Rethinking the Entitlement of Travel

My blogosphere colleague Brandt Smith of Wealth and Wisdom commented on yesterday’s post on hybrids and electric cars in a way that intrigued me. He was responding to my belief that electric cars and hybrids are the only cars that have a future in our carbon-constrained world.

“Ahh, a topic for the engineer in me. . . . the biggest issue [with electric cars] is the charge time. It’s fine for most daily drivers. It falls short if you are going longer distances. This is an area where technology needs to catch up.”

I’m sure most people, engineers and otherwise, see it as Brandt sees it: cars are supposed to go long distances. Our cultural assumption is that engineers and technology will always let our cars go long distances — if not on gasoline, then on another fuel source like hydrogen fuel cells that we unthinkingly expect will give us what petroleum has given us: abundant travel.

But I see no evidence that assumption is based in reality. Hydrogen fuel cells, for instance, have been “twenty years away” for at least ten years now. Our emotional attachment to travel is clouding our thinking. Because we like to go long distances at will (and I admit I enjoy travel as much as anyone) we expect the energy sources in the world to support that preference. But that’s circular reasoning. It’s like a child saying, “I like ice cream, so the world has to arrange itself to deliver ice cream to me.”  Don’t we need to scale our expectations from a more adult perspective?

I suggest rethinking our belief we are entitled to travel. I suggest that given the reality of current fuel sources and how they drive global warming, we learn to be happy staying closer to home.

I realize many will reject this idea, from the travel industry to the oil industry to engineers understandably excited by the challenge of developing new technologies. But I’d be interested to hear objections that are grounded in the reality of global warming, rather than driven by emotion-based desires to keep profits, industries and careers entrenched in the current status quo. The current status quo is a carbon-based economy and set of lifestyle expectations that are taking us over a cliff.

  • B Smith @ Wealth and Wisdom
    July 1, 2008

    Hey, thanks for the link. It’s good to feel the love!

    I think we are both arguing the same point but from different perspectives. Our current technology isn’t going to solve the problem. As Albert Einstein said (paraphrased) “we can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.”

    We need to find ways to break through the barriers we see today. The answer isn’t just to conserve. That is like trying to become wealthy by scrimping and saving alone. That just makes you cheap! The other side of the equation is to increase your wealth. Note: while living within your means is a critical first step, increasing your income is ultimately more powerful.

    It is the same with the energy crisis. Part of the answer is to reduce consumption or energy efficiency. The other part is to develop alternatives.

    Also, you can’t force someone to conserve. It is arrogant to even try. It is contrary to the beliefs this great country was built on. You can develop compelling technology to solve the problem.

  • Ewan O'Leary
    July 6, 2008

    This touches on an important quality found in some human beings - that of radical acceptance, or the ability to accept a reality that is in complete opposition to what we have always believed and acted on.

    It is radical to think about travel in this way, because it is apparent heresy to so many. Accepting that travel may not be an option that remains wholly compatible with its implications for climate change is a radical act.

    At the risk of being labeled an apostate, I am going to side with Einstein on this - we can’t solve our current problems with the same level of thinking that created them. Our fascination with technology is what got us into this position, we need to look at something else, such as our behavior, to get us out.

    We need to accept that we may be at the pinnacle of human frenzy, not that we are at the pinnacle of human development. Instead of looking at technological solutions, lets look at behavioral solutions, which is where radical acceptance fits in. And in terms of forced conservation, B SMith is right. But not in a lifeboat.

    We need to change our behavior. There is a wealth in living in a strong community. You cannot travel your way into solutions.

  • Crafty Green Poet
    July 7, 2008

    I agree with you that we need to reassess things. Why do people need to travel so much - business has developed alternatives to the need to travel long distances for meetings through video conferencing etc but this is definitely not as satisfactory for lots of reasons as face to face meetings, so perhaps businesses need to organise on a more local level? As for travel for personal reasons, I don’t have family abroad so don’t have that kind of need to travel distances (that is a difficult one to work through i would expect). For holidays I love Scotland and there is still so much of it to explore, and I’m sure lots of people could discover lots of interesting places for holidays on their doorsteps if they thought carefully. Very ironic though that currently it is often cheaper to go to the other side of the world than to holiday locally (though that will need to change!). But I think this whole question is a symbol of our circular thinking as you put it, our refusal to see things differently…

  • egpc
    July 8, 2008

    I often travel farther than necessary because I like a change of scenery, I like to see the sights along the way, and because I like the feeling of being in shape. Then again, I travel by bike.

