Archive for March, 2013

The Skies — The Limits

In the early 1960s, when my young father-to-be wanted an adventure overseas, he lugged his trunk to a boat in the New York City harbor. No doubt the idea of backtracking the path of his immigrant parents held some appeal. But the choice of this long watery route over the grey Atlantic was also partly driven by the fact that flying was prohibitively expensive. This was about to change.

The first regularly scheduled transcontinental jet service began operation in 1959. Within the next 15 years half of all Americans, mostly business travelers, would experience flying. As tickets dropped in price, the doors were opened to families and recreational travelers.

In 1965, when my mother emigrated from the Old Country to marry my father in the New World, she did not worry that she would never see her family again. How strange, not to have this consequence, the bane of most world travelers for all of recorded history before her.

Today, it would be hard for many of us to imagine a world without air travel. To be sure, there are exotic, interesting places we might like to see, but more compellingly, air travel has made it possible for our families to sprinkle themselves willy nilly around the globe, and still be within reach.

My sister lives in Urbana, Illinois. Just a hundred years back, getting to her house would have been an epic journey. I’d need to cross the full length of Massachusetts, leaving the state through the low lying range of the Berkshire Mountains. From there, I’d climb a little north, to skirt New York’s finger lakes and most of the southern shore of Lake Eire, the 10th largest lake in the world. Then, still, I’d have to cut across a large chunk of Ohio and all of Indiana. It’s a 1,200 mile trip.

How many days would it take by horse-drawn wagon? How many days on foot? How many days, by bicycle? How long, even now, by train or car? Too long for a week of vacation. And so, we fly.

Writer William Burroughs once said that humans were living in the “gasoline crack of history.” This phrase has stayed with me. Are we, in fact, living in a thin sliver of time in which we can, with relative ease, see those we love, even when separated by thousands of miles, mountain ranges, tremendous lakes and vast plains? I take it for granted that I can simply fly over that whole rumpled, pitted mess down on the surface.

Why must it ever end? Air travel, it turns out, spews staggering volumes of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. The New York Times recently reported that a single round trip flight across the country creates approximately 2-3 tons of carbon dioxide per passenger. Given that the average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide annually, a few long flights a year could easily account for the largest chunk of an individual’s contribution to climate change. This is something to think about.

It’s something that regular people might want to think about, because our government, as usual, does not seem to be doing so. Indeed, while the European Union is planning to tax carbon emissions above a pre-determined amount on flights in and out of its airports, the US government has bowed to the airline industry and tried to block such measures.

I usually make about one long flight a year. And now I must admit that despite driving a hybrid and turning down the heat, this one flight undoes a lot of those efforts. What to do?

I will think about flying less. Although this will be hard, rising ticket prices and increasingly unpleasant flying experiences will help considerably.

I will think about buying carbon offsets; in fact I like the idea more and more. Here’s how it works: you do something which emits carbon – for example fly to California or drive to Frosty’s for a donut every morning for a entire year. The money you pay for a carbon offset funds a carbon-reducing project, such as a wind farm. You can visit any number of on-line sources and purchase an offset for each ton of carbon you’d like to have expunged from your conscience.

Native Energy, one popular carbon management company (did you even know there was such a thing?), charges about $15 per ton of carbon to be offset. Of course it’s still better to vacation in Maine and bike to Frosty’s every morning, but $15/ton is not a bad deal for saving your soul.

And finally, I will think about a polar bear, looking out across the dwindling ice pack wondering how she is going to feed her cubs this year. Does she care if the cause of her trouble is folks driving around in gas-guzzling Humvees or if it’s so-called environmentalists turning the heat down, driving hybrids, and then flying to Costa Rica for eco-tours of the vanishing rain forest? The answer is no, she doesn’t care; the ice is melting either way, and lunch will be hard to find.

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