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The future of flight

I was planning to be in London by now.

My day job was sending me there on business, but I had also hoped to see more of the city’s museums and gardens and maybe give a public talk while I was there. Now more than 2,000 flights out of Ireland have been cancelled, along with the best-laid plans of more than 120,000 people in this country alone. At first authorities said the planes would be flying again Friday, then Monday, and now they say Wednesday – and now the volcano in Iceland that caused the trouble is erupting again.

As the skies remain quiet here, we are reminded how much we rely on air travel, not just for business meetings and holidays but to keep the supermarket stocked. According to the Guardian newspaper, Ireland and England might experience a temporary shortage of fruit, which is grown in Australia, New Zealand and other distant lands and transported to the other side of the planet every day to be eaten in huge quantities in Europe. The shortage may spread to other foods, the article said, from baby corn from Thailand to pineapple chunks from Ghana. In fact, 90 percent of Britain’s fruit and the 60 percent of its vegetables are imported.

“Many of Britain's supermarkets operate their supply chains incredibly tightly, using the principle of ‘just in time’ delivery,” the article said. “When disaster strikes, shortages of some items can start appearing within a few days.”

The hiatus – I don’t know that it really qualifies as a “disaster” yet -- could also create a temporary shortage of flowers, which are regularly shipped to Europe from Kenya and other countries, as well as pharmaceuticals and high-tech items that have a short supply chain.

Little events like this help us see in microcosm the larger disruptions we might see in the years ahead. It shows us just how tightly the world economy is bound together, so that an Icelandic volcano can ruin a Kenyan plantation. It also shows us how profoundly longer disruptions would affect us -- some other weather catastrophe, another spike in fuel prices, or another dip in the economy.

On the bright side, however, most of this constant circulation of planes around, and the goods they transport, are unnecessary. In fact, like so much of modern life, they involve a great leap backward.

Take fruit, for example, since so much of it is flown in. Medieval Britons didn’t need to ship apples in from New Zealand, even had they known about the place – they gathered apples in the autumn and kept them cool in the attic until they needed them. We are no less able to do this than they were, yet how many garden sheds and closets could you open to see stacks of apples?

Victorians commonly built greenhouses, in which they could grow many fruits or flowers not ordinarily found in Europe. With our ready-to-assemble parts and clear plastic sheeting, we could do the same things more easily. We just don’t.

If towns in Ireland or Iowa began feeding themselves again, though, oranges and bananas might still return to their former exotic status – my elderly relatives in the USA got oranges in their Christmas stockings, and community dances in wartime Britain often gave away a banana as first prize in raffle drawings. But perhaps that is as it should be. We just don’t have a human right to regularly eat large amounts of food that can only be grown thousands of kilometers away, especially when – as a recent survey indicated – a third of the food that comes into our homes is thrown away uneaten.

Passenger air travel was not common until a few decades ago. In the early 20th century, people regarded airplanes as almost magical creations; schools and businesses closed when an airplane came to town, and pilots who broke the latest record made magazine covers and had everything from dishes to dances named after them. Even after planes began transporting passengers on regular routes, they only served small numbers. Americans took only three million passenger flights in 1940, and while that number increased to 56 million in 1956, it was still mainly for businessmen and the rich. Families turned out to excitedly watch planes take off, and people dressed up for the flight as they did for church.

Two generations later the numbers had increased twelve-fold, until the average American was flying more than twice a year. Today most people regard air travel as an annoyance of long waits, poor food and noise pollution, but its withdrawal as an outrageous imposition.

As oil production goes down – and the US Department of Defense predicts a severe crunch by 2015 – air travel will have to go back to what it was at least two generations ago, if it remains at all. We can get electricity from coal, nuclear, wind and solar, we can warm ourselves with coal, electricity or wood, and we can transport ourselves over land in electric rails or buses. But there are no solar-powered manned planes, no nuclear airbuses and no wood-stoked jets. Planes need petroleum.

Bio-fuels could potentially keep at least some planes flying indefinitely. But ethanol, for example, uses almost as much energy to create as it generates, so the remaining flights might well be mostly military, with a few for wealthy passengers.

I don’t think air travel will end soon or suddenly, but it will recede because it must, and I would like to see us cut back now precisely because I want to make it last as long as possible. I like the fact that my young cousin from Kansas could spend a year in Japan, that an Italian historian can see Mayan ruins and return home the next day, or that we can immerse ourselves in different cultures and landscapes in ways we could never do online.

Without planes cities and countries will become far away again, accessible only by slow ocean voyages or by the Internet – if we still have these things. “Remote” will refer to real distance again, rather than distance from the nearest airport. Travel will become a serious commitment of time and money again, for dilettantes and refugees.

I know other people who had to cancel flights this week, and they are annoyed but unconcerned -- they fly many times a year, and have often been to London for a football match or a party. Me, I’ve been on seven round-trip plane flights in my life – still more than my climate change ration, but not enough to become jaded. I never want to lose that sense of amazement at airplanes and new lands, the understanding that I am enjoying a rare privilege.

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: flickr/Olastuen

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