20 April 2009

Eat, Pray, Love, Emit

The Saturday edition of Wellington's Dominion Post newspaper carried a lengthy article about American author Elizabeth Gilbert and her latest book, The Last American Man. Elizabeth Gilbert is most famous for her previous book, Eat, Pray, Love, which has sold more than six million copies worldwide..

They sound like interesting books, but what really struck me about this article was a sentence in the final paragraph of the article, which says that Elizabeth Gilbert and her husband run a small import business "bringing back hand-picked treasures from their extensive, continuing travels".

Now, I don't have any beef with Elizabeth Gilbert, or her husband, but that made me think about writers and their travels, mine included, at a time when rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions are leading many scientists to warn that the risks of catastrophic climate change are being badly underestimated by politicians and the public.

There is a lot to be said for writers travelling. It can lead to unexpected collaborations, such as the way Renee Liang has involved Wellington poets in the Wellington production of her play Lantern; it can lead to writers finding new audiences in new territories; it can help to ease that sense of isolation that writers often feel. I enjoyed my recent trip to Christchurch to take part in a poetry reading, and I'm looking forward to reading in Palmerston North on 2 June.

But all that travelling produces greenhouse gas emissions - air travel most of all. Of course, writers' travel is a very small part of overall travel, but it raises the wider question: can we continue all the good things of our globalised culture, which depends so much on travel, when travel is so heavily dependent on burning fossil fuels?

With resources of those fuels depleting rapidly, the environmental consequences of their use becoming increasingly dire, and alternatives a long way from widespread deployment, I suspect that there will come a time when "bringing back hand-picked treasures from their extensive, continuing travels" is no longer looked upon as something to admire.

UPDATE: Having had a little bit of a go at Elizabeth Gilbert - even if only incidentally - it seems only fair to let her speak too. This is a very interesting video of a talk she gave about the nature of creativity, and how the modern West has got it wrong. It's 19 minutes long and well worth watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA (Thanks to Neda Akbarzadeh for the link)


Philip Sington said...

Reducing carbon dependency (and usage) in air transport has to be about the toughest challenge in the whole climate change battle. Biofuels seem to be the only alternative technology, but at the present level of development, they are of limited use in jet aircraft.
On the other hand, as we have seen recently, the price of air travel is extremely sensitive to changes in the price of oil; and since oil is being consumed many times faster than it is being discovered, it follows that air travel may soon become as expensive as it was, in real terms, back in the 1960s or before. That's tough luck on ordinary people who like to travel; but experience shows there is no more effective method of altering behaviour than altering the financial cost of it.
By contrast, coal is a fuel of which there is an almost unlimited supply. The only good thing about it is that it can't be used on planes!

Catherine Randle said...

A collection of world scientists put out a statement that we have only 100 months left to take significant action. I often feel that we are a the edge of a new civilisation but I agree with Jonathon Porrit that we need to start supplying solutions not being gloomy doom sayers. NZ is one of the leaders in alternate bio feuls technology and even fueled a speed boat in the round the world race. Tim don't you think its time to stop getting people to 'think' and start showing people viable solutions. Just down the road from us in Wiltshire they've come up with an amazing plasma waste disposal that is run on electricity. It produces more electricity than it used and when finished will mean we will be digging up our dumps to fuel it. Show me the good news I'm sick of the doom and gloom, solve the problem, the time of prophecy is over, show us how you greenly traveled where you're going and how it was fun. You are very good at fun so let us know the good stuff. (If this comment has a grumpy tone it could be due to monday morning flu. I am not a troll and I'm sorry if this comment comes across this way. I'm off to college on my bike now.)

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Philip and Cath. Both excellent comments!

(A wee bit of background: one of the hats I wear when I am not writing fiction & poetry is as the Convenor of the New Zealand Sustainable Energy Forum, and I'm also on the committee of the Climate Defence Network. I usually keep this blog for writing and related matters, but every so often, the two intersect.)

On air travel specifically, you're right that biofuels seem the most promising alternative to fossil fuels for air travel. I spent a while talking to an engineer working in this area at a recent conference - he was involved in the recent Air New Zealand trial of a biofuelled engine - and the impression I got from him is that possible biofuels still have a way to go before they can meet both the standards and the scale of production required to make them useful on a commercial, rather than a trial, basis. This doesn't mean that it won't happen eventually, however - and whether it will happen fast enough to replace increasingly scarce and expensive fossil oil is debatable.

Cath, re showing people solutions, I agree: but I don't think it's a good idea to say the transition will be painless, because I don't think it necessarily will be It's frustrating in NZ at present because the new Government has proved itself to be almost entirely unreceptive to taking any action on climate change. The situation is more promising 'below' central government level, though, and there are some great things being done by individuals, small groups and communities.

I'll set myself a challenge in response to your comment: to post about some of these positive developments & solutions within the next couple of weeks.

Johanna Knox said...

Yes, the the high environmental cost of air travel is a really touchy subject, and one that's often hard to bring up, as people tend to fly for reasons that are very precious to them. Air travel is thoroughly embedded in the way many of us live, love, work, and dream.

It's easy for me to be virtuous about it as I'm afraid of flying, and try desperately to avoid it anyway! But if I wasn't, I imagine it would be a different kettle of fish.

In terms of energy more broadly, I agree that searching for and promoting alternatives and new technological innovations is a good thing to do in a thoughtful and aware way - but reducing energy dependence is the more pressing need, and a more **reliable** way forward if only we can achieve it.

Mike Crowl said...

Elizabeth George or Gilbert? I presume the latter...?

Tim Jones said...

Mike, thanks for the eagle eye - now fixed! Elizabeth George is a writer, though - I think she writes the Inspector Linley mysteries?

Johanna, absolutely! My sister lives in the USA, and it was so nice to see her and her husband last year when they flew over to visit. On the other hand, as we've seen in the last few days, planes can also carry unwelcome passengers from one part of the world to another ...