Staying Culturally Connected Without Flying

We depend on a relatively small number of people who travel all over the world to keep us all culturally connected, but this could change in the coming years. Already people are starting to fly less because of awareness of the pollution caused by aircraft, and if that becomes a larger trend, we will have to look to other ways to keep connected.

Fly, and Pollute

It is easy to criticize air travel when you look at the fuel consumption involved. While the U.S. measures the fuel consumption of road vehicles in miles per gallon (mpg), airplanes burn so much fuel it would have to be measured in feet per gallon. The global warming effect of air travel is said to be about the equivalent of a person driving alone in a gasoline-powered light truck over the same distance, but of course people travel greater distances by air, so the climate-change effect of air travel is greater than that of surface travel.

That’s the way things are in 2007. Improvements in electric motors for cars could improve their fuel efficiency by a factor of 10 over the next decade. It will be much harder to improve the efficiency of airplanes. No one has suggested anything that can improve on jet fuel and the jet engine, and even if new technology could be found, it seems likely that the same airplanes that are flying now will still be in service ten years from now. The air travel industry is hardly in a financial position to buy a whole new fleet of aircraft.

So far, I’ve just been looking at the carbon dioxide effects of air travel, but the other pollution effects may be just as significant. Airplanes are a major source of ground-level air pollution, as confirmed by air-quality studies of temporary airport closings. When airplanes don’t fly, the improvement in air quality is quick and obvious.

Flying Less, and Staying Connected

Most of us haven’t given any thought to this issue before now, yet already, people are flying less. According to David Kirkpatrick, writing in a Huffington Post entry, Peter Gabriel says he has already seen people making fewer flights because of concerns over the environmental effects. Gabriel works regularly with world musicians and is concerned about what would happen if it becomes harder to share music around the world. And others at the Davos conference said they had noticed people flying less.

It’s a trend that’s likely to accelerate, even without the environmental concern. The increasing costs of petroleum, expected to double again in a few more years, will increase the cost of flying and make people think twice about it.

One way or another, it seems likely that people will be flying less, and culturally, we will have to adapt. While some wouldn’t mind see a return to the relative cultural isolation of countries two or three centuries ago, when people in one country heard only whispers of the events in other countries, most of us would have a hard time accepting that. So I think we will go to some trouble to stay connected.

Science fiction has two techniques to suggest that may go a long way toward bridging the gap. The first is video. You can find a little of what teenagers in Korea are up to by looking at YouTube, and even a drastic decline in travel wouldn’t change that. Video can also go a long way toward replacing family and business travel when that becomes too expensive. If a ticket home costs more than a life-size video screen, and that could be the case ten years from now, some people will opt for the video screen. It currently takes about $20,000 to install a video conference room good enough to make people feel as if they’re in the same meeting as another group of people in another city. That is a lot to spend, but it’s actually less than businesses spend now on travel for meetings. The rising cost of travel will spur more businesses to make the transition to video as a way to communicate.

Of course, video does not have to occur in real time. For rock bands, concert videos are now becoming as important as the concerts themselves as a way to stay in touch with fans. The Bee Gees pioneered this a decade ago when they were unable to tour; their One Night Only shows had most of the impact that they might have had with year-long tours. In 2007, even bands that tour endlessly release concert videos for audience members to take home and for those who couldn’t attend to experience the show.

Video is one answer that may go along way toward keeping us connected. Rail travel is another.

With current rail technology, trains can go fast enough to circle the world in less than a week. It would cost a fortune to actually build high-speed trains that would connect the world, but the effort would not be much greater than the Interstate highway project the United States undertook between 1960 and 1995, so it does not seem like too much to expect. An advantage of trains, of course, is that they can run on electricity and do not have to carry their power sources with them. In principle, this could make high-speed trains amazingly energy-efficient, even when compared to electric cars.

With the combination of high-speed trains, video, and the many other ideas that people will come up with as they try to stay connected, it seems likely that the world will continue to shrink even if air travel declines.

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