Thursday, 20 May 2010

letter from the future

I'm planning a trip this summer to visit my brothers in America and Canada. I’m taking three months – one to cross the Atlantic and back by Clipper ship, one to spend with my brothers and other friends and one getting around. The electric train network, especially down the East Coast, runs really well now the electricity companies have sorted out the solar fields around cities and the major train junctions. I’ve been saving up for this trip for a couple of years and I’m really looking forward to travelling slowly.

Travelling wasn’t always like this for me; I was in the local paper in 1960, for being the youngest child in England to fly transatlantic – for my New York christening. When I was in my twenties Freddy Laker figured out how to run cheap transatlantic flights – I was at university in America then, studying science, and I remember getting standbys for £50 to come home for holidays. Later, I took cheap flights when I could, and when the children were young we had holidays in St Lucia, Sardinia, Morocco and all around Europe. Those holidays deepened my sense of awe and respect for all life and people on earth. That global mind was one of the good things to come out of the century of flying.

Which is why, in my 40s, when I discovered the effects of burning fossil-fuels, in gory scientific detail, I had to stop all that flying and buying that I’d been brought up to believe was my birthright. I was sad to leave it behind, but my conscience made me do it. Some friends got the message long before me, in the 70s; others continued flying for a few years, often because, like me, their family had scattered around the world in the age of cheap flights. But gradually flying, like smoking, became socially unacceptable; people started to discover that flying was not a resilient or – real – way to live, and that other ways, like conference calls, or just working closer to home and family were more relaxing and effective. That’s when other modes of transport also became more common and more affordable.

I think the turning point was around 2010. That was a bad year for the airlines. First the early stages of the economic contraction left many of them bust or consolidating. Then fuel prices started going up and that made it more difficult to run cheap flights; the whole scandal of the tar sands didn’t help either. The Icelandic volcano erupting grounded airlines for the first time since they were invented and made some people long for quiet skies, and that uncertainty started a trend towards trains for short-haul. Plus, everyone was saying how unpleasant flying had become, with the anti-terrorism checks and so on. And then I remember the new government - it was that brief Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition – announcing that there would be no more new runways built at Heathrow, Gatwick and Standsted, the main hubs.

I remember storming parliament to demand this, dressed as a suffragette, linking with the right for women to vote. Your mother also had a big sit-down picnic in the arrivals lounge at Heathrow, and your aunt Anna too; I think she still has the Flash-Mob T-shirt. To them, as teenagers, it was so clear that new runways were incompatible with the move away from fossil fuels and the age of earth repair that we could see coming by then. Yes, if there was a day to celebrate, when the age of air travel turned a corner, I think it was the day they stopped building new runways.

I hope that helps with your essay about ‘flying in the olden days’
With much love, your granny, May 2030

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