In praise of flying
The Solar Impulse, a solar-powered prototype plane, has just undertaken its first 24 hour test flight. It is very interesting news and one that environmentalists everywhere should welcome. But I have a hunch that many won't.
This, for me, is a crucial defining point. As far as most of the population of the world (including me) is concerned travel around the world is a brilliant thing to be able to do. To see the amazing beauty of the planet, the astonishing variety of its people, and huge diversity of its wildlife, is to genuinely broaden the mind and appreciate our world ever more keenly.
And even the fact of flying itself. To sit on a chair that is a mile off the ground, to see the clouds from above, to study the fascinating vista of the city you are about to visit from above - these are wonders.
We do, as a species, have some difficult challenges ahead, of course. But it all depends how you define the challenge.
Those that will be successful define the challenge as this: How do we continue to enjoy this fantastic ability to see the world in a way that is sustainable in the future?
Most environmentalists do not do this. They define the challenge as: How do we persuade people that they should travel less in order to save the planet?
It starts from the premise that there is no way to enjoy the benefits whilst removing most of the impact. It comes across to many people that want to travel as being ideologically opposed to travel, not pragmatically opposed to the current environmental harm that it causes.
That is why such a position is a loser. You cannot sell hairshirts. Even in this time of financial difficulty, the governments that are persuading populations (for now, barely) to accept the need for cutbacks in public spending are not doing this by projecting it as their long-term vision for the future, but a short-term necessity provoked by a crisis.
What is our vision for the future? One where people can travel the world, support the local economies in a number of countries that depend on tourism, and enjoy the experience? Or one where such things are remembered, but no longer available as an option?
Your vision for the future describes your direction of travel. Of course there will be obstacles to be overcome. Challenges to be faced. Difficulties to be endured. But the vision is what establishes what you're trying to sell as a common goal that will bring people together.
I would expect people with hairshirt mentality to raise all sorts of objections at this point. Don't I know, for instance, that the Solar Impulse is a lightweight. The wingspan of an Airbus A340 but carrying only the weight of a medium car? Not exactly a model for the mass transport of the future ...
As I said, lots of challenges to overcome. But those critics come across as hoping such projects will fail because they PREFER to believe that only abstinence will do.
Ironically, the final destination will probably be one that has less flying. There will be reduced impact, but also higher prices that will regulate the amount of traffic by default. It will become a luxury. But people will accept that if the will is there to make the most satisfactory outcome, and we have to make some accommodation with what can be achieved. They will not accept the reduction of their freedom to travel as an ideological preference.
Posted on: 8 Jul 2010