“You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars” [Thomas Traherne (1637-75)]
On a summer's day, two years ago, I was in a plane that was passing over the Alps. There was a thin layer of burnt jet-fuel at about our altitude which I'd never noticed before. Another jet sped past going the other way, spewing black exhaust fumes as it went.
I fly around the world and write about the environment. That's what I do and it seems that in doing so I have developed a healthy sense of my own as an exceptional case for which special allowances ought to be made. The massive carbon footprint these trips have left behind was the regrettable by-product, I didn't mind telling myself, of work tending in the long-run to promote a low-carbon life-style.
And tending incidentally in the short-run to furnish me with some terrific adventures. I didn't stop, of course. A flight to Kiev the following autumn, booked weeks in advance, touched down on the second night of the Orange Revolution. In southern Kazakhstan last July I was on a pilgrimage to an old mosque in the desert on the day which turned out to be that of the London bombings. Fresh angles on the detonating of bombs and toppling of governments are a journalist's meat and veg. It was of course as a Very Interesting Person that I returned from these trips.
The point I'm trying to make is just how mixed up with each other self-esteem and aviation fuel now are. The pollution I helped to produce on these trips can indeed be understood as a 'regrettable by-product'. But there's another possibility I want to explore here. What if the problem we contribute to in getting to all these places is not a 'by-product' at all? What if it has a precise counterpart in the activities we engage in once we get there?
An illustration from the world I know best. We all get more than enough of the journalist's world-view these days. So what about a sober look at the way that world-view is generated? There is something unmistakably smash-and-grab in your average reporter's treatment of a story. There is a breathlessness about it, usually marketed more or less unconsciously as 'excitement'. You look at the place where the something is happening. Grab that. You look at the something. Get a handle on that. You sound out some people and hey presto: vox populi. Quick rush through the notes you took and shuffle things around until there is some coherence. Polish, attach, send – and hope he (it is usually a he) likes it.
It will sound strange at first, but might not the underlying relationships here – between the journalist and the jet-engine respectively and the elements in which they each move – be seen as analogous? Just as the lower stratosphere was created for the jet engine to speed through and pollute on its way to somewhere more important, so too the journalist's destination is there for him and his career (not to forget his network) to grab what they can while they can and then 'run with it'.
I'm not here setting out to castigate what is at its best an entirely necessary profession – my own work in particular is something of a beacon amidst the general murk – but might not just a little honesty about the way we behave now go a very long way? In whatever context. Might not, say, our African safaris, our gap years in Thailand – never mind our Caribbean experiences – might these not have an exact counterpart in what the producer is paid for the tea or coffee we drink by the gallon when we get home? How distinct are these exotic travels really from the way a forest somewhere was made to pay for the garden furniture of tropical hardwood on our back lawn?
Might it not be that our exploitative, almost 'extractive' relationship towards the world has an echo in the way we relate not just to things or commodities, but to experience itself? And what about that as a way into why we persist in living, in flying and driving, as if climate change wasn't happening, when we all know it is?
“There is no calamity greater than the wish to acquire”, says the Dao de Ting and comparable strictures on excessive accumulation are available from any major religious tradition near you. Personally I see no problem with recycling the best bits of religion, provided we can all decide what those are for ourselves. Amongst other things, I find in Christianity a valuable corrective to our dreary insistence on all human motives as merely contingent manifestations of the One Abiding Profit-Motive.
Religious traditions wear out too though – they have for some time now had the findings of science, psychology and history to reckon with. They have not always responded well – nor always responded badly either. Selective recycling is possible but more usually such traditions are either discarded as rubbish or kept on as sentimentally and politically charged rhetoric. Largely unchecked then, the acquisitive instinct can now insinuate itself so thoroughly into a culture that we are no longer even aware of it.
And the reason why this belongs in an essay about flying and climate change is that I am not referring primarily to the acquisition of things. The shopping mall and the department store are not so much problems in themselves as a certain grasping attitude towards experience made unignorable. Whether as shoppers or journalists or holiday-makers or businesspeople we are all encouraged to view ourselves as cheerfully and somewhat brutally engaged in the great bargain-hunt of life, even as we 'care deeply about the environment' etc etc.
This is the right attitude because it is the one which makes us unconsciously complicit in the wider system, which in turn decreases the chance that we will ever make the kind of connections that might threaten it. It's difficult to combat something like this, which has wormed its way so deeply into all your reflexes. Religious revivals as they work out in practise are usually just people running for cover, pretending the problem is external to them. Nevertheless, the need can only grow for some integrating principle as our explanations of life multiply as never before.