, producing the world’s first codes of ethics and guidelines for sustainable tourism in 1992. As Passion For Fresh Ideas puts it, it’s an organisation that promotes: “The mission of encouraging every traveler to be an ambassador for peace”. ( https://passionforfreshideas.com/ethical-living/journey-peaceful-sustainable-travel/ )
The problem is, you might say, the disturbances from the climate crisis, caused significantly by our globalised expectations of how we move around the planet, are not going to help world peace.
So here is where I think richer twenty-first century travel expectations could take shape in our imaginations.
As Unsee The Future thinkers, you and me, when we spin the globe, we can look at it understanding a bigger sense of the connectedness of it all now – how climate, economic cultures of consumption, human habit, physical and mental unwellness and addiction, poverty, failing democratic models, mountains of waste, corruption and cycles of violence, the extractivist burn-it-once fossil fuel powering it all… how every part is really just a different symptom of a stuck, industrialised human planet belief system. And that’s the place to start your journey from, psychologically. Nothing is disconnected. Everything we did before, lead us to here. Our cultural habits always have consequences.
So many of our models of transport are based on the culture of convenience. Of speed.
What if we started traveling with a stronger culture of consciousness? Of slowerness? Awakeness to the land and its people we want to cross to get somewhere else?
It just won’t fit the current model, will it? The fact that you have to cram in getting to somewhere like your schedule is really banking on you being able to teleport everywhere. Rushing. And so getting stuck. Driving like a nutter because, guess what, modern life has gifted you with the constant concept of “lateness”. Jumping on a plane because you’re needed in Geneva that evening. Cramming the numbers to make the cost of lift add up. Eating crap in plastic on the go, because what else is available and you need a caffeine sugar hit to stay on it. Blue light in your eyes between stressing over lost networks.
It’s all about factories, that thinking – models of manufacturing. With factory-like outputs – conformed expectations. As much in your personal wellbeing as the communities and life systems of the world.
What if our whole expectation of time had to change in the coming years? Partly thanks to automation. What if the four-day week became a thing, as so often spoken of now. ( https://inews.co.uk/inews-lifestyle/work/four-day-week-benefits/ ) What if more businesses started banking on the idea that their people need fuller lives to be more emotionally fit to do their work? What if you only worked nine months a year? ( https://www.wired.co.uk/article/four-day-working-week )
Hold on to your middle class guilt or your working class anger at this. Right now, millions of us are spending on desperate bids to find some escape – quick breaks to come up for air somewhere else. Whole industries rely on us finding the spending to do this. As more of us fall below the poverty line under the the current failing system, holding down multiple jobs to try to make the modern basic costs of living add up, we simply have to be envisioning future ways of getting around this economic fail. Changing the system. And part of that fail includes the fallout of the climate crisis, built on our economic expectations of how fast we can get anywhere.
In that context, by contrast, how much does this completely different perspective seem like a breath of fresh air?
Learning to solarpunk your whole perspective on the world, by getting to know an underground network of profoundly different economies of travel? Ideas that will at first sound daft to you. But in coming years, may turn out to be a whole new adventure for us – as part of a much more emotionally connected life.
Like learning about freighter ports, perhaps, and taking a very slow trip across the oceans once or twice? Or how about taking it further, by rag and stick – crewing your way across an ocean on sailboat? Grab your Greta bucket and get into the swell, getting to know how to find work at different ports to piece together your travel.
Or car-pooling communities across the globe. Using digital groups to find a trustworthy shared ride. Obviously getting to know train routes overland.
Then just how good is your bike and just how far could you go on it? Or on an e-bike?
Go Mad Nomad outlines some of this nicely ( https://gomadnomad.com/2011/04/04/going-jet-freealternatives-to-flying/ ). And Climate Perks is an initiative to help employers give travel days extra to their staff to encourage being able to do this, ( https://www.climateperks.com/ ) aiming to help: “kickstart a movement for clean travel.”
