My father traveled. Still in his teens, he traveled from Michigan to Alaska with a tent when the Alaska highway was still pitted dirt and gravel. He went moose hunting in Northern Ontario. He tried to travel to Korea in the 1950s, but a hernia barred him from enlisting. He met my mother in the early 60s, and despite being Depression babies from hardscrabble backgrounds, far from the avant garde, they were early adopters of Travel as a leisure pursuit.
They flew to Northern Europe where they rented cheap rooms across Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. To afford this, they lived in a tiny, unfinished attic room in his parent’s house for the first eight years of their marriage. When my mother was five months pregnant with me, ticket prices fell to a pittance, and they took off for two weeks so he could see the running of the bulls in Madrid. We joked later that she should have made a tiny window for me to see out.
Later, I knew my dad as a man who seemed happy only when he was traveling or fishing. He worked as a draftsman for a job shop that fed into the Detroit auto industry (before that industry was piecemeal dismantled and shipped around the globe, requiring a great deal of travel for management and affording little travel money for global employees or furloughed-then-fired American workers). He quit his job every June so that we—he—could travel, assuming he’d get it back when Labor Day forced our return.
This from a person who turned everything into work. His Second Commandment: Thou shalt eschew technology and convenience in favor of labor-intensive rituals of self-sustenance. Don’t use your central heat if you can spend your weekends driving to the countryside to cut and split wood and your evenings tending to a woodstove, the warmth of which doesn’t reach the bedrooms. Don’t hire a backhoe to do in an hour what it will take your two elementary school girls two summers to complete.
His First Commandment was: Thou shalt travel to store up memories in which you can reside when not traveling. “Remember this,” he’d implore, from the shore of a glacial lake, “in the winter months!” We honored both commandments with the labor-intensive practice of camping, fittingly in a tent my mother sewed. We took a month each summer, to camp out of the back of a station wagon, eating cans of beans around a fire or bread and a limp slice of cheese at a roadside pull off. The east and west coasts, the mountain states, a historical tour of the original 13 colonies.
These trips were followed by two months camping on the land in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that my great-grandfather passed down to his eight children, where we fished, bathed in the river, and hunted partridge out of the window of a WWII era Jeep. So that all may be well with us, and we mayest live long on the earth—wherever on that earth we mayest wish to roam.
Despite—really, I should say because of—the time and cost of travel and its lack of productivity, travel was cast not as an indulgence but as a moral good. Travel was the real education: we were spending time in Nature, learning History, getting Out There. He read (and exhorted us to read) every plaque; he talked to every park ranger or ferry operator or local pulling into shore with a chest full of fish. When you returned, you could think of all the things you’d seen that others had missed.How can we live a satisfying life without a bucket list, more pins in the world map, more likes for our vacation pictures?
In the 70s and 80s, not many people in our extended families or in the working-class neighborhoods around us traveled. They didn’t have the vacation days, or didn’t want to use them racing across the continent. Or simply didn’t see the point in looking elsewhere—with the Great Lakes, Michigan was a vacationer’s paradise. Travel was to the family cabin on weekends. Some seemed to suspect that we were secretly rich. My dad spent money on almost nothing except travel and very little on the travel itself; the unthinkable luxury was giving himself a three-month vacation each year.
Or maybe they just sensed my dad’s judgment: we were better than people who didn’t travel, special and morally superior. Others were content to live in provincial garrisons, incurious about the larger world. We were even morally superior to the folks who pulled up in an RV rather than a homemade tent, and those who stopped at the same attractions but breezed through, skipping plaques or reading them too quickly. Later, I tried to touch that foundational beam and my finger went right through.
Travel gave me my mind. It made me dreamy, the hours spent trying to stay on my side of the invisible backseat divide, as we rolled through big sky country and temperate rainforests and rocky shorelines. I’d send my brain out into the landscapes or billboards or passing cars and then reel it back in, examine what I’d caught, store it for later. When we arrived, after helping to set up the tent and picnic table, I could run off and let my mind disappear into a tidal pool or the eddies in a creek, or the process of peeling a stick bare of bark.
Once in a while, our mother would require us to write a poem in the backseat (no doubt, at least in part, to buy herself a spate of silence) but it wasn’t this that made me a writer. It was the passive absorption of great gobs of countryside, and the minute examination of anything that fell to hand—pebble, seed, snail, starfish. It was imagining who I’d be if I lived in this town, that cabin, overlooking this bay. Who I’d be if I lived here 100, 200, 5,000 years ago. Travel demolished our low-slung ranch house as the parameters of the world. I lived in the ocean, on the continental divide, in a sky cloudy with stars.
Today, I don’t know what I or my writing would be without the comparison/contrast of “not home,” “not routine” that generates images, anecdotes, sorting, metaphors. I feel like I need to take in great quantities of “images” and interactions and sensory combinations that I can later wander around until one image sticks to another and another. A years-long habit of visiting natural history museums in European cities, for example, gave me a mental menagerie of dusty, misshapen taxidermy and some insight into the colonial European process of collection and extraction, into the way curiosity was wielded like a machete.
At seven I revered the figurines I got in a Wyoming souvenir shop—a family of three dressed in buckskin and beads. I would run my finger over the buttery hide and make sure their braids were tidy, their papoose strapped tightly to the mother’s back. But state and national parks, history books, my parents, place names, and advertising threw up a scrim, beyond which lay reservations, the American Indian Movement (happening at the same time, in the same mountains), or Native American kids in gumpy cords and t-shirts exactly like mine.
