By Adam Brock

In a society obsessed with efficiency, the miracle of crisscrossing the planet in a matter of hours has become mundane. Every day, from Duluth to Dubai, millions of people shuffle through metal detectors, pack themselves into cramped metal tubes, doze off, distractedly watch a movie or two, and disembark, sore, bleary, and suddenly somewhere else. All in all, it’s a pretty depressing cultural dance: like so much else in the overdeveloped world, our contemporary paradigm of transporation is high on quantity and short on quality. We might be able to travel between any major city in a matter of hours, but that freedom comes at a dear cost – not only to our climate, but also our mental health and our sense of place.

This summer, I made the decision to stop flying altogether. When I explain my decision to people, I think most assume that I’m caught up in footprint mania, on some kind quest for carbon martyrdom. But while the emissions thing is indeed a part of my decision to stick to the ground, what’s more important is my desire to make long-distance transportation something that nourishes rather than drains me. I want to experience what it really feels like to get from place to place, to travel in a way that’s as much about process as product. Being able to take note of the subtle shifts in culture and landscape on the way from A to B gives me much richer sense of place when I get to my destination. What’s more, moving at a more human speed allows me the time to reflect on where I’m coming from and where I’m going – something I hardly ever get to do in my supersaturated life.

I’ve been practicing this philosophy of “slow travel” for a few years now, but I hadn’t made the explicit decision to avoid the airplane until this winter break, when I convinced a few friends from my hometown of Denver to take the train back from New York with me. I went into the ride expecting a certain dose of adventure, and there were certainly some hitches: a snowstorm on the way to Chicago stretched what should have been an 18-hour ride into a 23-hour one, and the circa-1981 seats were much better to look at than sleep in. But I also enjoyed great conversation, met some fascinating folks, and saw with fresh eyes a part of the country I’d long written off.

I’m fortunate that the trip I wanted to take was relatively simple and cheap to make on the ground. Of course, it won’t always be that easy: trains might be an underrated way to traverse the USA, but much of the travel we’re accustomed to can’t practically happen without the miracle of flight. From volunteering in remote African villages to attending business meetings thousands of miles away, the fact of cheap and easy air travel has opened up all kinds of doors for citizens of the overdeveloped world, and few people (myself included) would like to see those doors shut.

But whether the remarkable ease of mobility that aviation creates is a good thing or not, the reality is that it natural limits, filtered through policy and economics, won’t allow it to exist for much longer. Carbon legislation and ever-climbing fuel prices are all but certain to make air travel a luxury in the near future – and an un-PC one at that, like wearing a fur coat.

The implications, as they say, are vast, for the way we get around shapes our experience of the world. The successive transportation revolutions of the fossil fuel era laid the groundwork for a global society, enabling unprecedented migration and cross-cultural dialogue. The regeneration, in contrast, will bring about a rediscovery of the art of inhabitance. Grist reader naught101 made a good case for staying put in a comment a few weeks back:

I’d like to point out that it’s quite possible to spend decades in one place, and still not discover everything that’s within walking distance. And the biodiversity in your local ecosystems (assuming they’re not completely destroyed) is more complex than anything you’ll ever learn from travelling for a short period to any other ecosystem.

The fundamental answer to this question is another question: why travel?

Naught101’s question might be overdoing it slightly; I still believe in the value of experiencing a place fundamentally different from the one you’re used to. But his point remains: the end of easy aviation will challenge us to rethink what it means to explore the world around us. Perhaps we’ll a have a smaller menu of destinations to choose from, but we’ll be afforded the time to enjoy the journey – and the opportunity to rediscover the wonders that lie a bit closer to home.

photo credit: flickr/cjelli


6 thoughts on “Grounded

  1. Jeremy Friedman says:

    I’ve gotta say that we’re in very different places on this one.

    My personal experience has been that travel, even including airplanes, is one of the few technologically-derived sources of joy and genuine personal growth that I experience (I would count books and internet access on that short list, along with the possible addition of the cinema).

    Every single time I’m on an airplane (back to my 5th birthday, when I told my parents that what I really wanted as a birthday present was to fly alone to see my grandma in Missouri), I’m drawn into the present. At that strange moment when the wheels stop touching the ground, I feel not drained as you describe, but instead filled with an extraordinary rush of excitement and wonder, a sense of the profundity of humanity’s larger historical journey to a time where we can fly like birds. And like many others, it was the experience of looking down at the patchwork landscape of the Earth that helped me finally contextualize the extent of the human impact on the environment, and begin reevaluating my role within it.

    On the other hand, I recognize that if we’re to escape nasty historical precedents (Icarus comes to mind), we’re going to have to think very differently about flying. Currently, for example, jet fuel is the only form of transportation fuel for which we have no biofuel substitute.

    I have nothing but respect for fostering a sense of place, embracing local sustainability, and thinking like trees by putting down roots. But travel, like books, has been one of the preeminent means of building human-scale connections between the local on one hand, and the global on the other. The journey isn’t only about the time it takes to get to point A to point B, it’s also about the means of travel, the experiences en route, and ultimately, the feelings it engenders about our actions and their consequences.

  2. Livepaths says:

    Great blog!

    If the economics don’t work, recycling efforts won’t either.
    As our little contribution to make this economics of recycling more appealing, blogs about people and companies that make money selling recycled or reused items, provide green services or help us reduce our dependency on non renewable resources.

  3. Coby says:

    Jeremy, I see your point about the joy and personal growth that traveling can bring and am glad you accentuated the point. However, what seems to be the problem is not the sort of mindful, eye-opening travel that excites you and many others (myself included). There is no denying the bazaar and ever novel perspective brought about by the experience of leaving the ground and looking back on our earth from the sky, or landing in a place where reality is suddenly unlike what we are used to.

    The problem seems to lie in the mindless travel of the two day business conference, or the quick trip to China to hash out some development deal, or even the sort of tourist travel that places you in a resort in Thailand with all the (often foreign) amenities. This is the sort of travel where very little interaction with place actually takes place. Good travel is the mindful travel you speak of. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much air travel is of this sort anymore as many take the miracle of flight for granted.

  4. Jeremy Friedman says:

    Coby, I’m sure you’re right about a breakdown that heavily favors relatively meaningless and unengaged travel behaviors – it’d be great to track down smoe statistics on this, even as basic as personal/business travel…

  5. wgreen says:

    Good thoughts. Modern technology has robbed us of so many things. I don’t think I am just being nostalgic. I think that as mechanization and electronic advancement have increased, we have been forced to change our culture and our lives, and not for the better. Even modern medecine, which may seem like the ultimate rebuttal to arguments against modern technology, has its advantages and disadvantages.

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