The project attempts to tap into a sense of growing appetite for responding more consciously to the climate crisis that seems coupled, however, with inertia. “We found that 50% of people are ready to reduce the amount they fly in response to climate change – but only 3% of us do” they claim. “There’s a key barrier: time.”
“Climate Perks works with climate-conscious employers to offer paid ‘journey days’ to staff who travel on holiday by train, coach or boat instead of flying – empowering them to act on their values.”
It’s really no more than a badge scheme for businesses. Not unlike Flight Free 2020 is for the individual – a pledge not to fly all that year to build an awareness campaign. To badge your behaviours with specific purpose. ( https://www.flightfree.co.uk/ ) Because a badge is an identifier and, really, a story signal – and so a potential plot twist trigger for all characters affected. A values device, to help everyone think differently about travel and wellbeing.
(Wait. ..Write that down: Story Signal, definitely. ..Yeah, okay, and Values Device…)
It’s a tough call. Still, with wildfires across the Amazon and in the Arctic, with Iceland leaving a letter to the future as a memorial plaque to its first fully lost glacier, saying: “Soz, everyone, eh”, ( https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/07/23/iceland-glacier-memorial-glacier-lost-climate-change/1805232001/ ) and with the hottest years on record all adding up during our most recent years, costing an estimated $14B in the US alone in 2018, according to its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ( https://www.noaa.gov/news/2018-was-4th-hottest-year-on-record-for-globe )… for all this and an incomprehensible twister season of frightening global climate new stories, we are currently still doing almost nothing to change our lifestyles. Of the merely 100,000 people Flight Free 2020 is hoping to recruit, its pledge tally as I check it here is still less than three thousand. And even I am still hovering over whether to commit, with all that I’ve researched. I guess, in case something really cool comes up for me to fly to, yeah?
An additional problem in our populist times is that it all sounds like a meaningless media bandwagon to lots of us. An actual bandwagon would be a much more meaningfully sustainable way to travel, and way more fun, I suspect. There’s a powerful sense of “limousine liberals telling us how to live” as just one tweet put it about the duke and duchess of Cornwall jumping on private jets while talking about the environment. Doesn’t matter what else might be tangled up in criticism of such a high profile couple, it sounds like a simple equation of hypocrisy to plenty of people feeling growing pressures about lifestyles. The rich and famous don’t know how to stop being exclusive globetrotters, right?
The real problem there is, all of us will be signing up to hypocrisy if we dare attempt anything public. That’s now adding to our inertia, isn’t it? Many of us don’t want to be seen to be too virtuous, especially if we know we’ll muck it up; social media is a merciless maelstrom of righteous anger. And as just as one example of how we’ll definitely muck up our virtuous clean travel ambitions, if more of us are going to have to take more holidays across land and sea instead of by air, is the main alternative waiting to take the travel strain, rail travel, really so much greener, as the carbon trackers all claim?
As Amit Katwala says for Wired, ( https://www.wired.co.uk/article/trains-planes-emissions-co2-comparison ) train travel isn’t a simple green equation. The occupancy level of each carriage and the sourcing of the energy to power the locomotive all makes a difference, if you’re being picky on offsetting. “More than half of the emissions related to rail come from infrastructure activities such as building stations, laying tracks, lighting stations and powering escalators,” Katwala says. “Of course, that’s not enough to bring train emissions close to those of passenger flights, but it’s something to bear in mind when high-speed rail is touted as a greener alternative. If the routes don’t already exist, there will be a carbon cost to building them.”
And as Michael Segalov puts it in a Guardian article, we’re incentivised to do the much dirtier and easier route when we travel, which means if we’re going to switch to rail more often, we’re going to need help to do it. ( https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/02/travel-more-sustainably-train-plane?CMP=fb_gu&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR0hixmD-8lLQwEjqOUQYCTbAYUOlp5Pnt-oKrYYFQA1igyt9vRIxxKBa-g#Echobox=1564734431 )
“Money is limited for almost everybody – and the pressure to work to earn that money means that your time is limited, too. Consequently, the desire to save the world from self-destruction isn’t always enough for us to make the most ethical decision. That’s why the burden has to be shared.”
