Further Along the Trail

Sunday 23rd of August 2020

I ended the last post with the point that although a vapour trail may obscure the sun, it is obvious in the sky. Sometimes, just because a way forward appears clear, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is the right way. I don’t know if you have had an experience of trying to follow a path on the ground where what has been clear initially turns out to be frustratingly unclear. When that path is in a wood or through other vegetation, it can easily be obscured; or what turn out to be animal tracks merely masquerade as a human-made trail and lead nowhere in particular.
I’ve chosen a picture of a path through a wood as an illustration because I think that what we sometimes need to do is to pick our way slowly through a group of related issues. Even if the path can still be followed, there may be twists and turns or we may need to go back on ourselves before picking it up again. Sometimes it may be narrow and this too can mean that progress is slow or there may be numerous factors that speak of the difficulty of moving forward.
What I’m wanting to do here is to try and take as broad a look as possible at one small part of what might influence our carbon emissions and which could therefore affect the track of climate change. In some ways, air travel is an obvious subject to consider, even if it is a smaller constituent part of the carbon emissions jigsaw than others. Predictions have generally been that it will continue to grow. My sense is that considering flying from a number of angles may also help to see some of challenges which we face more generally in combating climate change, as well as looking at this specific issue.
The first aspect I am going to consider is whether we need to fly as much as we have become used to. The fact that this has become so much of “normal life” for so many people could easily be clouding our judgment. In spite of the doubt which the airline and aviation industries are expressing about their future custom, many people are looking forward to being able to return to the same experience of flying as they have been enjoying. At the same time, there may be others who see it as too risky to get on a plane, because of the risk of the infection. However, if their safety could be guaranteed, they would jump at the chance of boarding flights again.
So why do people fly? One obvious answer is that they make trips either for work or for leisure. I think there is rather more to it than that. Flying has a certain allure and even when it has become commonplace for some people, it hasn’t quite lost that attraction. Part of this is that commercial air travel is closely linked to a sense of technological progress and therefore wellbeing for Western society as a whole. Intertwined with this is also a sense of freedom. That has numerous levels to it: the sense of freedom of being able to lift off from the ground with our man-made wings cannot be totally ignored. There is also the sense of freedom that a journey which would take months on foot but still even a matter of days in a car can be completed in a couple of hours’ flying time. Closely linked to this is the idea that given a relatively modest outlay (at least for people in the affluent West) anywhere in the world is within reach.
The phrase “dream holiday” may be overused but is perhaps another acknowledgement that when and where we travel is not always a decision based on a conscious decision-making process. It perhaps goes without saying but it may also be important to point out that the significance of a holiday has to relate to the context of what it is a holiday from i.e. generally work/home. The more pressurised, energy-sapping or even tediously routine that employment becomes, the greater the attraction of the break from this environment and the more significance this then acquires. Similarly, the less we feel “at home” in our homes, the greater the longing for going somewhere else.
How we organise ourselves and how we choose to live in 2020 are very much related to being able to travel both widely and relatively easily. Globalisation depends on this. That also means that our economic systems are likely to resist a move away from air travel, not just within the travel, airline and aviation industries themselves but more broadly. It is possible that international trade will be carried out less on a face-to-face basis and more through video conferencing or other forms of communication at a distance. However, we have had these technologies for some time and I wonder if there will in some quarters be a return before long to thinking that a “distant” meeting is second best to being face-to-face.
On a more personal level, people take decisions on where to live on the basis of being able to travel fairly easily on either a local or an international level. People commute to and from work further than they used to, but they also tend to live further away from people that they want to spend time with on a regular basis. Obviously, this has come out particularly during the coronavirus outbreak, but there are issues and challenges here which would come to the fore if we were to sustain attempts to achieve a lasting reduction in emissions from air travel.
There is clearly a possibility that we decide fairly quickly that air travel has become so important within world civilisation that we do whatever we need to do in order to restore this to previous levels as soon as coronavirus limitations no longer need to apply. I personally feel that this would be a mistake. The huge “shock to the system” of the pandemic gives us an opportunity to take a step back and look at whether air travel is a key part of our lives or not. There is of course the possibility that we can reduce carbon emissions from flying through technological solutions but I am not going to deal with that here.
Part of our difficulty is that on the face of it we are talking about something simple i.e. moving from one place to another. One thing that the coronavirus outbreak has reminded us about is that we can find it difficult having to stay in one place. Is this just habit, because we are used to being able to move around? I think there is probably more to it than that, although I’m sure that also plays a role. When we are forced to stay in one place or perhaps even more so to be with a small number of other people we are brought up close to ourselves and especially what in us makes being with others more problematic. If we have no choice about being with people (as in lockdown) that can bring this into painfully sharp relief.
I think there is potentially a spiritual aspect to this. On the one hand, being still is something that is often advocated as a beneficial state of mind or practice. On the other, this is often something that doesn’t come easily. Is there any sense that some of our travel, including international air travel, is because we don’t have the skills or awareness which we need in order to find that stillness? I would even go so far as to question whether some of the travel we undertake, perhaps especially in the area of leisure and holidays, stems from a need to get away from somewhere, something or even someone. Unfortunately, we have a whole industry which feeds this, because it also creates incomes for firms in the travel industry. Obviously, that creates a whole sphere of work which provides employment for people. That means that if we are going to reduce the number of flights, various people’s jobs will suffer. I’ll consider that more elsewhere.
For now, I want to consider stillness in a particular context. Some years ago, I was able to spend some time on the Scottish island of Iona. I was there for a number of months, but I met on a regular basis people who were only there for a relatively short time. For a variety of reasons, Iona has a reputation as a place which might help people to find stillness. However, it isn’t necessarily as clear-cut as that. That stillness often gives rise to a type of movement which individuals can find disturbing. They may be forced to look at unfamiliar parts of themselves and even ones which it is uncomfortable to contemplate. More that that, there may be a sense of change being needed.
To me, that is what is needed collectively in relation to climate change. By and large in western society we inhabit spaces which focus on a type of distraction, deflection and division which makes it very difficult for us to find the capacity for such a process. I would even go so far as to say that at times the forces which engender the distraction experience operate in their own self-interest in doing so, because “no change” will benefit them. The contrast is with the collective process which has the potential to benefit everyone, but only if we are able to do so with maturity, compassion and honesty. That is the degree of the challenge which we face.