On actually changing our behavior

My uncle, who is pretty well up on the state of the world, recently concluded an email by suggesting that Alexis and I “truck over to Burning Man” in the California desert this year. That reminded me of how a bunch of people from GreenMountain Engineering (a renewable energy design consulting company I used to work for) freighted up trailers full of quirky stuff and motored out into the desert to participate in the annual orgy/conflagration last year. Now, I don’t at all want to single out Burning Man revelers; I’ve never been, but a number of people I like go regularly. But it got me thinking about how even the people who know and care about global warming and oil supply issues nonetheless persist in jetting all around the country on discretionary trips. We are certainly guilty ourselves, having recently made a 5 day trip out to California by airplane to spend Christmas with some good friends. Air travel is an especially obvious target, since its GHG impact is at least 2x greater than ground transport on a per-fuel-consumed basis, and many trips are far from necessary strictly speaking, in the sense that going to the grocery store or driving to work are.

So, why is it that even people who care about this stuff don’t actually make relatively simple choices that could significantly reduce their impact? When am I going to start hearing people (New Englanders) say, “we were going to fly to the Caribbean this winter but because of global warming we went cross-country skiing over in Vermont instead”? When will folks start spending their holidays with nearby friends and extended family rather than going home halfway across the country?

First of all, travel is too damn cheap. Even at $90/bbl oil, fuel is a minor expense for a lot of people. If motor fuel and airfare cost 2-3x more than they do now, it would cut down substantially on the fraction of the population that could jet off across continents on a whim. In the absence of massive cultural shifts [of the sort I put no stock in], cost is probably the only signal people will actually respond to.

Obviously tradition and family ties have a lot to do with it as well. Blood, being relatively thick, traverses water, land, and endless TSA security lines to eat turkey with “the folks” on that same nice old tablecloth that belonged to grandma. But, there are other traditions. In the UK boarding school tradition re-familiarized by Harry Potter, kids went off to school and only came home a couple times a year for holidays – this in a nation smaller than the US northeast. When I was a kid we had farm animals that needed attention twice a day, and so an overnight trip to Boston 3 hours away was a big deal, primarily because someone needed to be found to take care of the beasts. Traditions can be re-engineered, but lacking incentives it’s a fair bet they won’t be.

There’s also a sense in which it is irrational for any one person to make any significant sacrifice in order to change his behavior, on a planet with 6 billion people, the vast majority of them striving to achieve a lifestyle that allows them to consume as much energy and resources as possible. Even if I swore off petroleum entirely and became a solar-powered hermit, it would only delay the rising of the seas by a few milliseconds. It’s an extreme version of the Tragedy of the Commons, and one that our institutions seem singularly unprepared to tackle – hence the endless construction of coal-fired power plants in China, met with widespread hand-wringing by equally culpable parties elsewhere.

Irrational or not, nevertheless groups of people are sometimes moved to acts not entirely bound by their own short-term self-interest, and might perhaps find themselves at the forefront of a cultural shift. To that end, it might be beneficial to publicize a pledge, encouraging people to state publicly that they won’t fly for frivolous reasons, they will combine short driving trips or bicycle, and that they will take vacations within 250 miles of home. It could start out pretty painless, with exceptions for weddings and funerals of close family members and the like. There could even be a once-a-year exclusion to make it easier for people who really need their palm tree fix. At the very least, we could try to get people to take one fewer airplane trip or long car trip in the coming year.

New technology also makes it possible to bring families together more frequently than even the most frequent of frequent fliers. One large family that I know has at times held a weekly family conference call using a free conference call service, wherein everybody gets to listen to the first few words from the new babies in far-flung provinces. Skype offers free internet conference calls and 2 way calls with video; surely free video conference calls are not far behind.

In a more distant future it’s also possible to imagine a new trend in vacation, where truly low-carbon travel trumps the thin greasy cachet of jetliner trips to Africa painlessly offset by ridiculously cheap carbon credits. On the coast of Maine where I grew up there’s already a brisk seasonal trade in day- to week-long sailing vacations aboard old wooden and a few more modern coasting schooners (“windjammers”), which offer a picturesque and sustainable way to see some very nice coastline. One could imagine this type of service spreading, and offering point-to-point trips along the eastern seaboard at least in the warmer months, for people with time on their hands who want to make a statement about real carbon neutrality. In the winter, travel by schooner would fall somewhere between utterly miserable and truly life-threatening – there’s a reason those rooftop balconies in the shorefront homes of sea captains were called “widows’ walks”.

Anyway, with apologies for that depressing reminder from the age of sail, I’ll end this post by saying that I welcome anybody else’s thoughts on why even people who care don’t do more to cut down their CO2 spewage, and what might be done about it.


5 Responses to “On actually changing our behavior”

  1. Nicole Says:

    what about traveling to broaden horizons? or see the world? or experience, first-hand, the planet’s different cultures, sights, art, food? or to simply leave america once in a while? i wish more americans would do that and get out of their insulated little worlds. i do agree that gas is relatively cheap and that most people (ahem, with SUVs) simply factor in $75 fill-ups as part of the deal of driving to work/for groceries, etc. in france, where petrol is 1.5 euros per litre, people tend to not take lengthy road trips.

  2. fiveislandsorchard Says:

    Nicole – there is unquestionable value in international travel. The question is, how does that value stack up against the costs? And, can we as a planet afford it? The moral implications of world travel are more complicated than they used to be because of global warming and economic growth in the developing world. The international scientific community tells us that we need to dramatically reduce global CO2 emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change. Meanwhile, China and India are finally getting their economies together to the point where a huge middle class can reasonably look forward to living a lifestyle like ours (cars, air travel, energy-intensive meat-based diet), with the massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions that entails. And we are in no moral position to tell them not to, since the US burns about 20-25% of the world’s oil production, but only has about 5% of the population.

    As a member of the “cultural elite”, I can appreciate the argument that a stimulating overseas trip has salutary cultural benefits compared to, say, burning up those same several hundred gallons of fuel running a jet-ski in circles on Lake Powell, but in the end, that is a moral argument that won’t get you far with a polar bear or a slum-dweller in coastal Bangladesh. Surely Americans are too smug and insular, but for the sake of the planet I fervently hope that concern for our brethren isn’t predicated on international travel – the world just can’t take 6 billion people living the American lifestyle.

    Two notes on closing – first, I agree that higher prices help a lot – when I was working in Japan a few years back I went on a ski trip with some guys from the company – we stuffed 6 people into a small SUV and everyone paid their share for the gas – 10-20 bucks each if I remember. Finally, I’m serious about the sail-powered travel proposal – imagine a nicely fitted out, fast, modernized sailing vessel that could get you from New York to Europe in less than a week, with practically no carbon impact. You could spend the time reading up on the place you were going, learning the language (instructor on board), or working (via satellite internet hookup). Seems like fun to me!

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