For so long as states don’t intervene with a more balanced tax and subsidy structure for rail over flight and fossil road vehicles, suspending flying will continue to sound mostly like insufferable virtue signalling from joyless lefties in an age where any truly effective shift in CO2 vomitting won’t be at the lifestyle level but at the corporate global industrial policy level.
Which I think begs the increasingly pressing question: How do we change that? Politics and business? How do we influence that, if not with concerted attempts at shared behaviour changes. The sheer numbers of us lot? Signalling patterns of shift in consumer behaviour?
I think this might be how we reach peak old travel – at least in the established travelling nations. We might not right now, but I suspect we’re increasingly going to want to do it differently. I think you are.
Everyone knows commuting sucks, but as the technology and will to implement Mobility as a Service takes hold in all sorts of ways, we’re going to be doing ever more work on the go, not in central offices. Maeve Keane writing for Wired quotes research from Regus in the UK that found: “50 per cent of workers now report that they work outside the main office at least 2.5 days a week”. Flexibility that, she says: “has potential health advantages, especially for those who can reduce the amount of time spent commuting or eliminate it altogether. The Office for National Statistics reports that feelings of happiness, life satisfaction and the sense that one’s activities are worthwhile decrease with every successive minute of commuting.” ( https://www.wired.co.uk/article/future-commuting-london-underground-travel-sleep-predictions )
What this might mean, ironically, is more time spent traveling. Taking longer routes to get places to feel less rushed and maybe do more work on the way. While with old infrastructure this will seem less environmental, it might feed a crucial change factor – mindset. A whole new expectation of how time, work and travel fit together. In the end, will we all be digital nomads? And how might this effect our behaviours?
I think there’s just no hiding from massive infrastructure projects across the human planet; they’re taking shape as we speak. But it may be that while China can scattergun centralised spending on just about every conceivable kind of getting about and technical connectivity imaginable, as it shoots still for the heights of modernist ambitions, ageing western nations might begin to get themselves unstuck by focussing on the most efficient combinations of smart thinking – cheaper, smarter tunnel building, maglev high speed rail and the implications of electric vehicles.
A key bump up in this regard would simply be better battery tech. And if what the Irish Times reports is correct, we should feel encouraged.
“In a highly significant breakthrough, scientists at AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research, and Nokia Bell Labs have found an inexpensive way to make batteries more compact, scalable for industry, quicker to charge and with 250 per cent more energy density than any other battery on the market.”
Valeria Nicolosi, professor of nanomaterials and advanced microscopy at Trinity College, combined her expertise with Jonathan Coleman, professor of chemical physics at the same university, working with Paul King from Nokia Bell Labs to tune up the efficiency of current battery architecture with carbon nanotubes, to make a more complex particle structure for energy storage than using the normal carbon material of current batteries. ( https://www.irishtimes.com/business/innovation/irish-battery-breakthrough-could-help-save-the-planet-1.3930722?fbclid=IwAR1YF1FsIUnvmvopsyaCCgiKw7kzflqQrvX0PACkCtkTAU7A6crw4npw3-0 )
The implications? It’s a bit neat and tidy, but too much so not to quote here. Professor Coleman told the paper: “Tesla has a branch that is looking at battery-powered aeroplanes. Their founder, Elon Musk, says that large battery-powered aircraft could become feasible once the batteries can store 400 watts per hour. Our technology is at 480 watts.”
There is a long way to go on that one. But it illustrates the point: There’s all to play for in technical fields across the planet in our travel-powering energy needs, and people are playing hard for it.
