A meditation on airplanes
A human may walk some dozens of kilometers on a day’s ration of food. We store enough energy in our fat and muscle cells to walk additional hundreds of kilometres. Ultimately we burn through our stores and must stop. A hummingbird must eat every day, while a snake may go months between meals.
Our machines are similar. An airplane is a metallic creature that burns through a supply of fuel in order to cast itself up and across the sky to a far-away destination. It discards as it goes – and then must stop. Just as we do.
What separates machine from living being is only the details of the fuel. A plant makes its own, and an animal readily catches or hunts it on the landscape. The resources that give power and spirit to an airplane are far harder to come by, and must be mined from the earth.
I recently flew halfway around the world, London to Kuala Lumpur, as a burden in one of these metallic beasts. Medieval observers might have described the trip as an unleashing of telluric energies, but I thought about it more as a vomiting of long-buried resources from their underground home into the atmosphere.
I flew these 11,200 kilometers on an Airbus A380, one of the world’s most efficient long-haul jets. The carriage of my person in this machine required the combustion of fuel containing the equivalent of approximately (1.3 million grams of carbon. That carbon almost certainly was mined from fossil sources – that is, the dead tissues of plants that were deposited over some sixty million years between the Devonian and the Permian Periods.
How long did these plants have to grow to produce enough energy to fuel my airplane and my journey? A modern tropical forest has a net primary productivity of approximately 10 million grams of carbon per hectare per year (Malhi et al. 2001).
This number represents the net amount of carbon taken up by plants from the atmosphere each year in a region about the same size as a football pitch. By dividing this number by the carbon cost of my trip, and assuming that Carboniferous forests had similar productivities as modern ones (maybe not true – Beerling & Woodward 2001), I could estimate the interval required to grow enough biomass for my trip.
In fourteen hours of flying, I personally used up resources that took a square meter of forest 1,300 years to grow. An airplane is an inefficient way to travel.
Each flight uses up another small fraction of our planet’s stored resources. Each flight brings the earth one step closer to thermodynamic equilibrium. Over the past centuries we have come increasingly close to this point, drawing down more and more of our fossil fuel inheritance, and destroying an increasingly large proportion of our planet’s biomass (Schramski 2015). And the airplanes we have conjured out of aluminium and copper and other buried treasures will no longer function.
Airplanes also bring biological equilibrium. They carry not only human passengers, but also other species – just as the sailing ships that preceded them once did. Before the European conquest, the Americas had neither honeybees nor earthworms nor mosquitoes nor smallpox, all familiar facets of modern life; nor did Europe have tomato or potato or chocolate. Our ships and planes have transformed much of the Asian tropics into a land of rubber trees and oil palms, and spread diseases like avian flu far more rapidly than they could ever travel without our fossil-fueled assistance. We make plains of great biological mountains, and homogenize as we go (Dornelas et al. 2014).
Life is slow. It builds diversity and differences. Airplanes hasten our pace and destroy these things.
The ecomodernist movement has argued that technological development, urbanization, and alternative energy sources will increase harmony between people and nature while simultaneously drawing billions out of poverty. In this worldview, we will not decline towards biological and thermodynamic equilibrium – instead, we all of us will all be able to fly on airplanes one day. I am not so optimistic. Ecomodernism assumes that we will get smarter and kinder faster than we get hungrier. Its agenda is neoliberal in that it assumes market solutions are sufficient to solve societal problems, and in that it proposes to take billions of people away from their land into wage-based labor. George Monbiot and Chris Smaje have both argued forcefully against ecomodernism, and the past centuries are filled with examples of how such a simplistic approach has led to increased human poverty and planetary destruction. Somewhere between these two perspectives is a viable road forward.
I think that instead we must find a slower future, and accept that our energy should come from above rather than below our planet’s surface, and that most of our kilometers should be walked and not flown. I think that we must soon abandon our airplanes, and all they represent.
(This post was written from a camp abutting a logging area in eastern Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The photographs are of heavy smoke from human-caused fires in nearby Kalimantan. Further posts this month will be erratic and dependent on internet connectivity.)