When we visited Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, they were just two colossal monuments, one unfinished. I learned nothing about land theft and the desecration of a sacred mountain. At Colonial Williamsburg, I learned to churn butter and dip a quill in ink, but nothing about chattel slavery. I learned a reverence for “untouched nature” by touching it, learned to avoid all but the historical centers of American cities, which were too grimy and crimey.
In my middle school years, we went on two month-long international trips, the first roughly reproducing my parent’s trek across Northern Europe, the second traveling across Ireland, Scotland, and England. In Germany, Austria, Switzerland, we stayed in zimmers, rooms-to-let, often in farmhouses, where we ate dark bread and boiled eggs in cups with tiny spoons at the host family’s kitchen table.If vacation travel is cultural currency, professional travel is career currency, career necessity in some cases.
I learned a smattering of German from strangers at restaurants in the evening, whittled in the backseat with a Swiss Army knife, and pretended to be Maria Von Trapp on hillsides dappled with brown Swiss cows outside of Salzburg. But I don’t recall a word about the Holocaust or Hitler, whose summer estate was not far from that dappled hill. We certainly didn’t visit Dachau, only an hour’s drive away. This was a dirndls and lederhosen tour, and, when we drifted west to Holland and Denmark, a windmill, cheese gondola, and little mermaid tour. Not an Anne Frank, continent-wide genocide tour, which might itself fall into questionable trauma-tourism.
Two years later, travel through the British Isles hit all of my late-blooming thirteen-year-old neural pleasure centers. How could I not get gone climbing the turret of a broken-down Highlands castle jutting out into a loch, not another soul in view? You’d best believe I was a Lady with high color in my cheeks, waiting for my love to return across the loch, fierce in my quiet ways. Nothing about the Troubles. Nothing about the inequity of class structure and wealth extraction embodied by the castles, cathedrals, universities, and country estates we visited.
I was living more and more in my imagination, but that imagination was inseparable from the lessons I was absorbing about power and the primacy of Europe, which sells a fantasy version of its history and authority as its number one domestic product and export. It was not so much history I was learning but allegiance. It’s a monumental operation to jack up a house and swap out the foundation and rotten support beams without the house falling to pieces.
This is to say that travel is not neutral, ethically or ecologically. You drop into a different culture, a woven mat of flora and fauna, but you bring you with you. Never neutral despite the carbon offsets you can purchase for net neutrality, hoping to clean up the contrails of jet fuel emissions. All those trees planted so we can take a zipline canopy tour in Costa Rica.
Large aircraft burn about one gallon of jet fuel per second. Climate scientists have learned to use literary devices—imagery and analogy—to help us understand the numbers. The Suzuki Foundation, a science-based environmental nonprofit, takes a few tacks. The micro: one five-hour flight emits as much carbon “as heating a European home for an entire year.” And the macro: “If the aviation sector were a nation, it would be among the top ten global emitters.” The BBC puts it this way: a one-way “flight from London to San Francisco emits… more than twice [the CO2] produced by a family car in a year.”It takes a leap of faith, in fact, to believe in the power of offsets to buy a clean conscience and a smaller footprint.
I had long thought of my car as the notable villain—a hand-me-down with its combustion engine, it was my foot on the pedals, my hand reeking of gasoline at the pump. I’ve tried to walk or bike before driving but thought little of flying, perhaps imagining it, with its constraints and its bulk transport of humans as a (dirtier) form of public transport. But, even factoring in a slew of variables, flying is almost always worse. Peter Kalamus, climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and current Cassandra, says, “There is no more potent way, hour-for-hour, to warm the planet.”
Jet fuel produces an average of 21.5 pounds of CO2 per gallon and aviation gas 18.4, while auto fuel produces 19.6. Not a calamitous disparity, but airplanes burn a tremendous amount of fuel taking off and landing. And then there are the contrails, a mixture of CO2, heavy soot, and water vapor. Contrails “that persist for hours can form human-made cirrus clouds, which trap huge amounts of thermal radiation that would otherwise escape into space.” The radiation trapped by these clouds causes “a warming impact 3x that of CO2.” And jet fuel emissions contain nano-particles, which lead to “increased risk of disease, increased hospitalizations, and self-reported lung conditions” in airport employees and those who live near airports.
Not computed in the carbon footprints of flights is the jet fuel airlines sometimes dump in the atmosphere when they need to lighten the plane before landing. They try to avoid this by filling the tanks with little over the fuel needed for the voyage. British Airways once estimated that “only .01% of fuel used by the aviation industry each year is dumped.” But that still equals “almost two million gallons [per year] by U.S. airlines alone.”
Jet fuel emissions are set to spiral upward, just as the planet approaches the climatological Tipping Point. Currently, flights make up 2.5-5% of global emissions, though many climate scientists would weight the percentage higher to reflect the outsize damage those emissions cause. And this is with just three percent of the world population flying—the wealthiest citizens of the wealthiest countries. With burgeoning middle classes in China and India, the most populous nations, the number of passengers is “set to double in the next 20 years.” Even factoring in expected innovations in efficiency, emissions are expected to triple by 2050.