It’s just, as with all aspects of sustainability, we’re not going to ultimately build our way out of a built problem. It’s a new mindset we’ll need to drive new technology towards healthier human planet habits. And I can’t help feeling there’s one bit of technology that might embody this attitude beautifully. The crossover outlook between technology and environment. One I’ll bet you’re surprised I’ve not mentioned yet.
Airships. Eighty years ago, they burned through their progressive seeming economic worth, superseded by the jet aeroplane. Seems inconceivable that they couldn’t form a very savvy climate crisis culture response to ocean crossing and many other things now, no?
Once you’ve culturally factored in the idea of taking days not hours to get somewhere, an equivalent of the Graf Zeppelin taking just three days to get to New York from Germany will seem like efficiency compared to five or six days at sea. And that airship will be able to deliver that power electrically much sooner than something the size of a liner yet can.
Plus – AIRSHIP TRAVEL, BABY. Who’s not going to want to do that?
Which is why Mac Byers’ Luxury cruise airship concept Aether just seems so saucy. ( https://www.beautifullife.info/automotive-design/luxury-cruise-airship-aether-concept-by-mac-byers/ ) “The concept visually communicates a new generation airship that is not only safe but clean, influenced by the Thunderbird 2, Star Wars and the NASA space shuttle.” Which, okay, all sounds as silly as fantastic. Go look up the CG of it on the blog – it’s splendid. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LKgtdNFi-g )
The challenge might well be that it’ll all be treated as exclusive and expensive by operators investing to reboot a whole technical industry here. But it strikes me that, in principle, cruiseship businesses and airlines could be combining their muscle, experience and climate guilt into a new normal for big numbers of their customers with airship services.
The more immediate challenge is simply that very few seem seriously interested enough yet. One of the most viable new designs is HAV’s Airlander 10, for which Design Q have done a splendid concept of the gondola cabin for. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGTEVWIefYM ) And Hybrid Air Vehicles have test flown the craft successfully and have a very conscious view of its place in the future – “Rethink sustainability, rethink capability, rethink the journey…” They want us to rethink the skies. ( https://www.hybridairvehicles.com/ )
The Airlander 10 is also a prototype for the 50, tilting at the same heavy lifting hopes of a project like the Aeroscraft. Which is a bit of a silver monster, but which I don’t think has clocked up even as many air miles as the Airlander yet. ( http://aeroscraft.com/company/4575610685 )
There may be good intent in such big engineering schemes, but in reality changes will have to happen with technology we already have to hand. The impending explosion of the electric vehicle market is going to bring a lot of transitional benefits, I’d say, perhaps most especially in mindset for ordinary us lot – as we explored in EP25 of Unsee The Future. But ultimately, automation – selling miles not cars – and a significantly switched-up view of connected transportation from governments will have to combine to ween us off car ownership and use in the numbers we’ve been unthinkingly used to – if we want to get serious about living with more sustainable travel, especially at polluted, congested, stressful ground level. It all starts with where you live. Something echoed by a recent Science and Technology Select Committee report from MPs here in the UK – we’ve got to invest more in public transport. Because I think people increasingly want it, and this has to be the job of visionary government with a sense of social contract, not simply disconnected start-ups. ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-49425402 ) So, more heartening to many good greenies will be a signal like that from Luxembourg – becoming the first country to make all public transit free. ( https://www.archdaily.com/908252/luxembourg-becomes-first-country-to-make-all-public-transit-free?fbclid=IwAR0WF9nVIEy8lGvTWGq5VSq2imi1S36HsbyxPOoqKn3Uqr48rV7s3af9Nno ) “The newly re-elected prime minister Xavier Bettel and the coalition government have announced that they will lift all fares on trains, trams and buses next summer. Taking aim at long commutes and the country’s carbon footprint, the new move hopes to alleviate some of the worst traffic congestion in the world” as Arch Daily reports.
Having had to park a long way from where I’ve stayed in the topographically challenging city state, I can picture how helpful this will seem to visitors, but also how challenging to locals’ commuting habits.
