[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
Suppose you believe, as I do, that we have to slash our carbon emissions drastically and urgently to ameliorate the worst effects of the climate catastrophe that is beginning to engulf us. And that you believe, as I do, that travel is a good thing for individuals and societies, and that in principle every human should enjoy the opportunity to visit every neighborhood around our fair planet. Can these beliefs be reconciled?
I used to joke, when people looked askance at my refusal to leave Vancouver, that it was the center of the world: “Ten hours to Heathrow, ten hours to Narita!” I was right, but…
Earth can’t afford for everyone to routinely hop on a jet-fueled aluminium cylinder and fly ten hours at a time.
Narita and Heathrow both suck. Arriving at either of them after one of those long flights is usually pretty awful. I speak from painful experience.
The unpleasantness of Narita and Heathrow is not entirely their own fault. After you’ve flown ten hours east or west, when the plane comes down you’ve descended into a nasty fog of jet-lag. Words cannot express my loathing for this condition — tossing and turning in an unfamiliar hotel bed during the wee hours, fighting off nap attacks in the middle of business meetings, feeling paralyzed after a single glass of wine with dinner.
The lame old anecdote applies here: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this!” “So, stop doing that.” No kidding, and you might help save the planet too.
I have read that recovery from jet-lag takes on the order of one day per timezone crossed. Thus, our current mode of travel, which crosses roughly one time zone per hour while spewing CO2 to poison our children’s futures is simply a bad thing and we should Stop Doing That.
Disclosure: I have been an egregious lifelong travel offender. I’ve enjoyed Damascus and Antibes and São Paolo and Tokyo and Memphis and, well, the list goes on. A world in which those destination options are no longer open to anyone would be a sad place.
What are you suggesting? · That we travel more slowly, which is to say more humanely, and which will enable us to cut down on the greenhouse gas per unit of distance.
Concretely, that for every trip we want to take, we maximize the distance that is covered by train, and minimize those legs that require becoming airborne.
For example · So let’s suppose I want to sample the delights of the Côte d'Azur one more time. Starting, of course, from Vancouver.
The big problem, of course, is the Atlantic ocean. Water travel is unacceptably slow and not notably energy-efficient. So let’s concede that it has to be done by air.
Today, I’d fly to Heathrow (sigh), 7,574km. Then I’d spend unpleasant airport time waiting for my connection to Nice or Cannes or somewhere, another 1000km or so. And I’d arrive feeling like deep-fried shit, wouldn’t really be in the swing of things for another couple of days.
(By the way, I’ve done this, back in the Nineties. There were two immigration lines in Cannes and when we got to the front of ours I noticed that each was being served by a young woman and both of them were flushing and giggling. I glanced left and there was Andre Agassi arriving in France to play in the Monaco open.)
Let’s do this more humanely. By consulting Google Earth I observe that the minimum as-the-plane-flies distance between the North American mainland and Europe is probably Portland, Maine to Brest, France. So our trip becomes three-legged:
Train: Vancouver to Portland, ME: 4,023km.
Fly: Portland to Brest: 4,944km.
Train: Brest to Cannes: 1,034k.
How long is this going to take? Let’s assume that all train travel averages 300km/h. Don’t tell me that’s crazy, I traveled 2000km from Hong Kong to Beijing that way in 2019, averaging 306km/h. It can and should be done.
Modern aircraft cruise at somewhere around 900km/h. Thus:
Vancouver to Portland: 13.4hrs.
Portland to Brest: 5.5hrs
Brest to Cannes: 3.4hrs
Realistically, I probably would have to go to Seattle to catch this imagined future train. But anyhow, the idea is that you wouldn’t do all three legs as a single 22.3hr marathon. You’d start the first leg early and get to Portland late, and stay overnight in a hotel with real beds and real breakfasts. Presumably since Portland is now a major rail hub the locals would have recognized a business opportunity and made it attractive to spend a day there taking the sights in, eating lobster, catching up on minor jetlag, and spending another night before you took off for Brest.
I’ve been to Brest, but only the train station on a trip to the countryside of Brittany. It’s well-worth a day or two’s visit, poking around taking in the standing stones and ciders and country cooking. Why not do that while you recover from the trans-Atlantic jet-lag? Remember that a 5000km leg will hurt less than the currently-typical 7500km jolt.
And then that last leg is a doddle, although France being France you probably have to go through Paris to get from Brest to the Riviera. Why not stop? Yes, you’re a tourist so Parisians hate you, but it’s still a cool place. And I guarantee that with four nights off, you’ll show up at the edge of the Mediterranean in a much better condition to enjoy it.
But wait, there’s more! · The thing that bothers me about this trip is still that trans-Atlantic leg. Yes, we’ve chopped a third off the carbon cost by shortening the route, but it’s still damn expensive, measured in CO2. Is there an alternative?
Maybe so. The airships being manufactured by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin cruise at 115km/h. So the leg from Portland to Brest would take about 43 hours. And to be realistic, the Zeppelin products do not have the scale or range to do this economically.
But let’s throw this challenge in the face of the world’s aircraft designers: Build us a way to travel 5000km or so that spews less carbon and provides a reasonably pleasant experience. We don’t require the 900km/h velocity of the current product, but we’d like it to be faster than 115km/h.
The profession built the current nasty-experience climate-destroying product line because they could, and because we decided incorrectly that we needed to travel one time-zone per hour. Let’s just drop that last constraint, and rejoice in doing so.
The real cost · It’s time, of course. Instead of waking up in Vancouver and going to bed in the South of France, it’s taken us the best part of a week to get there. That’s awful!
No it isn’t, it’s civilized. We’ve seen interesting places, we’ve eaten good meals, we’ve arrived in a decent condition to enjoy ourselves, and we’ve avoided pissing on our children’s future.
Of course, I’ve just ruined everyone’s vacation plans because they don’t get enough time off work for this kind of extravaganza. Well, that’s a bug too. As is the notion that it’s ever a good idea to travel at one time-zone per hour.