Blessings on the volcano. I still feel a little giggle inside when I think back on the week the skies went quiet. There’s something immensely reassuring to know that nature is still in charge. Amongst the news babble, Alan De Botton’s lovely A World Without Planes stood out, a transition-style story from the future when our elders will tell tales of the great, noisy machines in the sky. In those times, people will still travel, but slowly, quietly.
It’s so hard to imagine, in this generation of overconsumption, but a world without planes is totally and utterly inevitable. For two reasons. The scientists tell us we must decarbonise by 80% by 2050 – or 95% if everyone has equal consumption rights (by the way, see here for the Guardian’s new national carbon calculator, which helps us to discover our options quite graphically). In that world – assuming that as a race we will choose to avoid our own demise through runaway climate change - flying will be very rare because of its intense use of fossil fuels and therefore pollution levels.
The second reason is the end of cheap oil, peaking sometime soon, apparently. Planes exist purely as a result of cheap oil. There’s currently no fuel to replace fossil fuels for flight, apart from biofuels, which, in cars, are already competing with an increasingly short food supply. A few years ago, when I gave up planes for ethical reasons, the feedback was invariably: ‘Some new, clean fuel will be invented’. Well it hasn’t and, given the science, it probably won’t.
George Monbiot, in his excellent column this week, warns that because of cheap oil our society has built a level of complexity that is highly vulnerable to shocks. We’re starting to see the effects of various kinds of shock – natural and man-made - on our globalised world, and Monbiot’s point is that we need to simplify in order to build resilience and to avoid collapse of any part of the system, which could lead to global collapse. ‘We can start decommissioning the system [aviation] while there is time and find ways of living happily with less of it. Or we can sit and wait for physical reality to simplify the system by more brutal means.'