Oh, but carbon offsets! Modern day Indulgences, built on similarly shaky theology. It takes a leap of faith, in fact, to believe in the power of offsets to buy a clean conscience and a smaller footprint. The main mechanism for offsets is planting trees, but those trees are usually monoculture “forests,” terrible as a platform for biodiversity, and extra vulnerable to pests, fires, and species extinction. And offset forests, locations undisclosed, don’t repair tourism-ravaged landscapes or cultures. You can’t offset travel-dependent economies.
[Pullquote]It is difficult to separate seeing and taking: the privilege of being among the 3 percent of the world’s population that flies.[/Pullquote]
Often, not a tree is planted. The money is paid, instead, to landowners (usually already wealthy) to prevent potential deforestation. But can hypothetical tree-saving cancel out the burning of an actual tank of jet fuel? What offsets do accomplish is market protection, ensuring guilt-free flights, cruises, tours, and resorts. Kevin Anderson, climate researcher for Nature, definitively scorches the offset economy as “…worse than doing nothing. It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.”
But travel is still treated—even or especially among those of us who have presumably spent some time thinking about climate change and colonialism—as a net positive. Even a moral good: We have a responsibility to see the world, to claw our way out of provinciality, to tap a shunt into our brain and pour in experiences where they will alchemically turn into knowledge and empathy.
The theory is that when we leave our familiar surroundings, our understanding of history and custom and ecology and communication surge. We could get at least a bare outline of another’s perspective; and have the chance to see ourselves and our homes more clearly, from a distance, in contrast.
The conversation among travelers in a foreign place is often, either directly or indirectly, about home—how is this place—its food, laws, expectations, design, flora and fauna, air, pace, language—different from what we know. In the liberal theory, exposure = empathy; being mired = myopathy. You can’t find yourself, you can’t triangulate, without at least two other points on the map. We have a duty to fling ourselves elsewhere and read every plaque.
Class and morality have always been silent partners, so it’s just one click from moral obligation to social hierarchy. Commercial flights have been available for 100 years, but only to the middle class in the US since the 1960s and to the working class after federal deregulation in 1978. Forty-four years for mass flying, a sliver of time.
But it has ballooned in our hive mind as one of the ways to satisfy inflationary appetites for novelty, prestige, and class escape. How can we live a satisfying life without a bucket list, more pins in the world map, more likes for our vacation pictures, how can we navigate without proof that we are not stuck, provincial, in a rut, a loser.
And, my god, there are so many positives. The last trip my husband, son, and I took, three summers ago, pre-Covid, began with a flight to Prince Edward Island, a spot familiar to me from childhood camping trips, moved through Nova Scotia, and then to the edge-of-the-continent unknown—Newfoundland, the thought of which still gives me a catch in the chest of affection and bigness and longing. We hiked to one of the only accessible portions of the earth’s mantle. The sky tipped fiery, and the visible crust vibrated in deep reds and oranges.
In a spot along the lonely western shore, great swaths of rock had heaved up and beached themselves so that you could run your toes and fingers along clear stripes of 500 million years of sediment. The severity of the skies in Newfoundland stirred me, and the cool and wayward weather, the small communities along the west and north coasts, the isolation of which preserved 18th-century Welsh, Cork, Westie, and Aberdeen accents; the “Potted Moose Meat” for sale at a cafe in hand-labeled jars.If we changed our orientation toward sacrifice and bad news, though, what would that look like? If you and I said no more flights?
I could have read about Newfoundland, instead, but a book would not have allowed me to observe the Viking kitsch embrace of L’Anse aux Meadows, an archeological dig at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Before 1960, the bumps on this spit of land were called “Indian mounds” by locals, and nobody cared. They weren’t excavated or fenced off or named. Not even a plaque. Then a Norwegian couple arrived with a hunch and asked locals if there were any unusual topographical features nearby.
The locals showed them the mounds, which, when excavated, were revealed to be a Viking settlement, the first European encampment in the Americas, 1,000 years earlier. Though theirs was a brief stay—only ten years or so—L’Anse aux Meadows has been turned, in its own small way, into a tourist destination. Viking iconography gathers at the roadsides—red beards, sheep skins, and horned hats, and in most of the business names—Viking RV Park, Viking Nest B&B. Vikings as faux-menacing, Vikings as cheerful mascots. It’s what counts as a tourist boomtown in Newfoundland.
Half a day’s drive down the west coast, though, lies Port au Choix National Historic Site, which encompasses an area of the Atlantic shore used as a seasonal home for 5,000 years by Archaic Maritime Indians, Paleoeskimos, Inuit, and later indigenous tribes to fish and hunt seal.
About a mile from the parking lot is a large meadow dotted with clusters of wild irises. The irises bloom only in low spots across the meadow, depressions created by tents pitched year after year for thousands of years. I’ve never felt so acutely the way that land itself might remember, not for a season, or seven, but 700 x 7. The flowers store the memory in the rhizomes on which they grow and mark it with darkest violet every year.
We walked down to a beach thick with fossils and took a hypothermic dip in the ocean in our underwear. We’d met almost no one else that day, so we stripped without fear of discovery. I might have guessed that cultural remembrance, an artifact of colonial value—would work that way: the Norse L’Anse aux Meadows on bucket lists and Port au Choix as subtle as a low-lying iris, as quiet as fog rolling down a beach. But now I carry that knowledge along my myelin sheaths.