  • Alison
    July 14, 2008

    The bicycle is surely the most elegant travel technology ever invented . . . . a three-way union between the human body, right-sized technology, and the outdoors. My husband Thor and I are making lots of in-town trips via bike this summer. And the wedding we just attended involved a Bike Caravan to get from the ceremony on Mt Tabor to the reception at Peninsula Park. Big fun!

  • Danny Bloom
    July 15, 2008

    Great post. I support what you said 100%. I came here via your post at Dot Earth. I am a dotty Earthling, too. Aren’t we all!

    Yes yes yes, we must change / transform our concept of travel, like you said. It can be done. I myself have not travelled for over 15 years, and I don’t miss it at all. I just readjusted by ice cream gimme gimme needs, and I am content to live in one place, see friends every day, read voraciosuly on the Net and in the newspapers and magazines, email all over the world, and work on my polar cities concept. I’m in your camp, also Monbiot’s camp. We need to stop all air travel now. But as you say so well, we have become accustomed to our travel fixes, as if it is a human entitlement, BUT ONLY BECAUSE SOME PEOPLE INVNTED SHIPS AND THEN AIRPLANES…….but with global warming on the horizon, it’s time to reconfigure our travel needs. sure, we will miss it. travel broadens the soul. But there are OTHER ways to travel now, via the Net and email, and with climate change a possibily tragic event for the future, we need to rethink all of this. you should write a longer essay on this and submit it as an oped piece to the NYTimes……sure, the travel industry will say no, as will all the other people who profit from travel……BUT it;s over folks, we are in a LONG EMERGENCY and we must drop our travel needs, and go back to earlier kind of lifestyles revolving around where we live. We shall get through it okay. I have.

    What are polar cities? In case you never heard of them yet, check here:

    Tufts 1971

  • Tyler Karaszewski
    November 10, 2009

    Proposition 1:
    The majority of people will be unwilling to accept a decline in their standard of living.

    Proposition 2:
    The majority of people will see an inability to drive to work, or to visit relatives, as a decrease in standard of living.

    Proposition 3:
    As gas prices rise, demand for cars that run on alternative fuels will rise accordingly.

    Proposition 4:
    Car manufacturers like to sell as many cars as they can.

    Given propositions 1 and 2, people are going to continue purchasing cars that can travel indefinitely with only a single refueling, taking a few minutes, every several hours.

    Given proposition 3 and 4, it will eventually be in the best interest of car manufacturers to sell alternative fueled vehicles, because they will sell like hotcakes. Note that proposition 1 and 2 require that for these cars to sell, they have to perform similarly to current cars.

    Are you honestly saying that you think the technological barriers to electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars are going to keep them from ever being produced on a large scale, even in the face of $10/gallon gasoline? Do you really believe that?

    Chevrolet will be selling the Volt, which can run entirely on electricity, starting in 2011.

    Honda already has a hydrogen fuel-cell pilot program running in southern California via their FCX vehicle.

    Here’s what will happen: As oil supplies shrink, prices will rise. Car companies will realize there’s billions of dollars in consumer spending to be won if they can bring alternative fuel cars to market. They will succeed. The technology isn’t far off from what we have already. We’re halfway there and market forces (gas prices) aren’t even forcing their hand yet.

    In fifty years, everyone will be driving electric cars that charge in five minutes and go 300 miles per charge. No one will have given up their current creature comforts.

    This analysis is not grounded in “global warming” nor in the “desire to keep profits” but in the basics of economics, that is supply and demand, and the human track record of coming up with all sorts of creative solutions to problems when they know they can sell a million of them.

    Your viewpoint on this topic looks to me a lot like someone pooh-poohing the possibility of air travel in 1885 as a technological infeasibility. Meanwhile, some very smart people who have actually been studying the problem and the engineering challenges required to overcome it are already laying the groundwork for that to happen.

  • Alison
    November 17, 2009

    Appreciate your thoughtful response. I’ve addressed it here:

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