But if I’ve heard one story of a brand putting its logistics where its mouth is that’s really put some wind in my sails, it’s that of cosmetics company Lush. Because its begun trials of shipping ingredients for its products to its head offices in Poole under sail. Yep. By sailing ship.
( https://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/17751724.lush-brings-goods-poole-sailing-ship/ )
As a local newspaper mate of mine Darren Slade reported in the Bournemouth Echo: “ Senior buyer Agnes Gendry said: “It’s not a PR or a marketing exercise. We are trialling it to see how we can expand this. Can we do more shipping every year on this type of boat? What goods can we put on board that work for us?””
The SV Gallant took a four day trip from Portugal with a couple of other stops, after Lush made contact New Dawn Traders, which co-created the Sail Cargo Alliance to transport ethical goods by sailing ship. And having walked down a gangplank from a sailing ship on Poole Quay, exploring the history of the town’s maritime heritage with Valise Noire Storytelling’s beautiful Cargo project, I can say as an almost local, this idea resonates. It’s history coming alive again. Which makes me even happier in the shower, lathering up m’locks with their shampoo bar. Call me a soap signaller all you like, mate, you can’t deny how nice my hair smells.
Travel like this, for trade or pleasure, doesn’t fit the nine-to-five model. But the nine-to-five model doesn’t fit the planet, not for ten billion of us. Nor does it properly fit the human. Which may be the real source of all our anxieties and emotional unwellnesses in the modern age – we don’t function well in this prolonged schedule of work-life. Hacking your whole perspective on the speed your planet really wants you to see it at could change everything, absolutely everything, about your life. And maybe one day it will mine.
After all, as a Cornel Study found a few years ago, doing makes you happier than owning. ( http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2014/09/doing-makes-you-happier-owning-even-buying ) “To get the most enjoyment out of your dollar, science says to focus your discretionary spending on such experiences as travel rather than material goods” they say.
Jonathan Foley makes this observation: “None of us want to be the first people in history to knowingly imperil their children’s future.” So what is limiting us to change?
As an environmental scientist, he says simply: “I think the thing that’s most limiting us from building a better world is culture.”
“Culture matters” he says. “It did for other challenges we faced, including reducing rates of smoking and associated illness, cutting incidents of drinking and driving, legalizing gay marriage, and achieving broader civil rights. While scientific studies, technological innovation, policy change, and widespread education were all crucial in these battles, it was cultural change and acceptance that really helped them reach a tipping point.” ( https://globalecoguy.org/whats-limiting-us-a049cbf16306 )
New ways of seeing, mate. New stories. Art, rolling up its sleeves in the disaster efforts.
Speaking with a couple of scientists lately, I wonder if there is in the strict principles of scientific research a kind of incredulity that builds up as you do it, that the peer-reviewed, verifiably objective data from whatever aspect of the human planet you’re currently analysing isn’t received as truth from on high. Science has never been more human, more exciting, more connected, more shared and more relatable, even as it gets truly weird in some fields, and the humans practising it have never been more like the rest of us. They know the emotional score – but looking up from the workbench, eyes full of deep study, I think it could be easy to forget the fact that data is always human. It always carries and releases emotion. Of course we don’t simply respond to facts and change accordingly. Of course. We’re always in an emotional context far richer than facts.
Art is an emotional translator.
As poet David Whyte said: “When you’re talking about a subject with a room full of engineers, at Bell Labs or something, usually if you try to talk about very precious experiences, the more you talk about them, the more they go away. But with poetry, which is not about an experience but is the experience itself, you can create that experience in the room.”