It was a little hard to get to Newfoundland—an overnight car ferry with prohibitively expensive berths, everyone in steerage belly-up in recliners, Say Yes to the Dress on loop from every angle. Difficult was part of what made me pre-love it, though. I have always wanted to work a little for experiences—trek through the woods to a swimming hole rather than roll up to the beach; cross country skis instead of chairlifts and lodges. Difficult as a moral good, again. On vacation, I want to see everything, go to the end of the road, to the place where habitual life becomes inaccessible, where things get surprising, quiet, impossible to turn into anecdote.
Yet I did: A post about the moose meat, a video failing to capture the way you could run your fingers across eons, like keys on a piano, a post about a ceilidh—a “kitchen party”—we crashed at a Prince Edward Island church, where the elderly gathered to dance all night, tried to teach us a “Northern Set,” and paused at 10pm for “lunch.”Large capacity electric flight is still decades away, though. It would currently take 1.2 million pounds of batteries to get a jumbo jet off the ground.
When I was a child, people would host slideshows of their vacation—actual projectors beaming light through tiny, haunted images to their guests’ obligatory murmurs of admiration. Who would want to see another family muffled in their ski gear, greased with fondue, or frozen upright in front of the Vatican? Why would we care that you ate salmon right off the boat in Sitka, or wienerschnitzel in this half-timbered café in Rothenburg ob der Tauber? It was narcissistic sadism—your guests on folding chairs in the basement, watching you click through iterations of your family in front of landmarks.
In the age of social media, however, posting vacation pictures is an obligation, the minimum requirement for being an interesting person. Your life is small and sad if you don’t occasionally frame a plate of moussaka on Crete, or the view from a yoga retreat on an Indian tea plantation, or the remnant of an iceberg that floated from Greenland to the tip of Newfoundland.
They come in different shades, these posts, but usually gather under the same capitalist banner: work hard, play hard. We have produced, churned up the cream, and now we get a fingerful. A virtuous trip to a Serengeti animal foster, a Grandmaster art tour, sojourns to familial homelands, lavish (or made to seem so) resorts and food tours, my-trip-is-more-surprising-than-yours treks to Mongolia or a little island off Tasmania. Family trips, friend-gang romps, solo-hikes.
Unless the poster is, or is trying to seem like, an influencer, the trips are situated as necessary, as earned. Earned through stress and labor (“After a difficult year, we’re finally…”). Through the schisms of class ascent (“my parents never got to….”, “I could never imagine, as a little girl in Goodwill dresses, that I’d be…”).
With a frontloaded caveat or two about suffering, sacrifice, deprivation, or thrift. Underneath which, pulled taut, are the steel cables of our will, our right, and our obligation to travel. And an obligation to use travel as a font and showcase for vitality. This is, at least, how I often have felt about travel: here is evidence for myself, maybe others, that I am fully alive, vigorous, curious.
If vacation travel is cultural currency, professional travel is career currency, career necessity in some cases. Globalization has made travel often mandatory for the management class: Americans alone make “over 405 million long-distance business trips per year” and US business trip expenditure is set to rise from 3.28 billion pre-pandemic to 500 billion in 2022.The stories of his international life have become a source of fascination, now, for our son, who asks for anecdotes as if his father is an audiobook.
And despite the tedium of connecting flights and anonymous hotel rooms, “65 percent of millennials see business travel as a status symbol” and don’t want to be left out. If you are crisscrossing the globe, you must be important to the system, planes like needles pulling thread, stitching the whole operation together. Until you get into super-sized CEO territory, at which point people come to you and you send yourself into space, the new travel frontier.
If you labor in the arts or academia, you are asked to build or demonstrate an “international reputation.” How will we know if we matter without travel? If we don’t have proof of this “reputation”? And unless local means a solo show at LACMA or a fellowship at the New York Public Library or a residency at Princeton, you must present work, accept invitations, and do research anywhere but home.
You must fly your bodily vessel around the globe and convince strangers that you’re brimming with knowledge or talent or, at the very least, improvisational skill. Your work does not count—in an act of obliterating metonymy, you do not count—if you are local.
Local is at best a quirky addition to your CV or tenure file, like volunteer work or a side hustle; at worst, an embarrassment. A friend at a Midwest college has had twenty-two exhibits of his work in the past four years; yet he’s run into static in his tenure review because six were local. Building an artistic and intellectual community around you counts against your work. The more you travel, the more you matter. The more you seek or are asked to leave home, the more power you have in that home. Until you use that power as a launchpad to a new home, and the cycle begins again—farther, more.
During the pandemic, universities drafted policies regarding “lapses” in CVs where conferences, readings, presentations, and residencies elsewhere should have gone. We could explain our deficiencies, be “forgiven.” This scorn for local, for home, is baked into our prestige-based institutions, institutions which often have equity and sustainability initiatives while demanding that their show ponies cart themselves around the world. Unless, again, you are famous or powerful enough that the world comes to you. Either way, someone’s flying.
