Travelling without planes

So, having signed up for the exciting Metageum conference in Malta this November, the question of travel arises. More specifically, how does this sit with my “no air travel unless essential” plan?

First off, why no air travel? Carbon emissions, of course. Jim Bliss, my ex-engineer friend whose head for maths makes me dizzy, on moving to Dublin last year, sat down to work out how much worse it would be if he flew to London rather than taking a coach. Turns out it’s about 31 times worse.

Merrick just did some more DIY carbon calculations, and worked out that – using aviation-friendly estimates – “every minute you’re on a plane is the same as a day’s worth of your electricity”.

If we can make our way briskly past the noxious climate change denial industry (and associated amateurs), accepting that this stuff is actually happening and that our actions have consequences, we usually come to the arguments for “tech fixes”. In many arenas, this is a fair argument – at least, it’s worth engaging with, even if you disagree with it.

Not so, unfortunately, with air travel:

… every other source of global warming can be reduced or replaced […] without a serious reduction in our freedoms. But there is no means of sustaining long-distance, high-speed travel.

The industry claims it can reduce its emissions by means of new technological developments. But as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution points out, its targets “are clearly aspirations rather than projections”. There are some basic technological constraints which make major improvements impossible to envisage.

George Monbiot

The singular nature of air travel in this respect means that we just have to travel less by air. Personal sacrifices in a matter like this, some may argue, are as nothing without widespread limits enforced for all. There’s a truth in that. Yet my general experience is that this argument is usually trotted out by people who (1) would be the last to support widespread enforced limitations, and (2) use it as a rationalization for totally disregarding personal morality.

The people I know who dedicate a great portion of their waking lives to campaigning for such limits also apply this sense of collective morality to their own actions. I think this is known as “integrity”. (Of course, no one’s perfect, and hypocrisy is the result of high ideals as well as a lack of integrity.)

What about offsetting? Surely if there’s no other way we can buy our way out of this one? Well, due to several important practical considerations, the short answer to that is, “No – deal with it”.

My trip to Malta may inevitably end up entailing air flight, if for no other reason than no ferry services seem to operate in November (I’m a good swimmer, but not exceptional). But it may be possible to include a pleasant jaunt through Italy as part of train travel most of the way, and discovering the best way to do this is made all the easier by this brilliant website:

The Man in Seat Sixty-One

The hobby site of “career railwayman” Mark Smith, it details concise and helpful information for anyone who – for whatever reason – wants to travel without flying. It’s geared towards British travellers, but does include information on travel within other countries that people originating elsewhere may find crucial. Most travel agents and other sources of information are insanely biased towards air travel, so sites like this are hugely valuable.

Mark is clearly someone who would be doing this with or without an impending climate crisis: “Many people would rather not fly, or like me, simply prefer a more civilised, comfortable, interesting, adventurous, romantic, scenic, historic, exciting and environmentally-friendly way to travel.”

Yet again, the philosophy of reduction, of intelligently scaling back some of the excesses of capitalist industrialism, is often more than it appears when forced through the growth- and speed-fixated filters of consumer economics. Frequently painted as a passé form of hippy “hair-shirt” self-mortification, reduction is often the path of choice for the true sensualist.

The fact that this philosophy’s most famed branch, the Slow Food movement, itself began in Italy as a reaction to fast food makes me even more inspired to take my time getting to Malta. See if I can find the perfect Pizza Napoletana…