Venice. Photo by Wolfgang Moroder via Wikimedia commons.
Travel is a wonderful thing. Climate breakdown is not. As in so many other areas of life, we have to reconcile that latter harsh reality with the strange normality that has briefly existed in the time of cheap and abundant oil. In a matter of hours we can fly over an ocean that it used to take perilous months to cross. That’s a trivial statement, but not for much longer. You might say I’m here to, almost literally, bring you down. Actually, I’m asking you to adjust expectations to fit the new reality.
The USA is big enough that we don’t have to leave it to visit different kinds of places. But travel has become so cheap that international travel, the kind that’s supposed to be transformative, is affordable for people with modest incomes. In 2017, 1.3 billion people traveled between countries. But cheapness is the result of mass production — make something in big enough quantities and each item is cheaper. That goes for seats on jet airliners. Cheap travel cheapens the experience. Top destinations like Venice, Barcelona and Amsterdam are overwhelmed in tourist season, to the despair of the inhabitants. The American family that chows down at a Paris McDonald’s before standing in line to join the human river that flows through the Louvre every day is not having a great time either.
Still, the lure is irresistible. For college students and some even younger, international travel is part of the curriculum. For retirees the first order of business is to see the world while they’re still able. In between, for the 40-odd years of your working life, you probably take annual vacations of no more than two weeks. What you get out of travel is proportional to what you put into it. Most of us don’t have the time or money for immersion in another culture.
To be honest, modern tourism for the most part is just another form of entertainment. The sights are packaged, and the more famous they are, the bigger the crowds. A lot of tourist activities don’t require leaving home at all. Wi-fi’s the same everywhere you can get it.
Global tourism amounts to 8% of CO2 emissions, counting transportation, food, lodging, recreation and souvenir shopping. Aviation accounts for 2% of world emissions, maybe 5% including the warming effect of jet contrails. The number of passengers who logged domestic or foreign flights surpassed 4 billion for the first time in 2017.
Flying is a horrible way to travel except for one thing — it’s fast. For that we willingly endure the tedium of airport security; being crammed into a metal tube with cramped space and inadequate toilets; no, little, or terrible food; and the ordeal of getting out of the next airport and to an unfamiliar destination. It’s safe (except for those rare times when everybody dies). We’re surprisingly blasé about hurtling through the thin air of 30,000 feet. It all testifies to our fervent desire to travel.
Flight is an apt metaphor for the rising, accelerating, fossil-fueled human assault on the physical limits of living on a finite planet. Governments, industries and people in general are desperately seeking ways to keep the party going minus fossil fuels. Unfortunately, aviation sets us a particularly intractable problem: There is no renewable energy solution.
Jet fuel is kerosene. Aviation uses a lot of it, 250 million metric tons as of 2012. Oil is getting harder to find and produce. They’re drilling in the Arctic and in deep water, breaking up rocks with hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and steam-blasting bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta to convert into synthetic crude oil. It takes more energy as well as investment money to make that kerosene. When it takes more oil and gas to get more oil and gas, we run out faster.
Algae has been suggested as a new fuel source, but there’s no indication that it will be able to scale up to more than 5% of commercial quantities. Making biofuel from more complex plants than algae would give us a choice between flying and eating; there’s not enough land to grow both food and fuel crops.
Some electric small planes are starting to take off, but if you tried that with an airliner the battery would be so heavy it would never get off the ground. The most we can hope for is the vision of some technologists that hybrid electric-fossil regional jets will be capable of flying sometime between 2028 and 2040. They would still use unacceptable amounts of oil.
Getting around by oil spoils the climate like crowds spoil Machu Picchu and Mount Everest.
Back to normal
The Age of Oil certainly raised our expectations. Cheap oil will end soon, probably with the short-lived fracking boom. Then we’ll find out how abnormal our seemingly normal high-energy lifestyle has been, an infinitesimal 100-year spike in the continuum of time. We have a choice between a soft landing and a crash. All signs point to the crash. There is no general inclination to stop flying, driving and taking cruise ships.
For what it’s worth, there are other ways to get around. We can run a sizable rail network on renewable electricity. Then there are bikes, boats powered by wind or muscle, even horses and animal-drawn carriages.
Slow travel lets you really experience new places. It won’t get you very far unless you have a lot of time and leisure, but new and different places are not that far from wherever you are. The post-oil world will necessarily be slower and more local. The world could use a break from mass tourism.
This conclusion is as lame as a broken-down horse, but one of the easiest things you can do to make your own difference in the great deceleration to come is to cut back on fossil-fueled travel.