I think these things, too. I want to know people who are from and have been elsewhere. When I hear that someone is traveling internationally—or even nationally—for their work, I’m reflexively curious, impressed, I ratchet up their intrinsic value. If I hear someone is presenting down the street, my (nearly unconscious) response is: that’s sweet but insufficient. Insufficient for what? These knee-jerk appraisals don’t track with values I would like to claim, but “it”—let’s call it travel prestige—is like a Renaissance fortress inside me. I chisel at the mortar, lob a few sticks of dynamite when I remember to, but the fortress, jagged around the edges, remains.
Part of my initial attraction to my now husband was wrapped up in his quasi-international life: he lived in the Caribbean at the end of junior high, lived in Costa Rica a decade later, traveled to Brazil, Cuba, and Portugal in the few years before we met, and was about to embark on a year-long art installation project in Geneva, requiring weeks on location over the course of a year. The stories of his international life have become a source of fascination, now, for our son, who asks for anecdotes as if his father is an audiobook.It’s a truism of politics: try to remove a right, benefit, freedom, and you’ll likely be voted out. This seems many times truer in the consumer arena.
But those experiences really did change him: they rearranged his chaotic childhood, transferred his adolescent focus from himself to other people, places, and languages. It turned him into a collaborator—you can’t be a pillar of self-sufficiency if you spend a year in a foreign country. You have to make a feast of mistakes and confusion. You have to find cognates.
And now we are responsible for a tween I’d like to see changed by travel. People say: I want to give my child the world. I don’t want him to have the world; I want him to see it. But it is difficult to separate seeing and taking: the privilege of being among the 3 percent of the world’s population that flies; the pain X number of flights causes other creatures, human and otherwise.
As air travel shuttered in the first months of the pandemic, the skies cleared a bit and not as much sunscreen fanned out into the ocean and filtered down to graying coral. Mountain goats, lemurs, deer, jackals, even sea lions wandered the streets of tourist towns. Life without human mobility and ceaseless consumption and roving entertainment looked, for a moment, a lot freer for everything but humans. Who became obsessed with not traveling. For the 3 percent, it was not just intolerable to remain indoors, it was intolerable to remain in one geographical spot. An unchosen, insufferable monogamy.
Then came the summer of 2021. Not unlike the Brood X cicadas that emerged that summer and furiously, deafeningly lived a full cycle, humans who survived the pandemic seemed to take it as their duty to get in their “lost” living. By March 2022, domestic flights were nearly back up to pre-pandemic levels, and flights between the US and Europe shot up 398 percent between January 2021 and January 2022. Luxury spending, gun violence, and traffic deaths also soared—the life cycle cacophonous and brief. Tell us we can’t have a thing and we will have five of that thing, with a whiff of aggrievement.
The world teed us up for epiphanies, but they didn’t last or they’re muffled under loads of nihilism or willful optimism: nothing I do can change anything; no sense in me and the future being miserable; we need structural, not individual change; we’ll figure it out, we always do. As the climatological bad news keeps rolling in, Americans seem pathologically dependent on optimism, which seems increasingly like a contortionist’s trick.
But what if tech will save us from sacrifice? The tech-solution contingent points to recent advances in battery-fueled aviation. NASA is developing a two-seater prototype, and very small electric planes with a range of 50 or 100 miles are already available. Tesla hopes to make electric plane taxis available to Uber as soon as 2023.
Large capacity electric flight is still decades away, though. It would currently take 1.2 million pounds of batteries to get a jumbo jet off the ground. But, of course, the trajectory of innovation usually is not linear. We could not have imagined ten years ago that the Detroit auto companies would be hard-selling macho-American electric pick-up trucks. One problem gets solved in Slovakia, one in Canada, one in India, then a confluence, followed, sometimes, by a supernova.
So, perhaps we’ll be commuting in electric planes in a handful of years. Perhaps in 2055 large passenger jets will be hybrid or fully electric, the batteries more like tissue packs than cruise ship anchors and reduced-harm flying will be widely available. That will be too late for me, likely, but I am not the point, not the customer-who-is-always-right.Efforts in the US to build a flight-free movement are smaller, quieter, partly because most areas of the country have no access to rail lines.
The point is: it likely will be too late to avoid stumbling past the tipping point. If we jet-fuel fly now and take what we cannot give back later, a question should hang over us: who will fly in those electric jumbo jets and under what circumstances and over what scenes of flooding, drought, and forced migration. We fly over those scenes now, well above the cloud line.
I have already disclosed that I was reared on a doctrine of maximum effort/minimum ease, and thus am not a neutral or maybe even reasonable commentator on the effort/ease of others, but I’ve always chaffed at the term “sustainable.” The actual sustainability movement works to change the way we farm, shop, handle water and waste, and power our lives so we don’t continue borrowing from an increasingly depleted future.
But in practice, the emphasis shifts from sustaining the ecosystem, to sustaining our lifestyles through “green alternatives.” The very idea of sustainability seems designed to a) calm the consumer classes and b) direct us to a whole new market for “sustainably produced” goods—those greenlight taglines for eco-nervous shoppers. But what about the lifestyles most Westerners have now—structured around (or striving for) convenience, accumulation, expansion, and ease—should be sustained?
Eco-strategists know the drill: if you make something a bummer for people, they’ll lash out or squirm away. If people think they might lose something (toilet paper, the right to build on flood plains, their centuries-long racial privilege, their Amazon-to-doorstep-emissions-belching pipeline), they’ll do more, do everything. All the toilet paper, all the edicts against teaching accurate history, all the fill, the sea walls, porches full of packages—every day your birthday!
