Thursday 22 April 2010

Blue Bliss!

“Contrails”, “condensation trails”, “vapour trails”, “the fluffy white lines that follow jet planes around” – whatever you call them, we’ve had around a week without them. Clear blue skies, and for those living anywhere near Gatwick, a week of tranquillity that normal countryside residents enjoy all the time.

Now we’re back to skies criss-crossed with contrails, the sound of birdsong once again drowned out and Sussex once again relegated to the position of a transport hub.

It’s good to live life with quandaries, and flying is one of them. I love flying – if I had my life again I’d probably want to be a pilot. And we do make use of planes to enrich our lives by experiencing places we’d otherwise not be able to get to. What is more, planes are far quieter and more fuel efficient than in the past. But there are just so many of them. Part of me was celebrating the unexpected quiet of skies without planes; the other half of me was worrying about a rare trip to Europe I have planned next week to learn about ecological networks in Germany. A classic quandary – a conservationist doing environmental damage in order to learn more about conservation!

These choices are unpalatable. We live in a global society so have friends and work/personal relations all over the place. We also rely on resources and communications at a global level. Yet the act of living and benefiting from such a society is destroying the things we like, and is ultimately damaging to our very existence. Climate change deniers get over this by pretending it is not happening; extreme environmentalists get over this by opting out. The rest of us sit in the middle feeling guilty. I even heard a poet on Radio 4 put in verse how selfish she felt for enjoying the quiet!

So – I have worries and concerns about the features of modern life and yet by living in modern society I contribute to these concerns, whilst also gaining from their benefits. We are all hypocrites today.

We’ve heard a great deal about the terrible consequences to the UK from the lack of flying in terms of damage to the economy, but very little about the benefits to the environment. We’ve heard even less about whether we should be flying as much as we do at all.

Airports can be hugely damaging to their local environment, with much habitat loss directly caused and also caused by associated infrastructure. Air travel is also the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gases. Furthermore, the gases produced by flying have a greater effect than those produced at ground level. If we are serious about reducing greenhouse gases, but also want the planned growth in air travel, then in a few decades the only industry left in Britain will be air travel – Britain’s emission allocation will be totally taken up by flight so no other industry will be allowed to produce any emissions at all. If economists saw the choice for the economy as flying or every other industry then we may get a different perspective on what air travel actually does to the economy.

Cheap air travel might be seen as a temporary window on the world. It has only started very recently in human history and it is unlikely to last very long – at least for the majority of us. So how can we make best use of the short-term bonus of cheap air travel?

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