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