It’s been one of those weekends where I serendipitously end up reading a lot of environmental articles. It could be because SXSW Interactive is next week and I need to mentally balance my karma before getting stuck in a conference center for four days listening to people talk about meaningless technological bullshit. In any case, I ran across both an article on the death of the global ocean and one on the environmental evils of air travel. I also read an excerpt from Tim Flannery’s new book about global warming and climate change in Playboy, but that doesn’t appear to be online.
Air travel is, of course, something I was vehemently against already. Separated from causality, September 11th and 12th were sensorially, viscerally, when I stepped outside and stared up at the clear, incredibly blue sky, the best days since my youth. I literally have not seen or heard skies that clear and quiet since I was a little kid–and I was in Dallas, Texas at the time–a place not usually known for its air quality (or any quality for that matter). And, like a 10-year-old, I allowed myself to foolishly hope that maybe the planes wouldn’t come back. That maybe this was a brave new world. Of course it was, but only exactly in the way that Huxley envisioned–a brave new world where the status quo would be maintained at all costs and we would reward and support those leaders and peers who most effectively enabled us to maintain our illusions. Still, the foolish hope remains. I hope that some day we’ll realize just how inefficient and destructive (and face it, unnecessary) air travel is. We’ll realize that the whole thing only exists through government subsidy at every level–from the eminent domain exercised to build ever-larger airports to the tax-advantaged jet fuel that keeps planes aloft. Buying a seat on a jet airplane for a transoceanic journey is the same as making a monthly payment on a Hummer–it costs the same, it has the same environmental impact and it makes the same statement: a big fuck you to planet Earth that negates a year’s worth of suburban recycling or carpooling.
Air travel isn’t the only culprit. As one article points out, all methods of high speed travel that can potentially replace air travel (rail, hovercraft) have equally abysmal greenhouse gas issues. Automobiles get a bad rap, but they’re relatively efficient and well-regulated compared to almost every other form of transportation and energy production. And what’s really killing us is not localized energy usage anyway, it’s globalism. By some estimates, the worldwide container shipping fleet alone pollutes as much in terms of greenhouse emissions in a given year as all U.S. land-based sources.
But concepts like “go back,” “slow down,” “use less,” “stop and think” are antithetical to our culture. We know no other engine–economically, intellectually, emotionally–than the narrowly-defined “progress” of permanent growth and expansion. We have difficulty imagining large-scale institutions that are not based on resource exploitation. Sustainability is still a loaded term, one once uttered which instantly labels one as a “bleeding-heart liberal” or a socialist. Say global warming and you’re Chicken Little. Talk about government subsidies on fuels and fertilizers that harm the environment and you’re “anti-farmer.” Mention documented, admitted collusion (often labeled “lobbying” or “consulting”) between government and big business and you’re labeled a conspiracy theorist.
But politics aside, it’s impossible to argue with certain facts: Global biodiversity is in well-observed decline. Ocean water temperatures are climbing at rates never previously observed, neither directly nor in the geologic record, and warmer oceans mean stronger storms. Every person, plant, animal and body of air, land or water that we’ve tested contains measurably-higher levels of pollutants than in the recent past. What these facts mean is that by definition the Earth is becoming a less interesting, less safe, less healthy place to live. How is this not our number one concern? Why are we so easily distracted by divisive political issues while ignoring the elephant in the corner desperately trumpeting that the world is becoming a worse place to live?