Trains, and Boats and Planes – Sustainable?

A couple of thoughts from Eeyore’s gloomy corner of the Gaian wood about guilt and shame and travelling by car or plane to an ecotherapy retreat weekend in July.


As any readers of this blog know, the position I’ve found as a relative newcomer to these discussions is one of sad certainty that the Game is Over – just look at the vapour trails left over Cirencester to see a tiny part of how we continue to pump out greenhouse gases.

And even if it isn’t Over (staying with Nick Totton’sdetermination to hold on to even 0.001% chance that there’s hope), the equally sad truth is that we, individually, by choosing to travel by train or car or plane or even horse or bike (which is my own favoured mode), can’t actually make a blind bit of difference. Except to how we personally feel about ourselves, and that matters.

That’s not a counsel for despair. As I see it, it’s a fact. Just by existing as one of nearly seven billion humans on this planet, which isn’t a choice we ever made, we are part of whatLovelock so rightly calls humanity as a force of nature that is radically changing the environment, just as a dozen spewing volcanoes or a large meteorite would have (and have regularly) done. Thereby rendering it largely uninhabitable for us and for a tragic number of our fellow Gaia-dwelling species.

This isn’t at root about our own human guilt or shame or blame. We can’t help being what and who we are as homo sapiens, behaving just like any other species, and unable, unkitted-out – not because we’re evil – to be any different. At least, not in time to reverse the changes we have been making for 10s of thousands of years, and not just since the industrial revolution.

I personally dislike travelling by car, and much prefer the train or the bus, combined with a Brompton bike. But I have the luxury of being a fit Western middle class male, and happy to get wet and sweaty sometimes. If I travel any serious distance by car, I’m aware that it’s not my preferred option, and that taking public transport would be more fun, and quite often cheaper. But I no longer kid myself that when I leave the car on the drive I’m helping save the planet.

We’re at last putting solar hot water into our house in Cirencester. But that’s not out of guilt, or any hope to save the polar bears. Not really any more about saving money either. It’s because when things hit the fan in the coming years, and when energy gets terrifyingly expensive, we would still like to have at least some hot water to wash in. Part of a very personal survival strategy.

I also occasionally travel by plane (although, thankfully on many fronts, radically less than I did until a year ago when I stopped training internationally in journalism and trauma). My wife Sue and I flew to India last year, and to China the year before.

This summer we’re flying the tandem to Transsylvania for three weeks. I would prefer to go to all these places by train. But for many practical, financial and very familiar reasons, we flew and still occasionally fly. And sadly, again, I have no illusion that by choosing the train, I might help stop global warming.

(Friends of ours from Cirencester are currently trying to travel as carbon-neutrally as possible around the world. Their cargo ship from Canada to the UK has just been cancelled. They looked into the Queen Mary – but that liner’s CO2 emissions are twice as high per passenger as flying. So, they’re flying. The only way to be carbon-neutral is to stop travelling.)

Yes, that is fatalist. But as I understand it (see George Monbiot this week, though he draws a different, We-Cannot-Accept-This conclusion), that’s the reality.

So while I agree with many of my fellow participants that it’s better to travel to our July weekend by public transport or on horseback, I personally will neither be feeling hostile towards anyone who chooses to come by car, nor will I feel personally guilty for however I’ve got there myself. Which will probably be train and bike.

As ever, I know this is blunt. I wish, I wish, that my sceptical realism was unfounded. But we really do need at least to think about preparing for the very worst.

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