It’s a truism of politics: try to remove a right, benefit, freedom, and you’ll likely be voted out. This seems many times truer in the consumer arena: sure, we’re worried about tipping points, but how many hours of free time would we be willing to surrender, how much repair work will we learn? Will we live without novelty—the new clothes, the structurally unnecessary home renovation and decorating, the travel, travel, travel? If TV is our culture’s vision board, HGTV and travel channels and the broad swath of luxury-lifestyle reality shows would suggest—would shout and jump cut—No. So Sustainability tries to avoid the scare of sacrifice.
If we changed our orientation toward sacrifice and bad news, though, what would that look like? If you and I said no more flights?
This is already a thing: the no-fly movement, known in the EU by a very Calvinist term: flygskam, or “flight shame.” Organizers in countries across the world encourage people to take pledges for a flight-free year (or years, or a lifetime), and create a like-minded community with which to navigate a world that assumes and encourages air travel. This is easier in countries and continents with healthy rail systems. But it’s often still time consuming and difficult to coordinate.
In a British no-fly group, one man writes cheerfully of taking a ferry to France, then multiple trains to the Atlantic coast of Spain, then another ferry—over three days of travel one way to attend a conference in the Maldives. One writes of visiting the Galapagos by hitching a ride on a working barge, six months at sea. A British sociologist spent a full month aboard cross-continental trains in order to conduct research in Ningbo, China.
Brit Lewis McNeil has been flight-free for 15 years, despite the high travel demands of his job as a project manager who builds community orchards across the UK. His speaks of “a ‘letting go’ period, akin to the end of a relationship,” but says “…things got exciting when I realized that one can travel, and travel far, while creating a fraction of the emissions that air travel is responsible for.”
Perhaps that’s what I’m feeling: the end of a relationship, and the fear, grasping, emptiness, and sorrow rush into the void it leaves. Perhaps peace will come if I sit still long enough. Perhaps local thrills can get a toehold after that.
Efforts in the US to build a flight-free movement are smaller, quieter, partly because most areas of the country have no access to rail lines, partly because of the US Janus head: one face molded by an inferiority complex, forever trying to shed the stigma of provincialism, one face chiseled by unchecked imperialism, literally, economically, or culturally planting a flag everywhere. Even domestically, the often-vast distances between regions and cities, between isolated rural places, implies a need for flight if we would conform to our culture’s expectation for speed and mobility.Academic flying “reconfigures various forms of violence, including those associated with coloniality.”
There is a Flight Free USA chapter, though, with an undisclosed number of participants. They lobby to prevent airport expansions and share stories of how they navigate a flight-free life. This is where I found Janie Katz-Christy, a Boston architect and longtime environmental activist who has been flight (and car!) free since 2007 (apart from a single one-way flight during a child’s medical emergency). She travels with gusto on Amtrak and takes electric bike tours with her husband and grown children who they raised to be environmentally responsible.
Her son, she says, used to “go to sleep with the MBTA subway map and the Amtrak timetable in his hands.” She would like to emphasize the potential pleasure of a reduced footprint lifestyle—“Let’s have fun and live lightly!”—but her frustration at the carbon profligacy of others sometimes drowns out the joy. She sees Boston as the hypocrisy capital of the world, full of highly educated people, concerned and well informed about climate crises, who don’t “limit themselves in any way.”
Neighbors tell her of their trips and she’s proud of herself if she holds back a “sour” remark. She admits, though, that “If I weren’t doing this, I think I’d hate the people who were doing this.” Friends and family, she suspects, hide their vacations from her, fearing her judgment.
I admire her and also fear my own self-righteousness. That I won’t be able to give air travel up if others don’t—if I’m going to suffer, you should too! Or that I won’t be able to give it up and not be a sanctimonious twat about it, flying a great big banner in the sky announcing my self-sacrifice for the good of the earth, like those who announce their departures from social media on social media.
Her children, says Katz-Christy, are “trying to teach [her] some balance” a release from black and white into gray. Yet her—everyone’s—responsibility to the earth is indisputable. Though institutional change is the crucial driver, as her husband puts it, “The only thing you know will happen is what you do yourself.” She’s working on ways to have the joy and peace of a positive personal choice without the social bitterness.
Two acquaintances of Katz-Christy made the personal choice to quit flying while also pushing for a reduction of emissions in academia. Joe Nevins, a scholar of environmental science and geography at Vassar, and Park Wilde, a scholar of food and nutrition policy at Tufts, have begun the project Flying Less: Reducing Academia’s Carbon Footprint, to spur institutional change in a sector that feasts on hyper-mobility and globalism.
They are asking for institutional pledges, not individual ones, while recognizing that all institutions, scholars, and fields are not created equal, and, further, that academic flying only increases inequality: rich nations have emitted the vast majority of greenhouse gasses and would like to demand emissions austerity from poor countries, a pattern reproduced in academia; poor nations get “studied” by rich nations which then hold the majority of conferences, demanding that scholars from the global south come to them; scholars from poor countries must get credentialed in or at least travel to rich nations for the sake of prestige, and must return home frequently if they wish to maintain family and community ties.
