The Last Flight Out
Scrap your vacation plans, your air travel is killing us.
"The apparently benign escapism of air travel is emerging as one of the greatest threats to the future of the planet," wrote the British newspaper The Independent in 2001. "It is the fastest growing source of the pollution that causes global warming." In the seven years since, schemes for capping greenhouse gas emissions have become ubiquitous, from carbon credits that industries can buy and sell to tax policies that claim to fund carbon offsets.
What caught my eye was a British proposal, over the recent holidays, to add a tax on air travel that would amount to £108 for a family of four, or about $220 in U.S. dollars, to cover the "environmental impact" of air travel. Royal commissions have also proposed banning new runway construction and rationing the amount of air travel enjoyed by British citizens, all to preserve the environment.
Right before our eyes, jet planes are becoming the moral equivalent of giant aluminum cigarettes, spewing deadly greenhouse gases as they soar. The social response is predictable, and already under way. Governments of the world are imposing sin taxes meant to curb our use of the deadly vice of air travel. Society is adopting new attitudes that lump air travel with high-fat diets and oversize SUVs—ridiculously toxic lifestyle choices that should be rejected by all sane, sensible beings. Between these two pressures, we just might see air travel effectively grounded, with the possible exception of Al Gore's private jet, on his global Inconvenient Truth tour.
If this is where we're headed, we can say goodbye to the nearly 7.5 million tourists who fly to Hawaii each year, keeping our economy afloat with more than $12 billion in spending. Either they won't be able to afford the flight, or they'll find it more socially responsible to pedal to a neighborhood bed-and-breakfast for a carbon-neutral vacation.
Well, good riddance, you might think. Darn tourists, jamming up our roads with their gas-guzzling rental cars. We'll figure out some way to survive without them. But don't forget, your air travel will be seen as part of the problem, too! You can fill your home with the ghastly glow of compact fluorescent lights, throw away your air conditioner and sweat like a pig through the long days of Kona weather, junk your car and walk to work every day from Kapolei—only to outweigh (by a matter of tons) all those carbon savings with a single flight to Vegas. If you've flown anywhere, at any time in your life, to the Neighbor Islands, to the Mainland, to Tuscany, I think it's time you asked yourself: Why do you hate the environment so much?
Maybe we will be able to offset the loss of air travel with a new golden age of ocean liners. But cruise ships hardly run on cotton candy. They're just floating metal cigarettes, vomiting fossil fuel exhaust into the sky, and building more of them simply means more ships running over whales. Nuclear powered shipping? Carbon-free, speedy and technically feasible, but if you thought the anti-Superferry movement was impassioned, just wait until someone tries to dock a reactor on Kauai.
No, the way this century seems to be going, if we want to get in and out of Hawaii, it'll be back to sailing ships for all of us. And even then, I expect some environmentally sensitive soul will stand up and yell, "Hey! Who's been chopping down all the damn trees?"
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