The Elephant in the Airport
After decades of polite silence, last night I was persuaded by Jack Costello SJ to pipe up and call out the elephant in the airport.
If you have even an embryo of ecological consciousness, plus an inclination, either natural or situational, towards travel, you no doubt have bumped into this corpulent pachyderm in line for security clearance, or browsing the liquor and watches in the duty-free zone, or seated with other yawning passengers at the departure gate killing time on Facebook over a Starbucks latte. If you are like every other ticket-holder, you have decorously looked aside. Under no circumstances is the elephant in the airport to be acknowledged, much less addressed.
The presence of this tusked tourist, however, is becoming ever harder to overlook. As climate change goes vicious and viral, charging from a fringe fear to front page freak-out, our love affair with air-travel should be attracting some scandalized glances.
Aeroplanes are extraordinary vehicles on many accounts, not least of which being their prodigality when it comes to energy consumption. You would be hard pressed to invent a quicker way of burning fossil fuels. What we’re leaving on our jet planes is a very battered world behind.
Without doubt, advances in aerospace technologies have succeeded in reducing the mammoth inefficiencies of individual jets. All such gains, however, have been well overtaken by the breakneck increase in our collective air miles. What was once the prerogative of the rich and famous is now the assumed right of every Dick and Jane with a credit card. Thanks in good part to the democratization of high altitudes, we have climatic anarchy at sea level.
The tourist industry alone now accounts for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With the practical conquest of time and space (Toronto to Frankfurt in 7 or so hours), the Earth, our primary spatial and temporal seat, is quickly becoming unglued.
All this is trumpeted by the elephant in the airport, but so few of us care to listen. Ease, safety, availability and very high expectations have made soaring through the heavens a downright mundane activity. Flights are just what people take when they presume they got to get somewhere. Whether or not their presumption is sound seldom receives consideration.
A meeting is called? Up climb my Frequent Flyer points. An island all-inclusive shoots a pop-up across my screen? I wave the winter good-bye. A conference announced in Australia? I polish my Powerpoint presentation and pack my sunscreen.
Although discrepancies in claims and calculations exist, planes, despite all their improvements, still generally come in last in terms of fuel consumption, especially for shorter trips. According to National Geographic, their passenger miles per gallon are a paltry at 40 for a trip from Toronto to New York. An SUV with two passengers arrives at 52, meaning that it is almost 20% more efficient. Take the bus and your fuel efficiency “skyrockets” to 180 miles per gallon.
Now the SUV has a slightly larger carbon footprint than the jet, but it does not have the high altitude water vapor, nitrous oxide and sulphur oxide emissions which also exacerbate the greenhouse effect.
More bad news: in the words of the British Insurance firm ETA, “just one return flight from London to New York produces a greater carbon footprint than a whole year’s personal allowance needed to keep the climate safe”. Add to this the rapid, international spread of infectious diseases and, even more pernicious, the rapid, global loss of patience induced by a willful domination of time and space, and you have a very big elephant doing a great deal of damage without the slightest censure on our part.
Travel, of course, is wonderful gift. It opens minds, dissolves prejudices and disposes the heart to marvel. I treasure the people and places I’ve met in Jamaica, Germany, Spain and Colombia; all countries I stepped into from off of a plane. My ability to cherish them, however, I ascribe to my contentment with not having to multiply them. Months or years, not days, were spent in each one. I inhabited these locales and tried to enter meaningfully their cultures. This is not easy; it requires time, effort and sometimes risk. These three constraining factors are why I am not overly anxious to get more countries under my belt or into my camera.
Elementary physics teaches that all motion involves work, calculated by distance, time and speed. Something falsifying, if not hazardous happens when we try to subtract the work from travel. It should cost us physically, because then we remain conscious that energy is being spent. Ignatius was a grand traveler, but mostly as a pedestrian, a pilgrim. Even with a bum knee he walked internationally. His wisdom, I dare to say, developed in step with his earth-based transport.
Jack Costello SJ, indirectly culpable for this article, tells me that he refuses to fly except in the case of real emergencies. John Perry SJ is also a heroic, intentional rider of Greyhound.
When the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change tells us that we have to transform all aspects of human activity immediately in order to avoid unleashing hell on Earth by as early as 2030, we in the Jesuit world must seriously contemplate how we are going to address the elephant in the airport. Scattered across the globe, we too often meet with ecological abandon. Were it more taxing on us physically, undoubtedly we would think twice before arranging distant meetings. Perhaps we would put more effort in discerning alternatives.
Who knows, we might even decide to lead the elephant gently out of the airport and learn to ride on its back?