In a collaborative paper, Nevins writes that academic flying “reconfigures various forms of violence, including those associated with coloniality,” and “reproduces individualist and modernist ideals and discourses of enlightened ‘free spirits’ moving through space…” There’s a conviction deep down in many Western scholars (and artists and writers, publishers and corporations) that the importance of their work and their right to conduct it supersedes all other considerations. Not to mention the glamor. Being the one everyone wants to hear from, being in the room—every room—where it happens.
They believe that Western institutions approach travel like kids in a candy store, that short, flight-dependent “study abroad” trips are wasteful, that conferences should transition permanently to virtual attendance, at least for privileged institutions and individuals, and that each flight should trigger questions about the necessity for and implications of that flight.
While their focus is on social change through institutional change, both Nevins and Wilde have forsworn flying for over fifteen years. Nevins had to give up his research in East Timor and Mexico, but he’s critical of that work now: the idea that you can drop into another country for a year, two, even longer and come away as some sort of authority now strikes him as a colonial fantasy, a fantasy that earned him tenure. And the idea that one needs to do this work is neoliberal god-complex territory.
Since giving up air travel, he and Wilde have worked on projects closer to home: Nevins collaborating on A People’s Guide to Greater Boston, a social justice history “tour book”; and Wilde creating a charmingly evangelical YouTube travel series called Lifestyles of the NOT Jetset, in which he extols the virtues of the places he can reach by rail or bike. They’re creating a rich connection between their creative/intellectual life, their social justice convictions, and the knowledge that carbon emissions are threatening life on Earth.
They both acknowledge that they’ve made these changes post-tenure, and that, even as the earth dies, having a career, an intellectual life, and a way of producing both facts and theories matters. And so, they recommend that senior faculty and “senior” institutions should be the first to let go. And face the repercussions. As sustainability scholar Kimberly Nicholas puts it: “We are not going to be able to save all the things we love…. [We have to] swim through that ocean of grief…and recognize that we still have time to act, and salvage many of the things we care about.”
What might be waiting beyond the grief? Some are already finding out. British playwright Katie Mitchell has said no more flights. In 2022, her work, A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, opened in Milan, wearing its environmental concerns visually and structurally. The show was designed to tour Europe without a bit of shipping or travel, not even for the writer or director. They coordinated from London with directors in the host theaters, which employed local actors and crew, and constructed sets in situ from repurposed materials.
This is where artists might feel a twinge: No nuanced collaboration with actors and crew at a new location, no in-person accolades, no eating and drinking local specialties, no diving into bodies of water or hiking trails or renting a vespa and zooming down streets unknown to you on a rare day off? Not being the guest of honor? Mitchell says, “In the light of climate change, you can’t have the normal hierarchies… You have to relinquish artistic control.” Instead, you are a head in a box fumbling with technical issues. But this is the old orientation, face buried in loss and sacrifice. Mitchell has already re-oriented herself: “We had to have a different protocol of communication. You could view everything as a problem. Me and my team, we chose not to.”
The show had few absolute requirements. One was that actors were required to power the lights, sound, and video projectors by pedaling stationary bikes on stage for the duration of the show. There they were, during every scene, working away. Their effort had to be visible since electricity is invisible. It’s generated elsewhere and shows up in our buildings like the magic it was first presumed to be.
And since we don’t have to wield an axe for it and are not choked by its smoke in our living room or paying $50 for it at the gas pump, we add it to our giant pillowy pile of forgetting. So, for the duration of the show, you see calories turn into kilowatts. Janie Katz-Christy also prefers making the invisible visible, at least through metaphor. “Flying” she says, “is like sticking an exhaust pipe directly into a poor child’s mouth.” People should picture that the next time they feel the urge to take a flight, she suggests.
I took two trips this summer. One by train from Memphis to Ann Arbor, MI (approximately 21 hours), then by car with my sister to the eastern corner of the Upper Peninsula where our father lives and is beginning to fail to live.
This is what I can report about my first Amtrak experience outside of quick trips along the northeast corridor:
It was full of small disappointments, likely a measure of how I’d unwittingly romanticized train travel, hopeful for its promise as an alternative. Each of the four legs of the journey was delayed, sometimes by hours. Each car had an inviting spigot that said “Ice Water”; each was empty. The attendant in the dining car said, “I’ve been working on the Wolverine for 30 years and I’ve never seen anyone use them.”After getting on the train two hours late and hoping to fall into bed, I wanted to cry.
The boarding area at Union Station in Chicago was chaotic—passengers for three separate trains crammed into a narrow hallway with their often copious luggage. Someone yelled, “This is a fire hazard!” and it got a little more chaotic. But these are normal travel bumps, negligible if—and these are pretty big ifs—you’re healthy, constitutionally patient, and not prone to panic attacks.
Then the roomette. I’d slept in a chair in coach on the night train to Chicago but had a sleeper on the way back—an indulgence I’d dangled ahead of myself to get through an arduous week. A roomette came with bunk beds, fresh sheets and pillowcases, a door that locked, complimentary meals in the dining car, and a separate lounge in the train station.
When I got to the roomette, though, I thought there’d been a mistake. It looked like two regular train seats facing each other, a pillow on each, and a very narrow place to stand and pull a curtain closed behind you. The ticket was twice as much for that bit of privacy? Sleeping in a chair behind a curtain rather than in a car with forty strangers?
