In the Air Again: Expectations and Complications of Global Travel

I was not ready for more travel, though I had to go to L.A. for a doctor’s appointment a couple of days ago. An airline ticket was actually cheaper than a half-hour telephone consultation, which insurance does not cover. Not that I don’t like traveling; I do. But it is, after all, part of that middle-class and above, often excessive, “lifestyle” subsidized by debt, both personal and national.

As I have said before, somewhere, I don’t like the term, “lifestyle.” It seems to convey a sense that one’s life is merely a fashion statement. It implies that we are all free to choose whatever “style” of life we want. It also assumes that “lifestyle” choices entail no costs beyond the credit card. Only our economic success limits our ability to “choose our own lifestyle.” Culturally, it has become a matter of “consumer rights.” After all, with the inevitable march of “progress” as endless economic growth, we will all be middle class or even super-rich someday, right? Well, not so much, if you are a realist, however hopeful.

Old World and New

In Europe and other ‘older’ societies, families have lived in the same place for centuries. Who of us can say that? Most Americans move at least once every ten years. If you are a Euro-American and living in Santa Fe, NM, for over ten years, many transplants from California, New York, or Texas, will consider you a virtual native. Yet Native Americans or the heirs to Spanish conquistadors of four hundred years ago, would disagree. But that’s another story.

Commercial aviation is becoming a complicated affair in the twenty-first century. Yet it remains affordable for many among the shrinking middle class. Plans for expansion

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Popular Airliner ~ source: cnn.com

abound. The executive elite of the increasingly infamous one percent travels bi-coastally and internationally on a regular basis. The rest of us travel occasionally, relying on credit cards that many rarely pay off. All this is possible because of heavy public subsidies of companies like Boeing and Airbus. We all pay for the aviation infrastructure that makes the FAA’s Air Traffic Control system and National Weather Service work so well. Who would fly if it were all rolled into the price of a ticket from L.A. to Paris?

Externality and Ecological Costs

Like so many other industries, aviation “externalizes” the social and ecological costs of its operations to the people and the planet in the form of disease and climate chaos. As a general aviation pilot, I find it difficult to face the fact that aviation is generally an ecological disaster. At least aviation does not have the biggest industrial carbon footprint. No matter the relatively small ecological damage from small planes versus big jets, the total carbon emissions from the industry are huge. Yet, the status of “frequent flyer” is widely subsidized.

On the other hand, I calculated that my little 180 horsepower airplane consumes about the same amount of fuel per mile traveled as a standard American automobile. I don’t fly it all that many hours per year, so I can rationalize my hobby as having a relatively small carbon footprint. But then, American cars get terrible gas mileage compared to cars driven in Europe. I don’t have aggregate numbers, but the anecdotal evidence is consistent. Last time we were in France, we rented a little diesel Mercedes mini SUV, drove it all over, and rarely needed fuel. That car is not available in the U.S. However, the only viable future for the automobile industry is electric.

Airline flying for business or pleasure has a huge carbon footprint when considered as a whole. Yet the middle and upper-class American public considers it virtually a civil right to fly around the nation or planet at will. How can this conflict between species survival and the consumer culture of personal privilege be resolved? The increasing chaos of the living Earth systems will resolve it for us, in a very bad way, if we do not change our ways. As we move through the new era of the Anthropocene, we must harmonize with the ecosystems upon which we depend for our lives, or our lives will be lost in the consequent chaos.

On the Ground Again: Flourishing Below Sea Level…for Now

Much of Holland is below sea level. Will the dikes hold? The Dutch have held back the North Sea for hundreds of years. They are the world’s experts on dike and canal building and pumping seawater. But they may be facing a whole new situation in the years to come.

Traveling through the Netherlands one recent spring, I could not find a hill over a couple of hundred feet high, and that was rare. Holland is very flat, much of the land is below sea level. If the dykes were to fail, the country would return to the marshes and estuaries so much of it had been before it was “reclaimed.” In the 13th century, windmills had begun to drain areas below sea level for farming.

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Areas of Holland Below Sea Level are in Blue to the right of ‘s-Gravenhage

We were staying in a house we rented via Airbnb in Haarlem at the corner of Martin Luther King Lan and Schweitzer Lan. I would sit at a desk by the window looking down on that corner from the second floor. With my laptop and coffee, I wrote and watched the early morning traffic. It was Spring. Almost as many people were riding bicycles to work or school as were driving the typical small fuel-efficient European cars.

Because the tulips were in bloom, it had been impossible to find a rental in Amsterdam. Haarlem actually turned out to be just as convenient, an easy train ride to central Amsterdam for the museums, canal-side cafés and old-world sights. Both cities were fascinating. Despite several European trips I never get over the massive number of ancient buildings in Europe, all made of hand-shaped stone. Sadly, it also reminds me of the historic buildings demolished by Trumpist wrecking balls in New York City.

We caught a local bus to the famous Keukenhof, touted rightly as the “most beautiful spring garden in the world.” The Keukenhof is an exquisite 32-hectare garden with every variety of tulip, countless other flowers, trees imaginable. Massive tulip fields and bicycle paths availed themselves nearby. We walked through a tiny fraction of the Keukenhof before renting bicycles to ride along the canals and among the tulip fields nearby. It was delightful.

One day we rented a car so we could drive to Petten, NL, to see the ancestral town from which my wife’s family had immigrated to “The New World” on the Mayflower. Petten is right on the coast of the North Sea, behind a huge dike built of sand and planted with grasses. It appeared to have been recently renovated since the grass clumps on the dike were all new and planted in neat rows.

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Dike or Sand Sea-wall and Beach at Petten, North Holland, facing the North Sea.

On arriving in Petten, we noticed that the whole town seemed rather new. Construction was still ongoing on a large staircase over the dike to the beach. Of course, we climbed it and went down to the broad beach. I was surprised to see the construction of what appeared to be a large restraint on the beach, built on piers about 15 feet high, with lots of big windows facing the sea. Everything in Petten from the beach to the town seemed new compared to other towns in Holland that had existed for centuries.

We asked some folks in one of the stores in town why everything was so new. As it turned out, Petten had been lost to storm surges twice in history, then destroyed by the Germans in World War II. I wondered how long it would be until the current global sea rise would destroy Patten. Despite its accomplishments in holding back the North Sea in past centuries, Holland will have never experienced the degree of sea rise predicted for this century as a result of global warming and glacier and polar ice cap melt.

Clearly, the Dutch are a resourceful people with a long history of resilience. They seem both very well organized and among the happiest people on the planet. Things are ‘expensive,’ at least from an American traveler’s perspective. But the Dutch are able to afford their rather advanced lives. I did not see a homeless person on the entire trip. Modern windmills and bicycles are everywhere. The Dutch seem to be adapting to climate change as well as anyone. But as the world fails to adequately reduce carbon emissions to mitigate extreme temperature rise, they too are in for some high tides and tough times.