The absolute single best day — no, the single best moment — of my entire year is sitting in the parking lot waiting for the Starbucks to open on the Friday before Labour Day. With a full tank of gas, a smooth open road ahead, decent weather and nothing but free time it simply doesn’t get any better. In a year defined by its constraints it is the instant when I feel most free.
Obviously, I’m not alone. Every Labour Day roughly 35 million Americans will also hit the road for basically the same reason. The intoxicating lure of being somewhere else and doing something else is a happy addiction in which most of us indulge without a sense of guilt. In fact, it’s the opposite. No backyard barbecue was ever enlivened by stories of how you sat around the house all summer binge-watching your missing seasons of Leave it to Beaver. Rather, having gone somewhere and done something is what your neighbors want to hear about. Or maybe they don’t, but you’re going to tell them anyway.
However, it’s a freedom almost entirely enabled by cheap, plentiful and easily accessible fossil fuel. As I have written previously, I would love an electric car, but if there is one particular landscape in my personal experience which truly dissuades me, it’s the Cormac McCarthy emptiness around Shaniko, Oregon. I just can’t imagine myself driving across that forbidding, magnificent desolation wondering where the next Supercharger station is going to be. Fact is, though, I would know exactly where it is because I wouldn’t have dared to turn a wheel until I knew. It’s a perfectly workable scenario, but somehow, it’s just not quite the same and certainly much less worthy of the lyrics of a sad country song.
Some Tesla owners I know would not agree. Virtually the first thing they did with their new Tesla Model S was to plan a family trip to Disneyland®, a round trip of some 5000 kilometres. I admire them. I’m not just saying that. I trulyadmire them — they are two of the most meticulous, methodical, smart people I know and their ‘no problem!’ was a direct result of that. To put this in perspective they could tell me, to at least a decimal place, the difference in electrical energy consumption between dry and rain-soaked pavement. It was a level of planning which would have warmed the hearts of Navy Seals planning an assault on an enemy beach. Their trip sounded like a real adventure. The good kind, of course, which they had both earned and deserved. They’re going to be the envy of the backyard barbecue circuit for years.
The tooling around is not limited to human beings. Take a look at your grocery cart the next time you are in Whole Foods®. Now, mentally take out all the items which are there because putting them on a fossil fuel-powered truck or train was relatively easy to do, cheap, and nearly universally available.
There’s not much left in the cart, is there?
Which is not to say we can’t feed ourselves with things grown close to home. Just this past weekend, we took out-of-town visitors to a local restaurant that prides itself on locally-sourced food. Without exaggeration it was one of the best meals I have ever had, with nary a lemon or a drop of olive oil anywhere in sight. But the price? Stratospheric. I hate to think what it would have been in winter. It was worth every last penny though clearly out of reach for many and nearly out of reach for me, short of having planned well in advance. It seems eating a meal with a low carbon footprint, while it can be done, is currently reserved for the very wealthy or, for people like me, something you save for extraordinarily special occasions.
Finally, there is the much-acclaimed ‘climate conference’ like COP21 in Paris held in December, 2015. They were expecting roughly 25,000 official delegates and 50,000 participants from some 190 countries. While admittedly not having hard facts to back me up, I think it’s reasonable to assume that virtually none of them got there pulling their Airstream with a bicycle. For it’s potential outcome — which should be positive — some would argue that the Paris conference was worth its Bob Lanier-sized carbon footprint. But the chances are zero those attendees going to similar conferences in the future will be doing so on solar-powered planes for a long, long while.
On that note, if you think cramming a bunch of people onto an old-fashioned, jet-fueled plane is somehow more climate friendly than a car, sorry, that’s just not the case. That’s the opinion of no less than David Suzuki on whose website it says: “Compared to other modes of transport, such as driving or taking the train, travelling by air has a greater climate impact per passenger kilometre, even over longer distances.” Ironically, I would have thought he would have travelled a little less over the course of his life, given that he is one of the few people who actually knew what damage he was doing.
In conclusion, sadly, if you really want to do the planet a favour the only alternative is not travelling. Not by plane, train or automobile (unless you drive one of those whizzy Teslas and charge it with electricity generated without burning coal). And never buy anything that has travelled. So nothing by truck or ship, either. However, with our addiction to finding out what lies just over the horizon — and a passion for tropical fruit — I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Terence C. Gannon has been an information technology professional for 36 years, the last 27 of those in the Calgary oil & gas industry at companies such as NCO, Sceptre, Fracmaster and Trican. Mr. Gannon founded Intellog in 2008. Intellog is dedicated to applied research and developing disruptive products. He regularly contributes industry commentary on Medium.