The mistake was mine. Several instruction cards alerted me to the fact that the chairs converted into the bottom bunk, and a handle I hadn’t noticed pulled down to form the top bunk. God help anyone taller or more than average weight or traveling with a companion who might use the second bed. You would have to take turns stepping into the hallway while the other person origamied themselves into a bunk.
I had imagined myself sitting in a little room, typing away on my laptop, eventually getting sleepy and easing myself back into the bed. But this dark nook felt claustrophobic. After getting on the train two hours late and hoping to fall into bed, I wanted to cry.
But it was a marvel of space-efficient engineering, and space efficiency = fuel efficiency. Once I was vertiginously perched in the top bunk, sleep gummies melting in my stomach, I was feeling game, ready to laugh at the giant sleep-seatbelt that could keep one from pitching off in the middle of the night. I took my chances without it and, in the morning, having fully slept off my petulance, I worked happily on the lower seats in the early light.
These are merely logistics, but they don’t occur in a vacuum. When you travel, a window is not a postcard. You are moving through and arriving in places; you are seeing and leaving people; you are altered by the things that happen or fail to happen there.
You feel the ground in a train, you see the backsides of people’s yards and junkyards and work yards and railyards. And farm fields and thirsty weeds and muddy streams, and the crossings with and without signals and protective arms. And you are making that famously lonesome whistle and trailing it along behind you. And you are not, by and large, poisoning the towns through which you travel—more than staying home, less than driving or flying.Our collective moment, on the precipice of ecosystem death, requires a kind of stillness and honesty most people (who have a choice) are not ready for.
And, a happy holdover from the heyday of rail travel, trains pull into the center of town. You can simply step off and join the foot traffic in major American cities. No TSA or baggage claim, no half-hour taxi rides. On my layover on the way there, I was able to meet a beloved former student for tea. On my return layover, I walked for hours, reacquainting myself with Chicago, a city I had barely visited since living there briefly in the mid-90s.
And here is a sense memory: On the first leg of the return, from Ann Arbor to Chicago, I’m being pulled backward through the countryside, and it reminds me of my intense desire to be sucked backward into sleep. Propofol a beautiful dream; Michael Jackson’s desire to anesthetize himself every night becoming more and more understandable.
The trip to MI used to be one of complex family relationships and bodily happiness—swimming, foraging among evergreens, cold nights deliciously burrowed under quilts in a popup camper. But these past few years, it has been about trying to wrangle my father in his mental decline—no longer autonomous and crouched in frightened denial.
He was flying, all these years, away from himself and the messes he couldn’t own and the person he couldn’t be. Even as he insists the ground is still frozen in July, he says, “I think I might take a long cruise this winter, all the way around the tip of Argentina.” Starts to talk about the cruise he took several years ago through the Panama Canal—not how beautiful or interesting or special the experience, but of two women who disembarked for a shore stop and didn’t return on time. “The ship was honking for them. Dumb ladies, holding us all up.” There’s a world map with a hundred pins inside his cabin; what exactly did all that travel teach him? I wish to fly away, too, to be gone quickquick.
I did fly away after that to stay with friends for the rest of the summer in an Alaskan town accessible only by plane or ferry. I looked into taking the train from Memphis to Bellingham, WA, where we could catch the Alaska Ferry, a route that, all told, would take about a week, but portions of the train route were already sold out.
Instead, the trip required three flights each way, one of which flew us 2.5 hours in the opposite direction. Flight “dieters” often aim for a maximum of one round trip flight per year; this would have blown that budget for six years. I rationalized hard to myself: this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend time in the homebase of the family closest to us. But not long after we arrived, I thought: I have done the wrong thing. I thought flying, in this case, was about closeness, but dynamics are complicated and proximity is not a guarantee of closeness.
No one can tell us what we must surrender. They can try, but, if we have options, we can form callouses over our eardrums. There are people and places that feel like home 1,000, 1.500, 5,000 and more miles from where we live. And I would like to know what so many places are like—the air in Morocco, food in Sardinia, water in the hot springs of Japan. The feast etiquette in Tahiti, circadian rhythms at the southern tip of Chile, lemur negotiation in Madagascar.
And, even as I write this, I’m rebelling, wanting to accelerate my travel, like a person who binges after simply imagining a diet. But, as John Nolt, professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, tabulates: “The average American is responsible, through his/her greenhouse gas emissions, for the serious suffering and/or deaths of one or two future people.” How does that stack up against our quest for new and not home?
I understand that travel is often fantasy, an understanding reinforced by both trips this summer. And our collective moment, on the precipice of ecosystem death, requires a kind of stillness and honesty most people (who have a choice) are not ready for. All of these flights, the novelty and prestige-mobility, is a way to perpetuate and escape culpability for systems of global inequality, to keep churning and spooning up the cream. Not flying away from yourself can be hard. Staying in one place is hard. Loving that place, the people in that place, the person you are in that place, can be hard.
My friend reminds me of the value of what novelist Marilyn Robinson calls “the dear ordinary.” This friend no longer travels, not with a pledge, but as a disposition, an orientation. She looks out onto a field teeming with creatures, ruthlessly tends a garden, clocks the seasons and migrations, the sometimes incremental, sometimes swift changes that aging brings. She sends me what she sees in gorgeously precise language.
When I visit (two plane rides), we sit on her porch and watch the field with our breakfast, and I think, I too could be content here. But I’m just passing through.