One of the best calls to change my behaviours I’ve experienced in recent years is oddly more profound than any health campaign or holiday company ad could ever match. Banff Mountain Film Festival. It’s a curation of short films about getting outside, essentially – all in the spirit of the arts festival that took root in Alberta’s Canadian Rockies and now travels the world each year. And sitting through a screening of all these testimonies to being actively engaged with the geographic character of Earth inspires you to want to leave the theatre and go feel the wind and rain and snow and sun on your skin, and to just climb a mountain so you can ski back down it. You could use these films as background eye candy in an outdoor sports outlet, maybe, but sitting in front of them thoughtfully and listening to all these people’s testimonies of connecting with life outside? I tell you. It’s really a call to feel a lot more alive.
In the light of our travel crisis, I wonder if there may be two nested levels of principle looking forward. We can’t paint a purely reductionist picture of the total future – to say: “less, forever” just won’t compute for motivating, I think. But if we more honestly say: “Less, for now – for the sake of forever” perhaps my generation can find our flinty purpose. We’ve had our life of flights and consumption. It’s time we paid back and took the hit.
I can’t yet work out how to say I will never visit Australian friends again. Or Canadian. American. Never see India. Never see Japan. And, y’know, never say never. But the big question must always be: What’s it worth?
To just be functioning about it, a next step might simply be, for me, to say a practical never to jet flying within Europe again – where I most like to play. But perhaps one flight return every two years for everything else? Sounds more like it to me, and even then – always ask why.
Yes, let’s get real about carbon dioxide costs. This is the episode to begin it – if cars get you thinking about the energy it takes to run your life, travel can get you thinking about the CO2 it takes to move your life. But as environmentalist Stuart Lane said to me: “It’s not all about carbon.” We could get obsessed over the mathematical certainty of chasing that one metric and find ourselves bought by the very economic system we’re trying to evolve. Carbon offsetting is the smallest of beginnings for those of us who’ve been brought up to never ever have thought about that particular cost before. It’s no kind of end in itself.
I found a practical perspective from the former ethical tourism charity Tourism Concern: “So should we fly? Yes, but we need to fly less, stay longer and ensure our holidays are as good for the places we visit as they are for us. If we are going to use a years’ worth of carbon in one flight we must make sure that our holiday brings real benefits to the destination community.” ( https://www.tourismconcern.org.uk/campaign/should-you-fly/ )
We’re not going to stop exploring. It’s still my heartfelt contention that we need inspiration more than we need technical fixes, but we’ll need both. Expressed across every end of the scale – from the choices you make on lastminute.com to being able to look up at the stars and see a future there. It’s why we still arguably need the frontier science of space work.
As PhD students such as Hannah Sergeant work on ways to make human life on the moon a returning possibility, developing chemical ways to make water on the surface and grow plants in habs, she herself says with certainty: “I feel like my generation are definitely going to see this through. I’m confident that it will happen in my lifetime”. ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/extra/nkzysaP3pB/to-the-moon-and-beyond )
And it’s that kind of frontier determination we will need to crack previously unsolved problems in our travel ambitions. But you just know it’s not simply the scientific coalface riddles to crack that lead her and a new generation like her to look up at the sky and want to make a living there. It was the dream of humans going beyond their current cultural and technical limitations. It’s in our blood. Our job, as we explore this current unprecedented convergence of crises in the time we are in, is to dare to challenged unchallenged ideas all around us, like a time of revolution. So that our frontier work doesn’t become only a desperate bid to resettle a lost tribe of nomads.
I think it’s worth remembering, when all seems immoveable around us and we wonder if we can ever leave our comfortable settlement homes. Humans were nomads for thousands of years before they put down roots. We were roaming the Earth in much closer relationship with her millennia before we learned how to survive a fall from a cliff jump.
We’re just where we’ve always been. On a journey. Together and individually. And I know, in this fearsome pilgrimage, I for one feel very unfit to find a promised land. In the search, I’ve not arrived yet. But hopefully, even if I’m a limping future pilgrim, I’m getting there.
Perhaps, if we can all learn how to stand still, wherever we are, we can begin to allow an as yet undiscovered country to find us.