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March 22, 2009


Eastern Siberia from 40,000 feet

Eastern Siberia from 40,000 feet

As has happened far too often lately, I was woken in the night by planes passing over the house. We don’t live all that close to the airport, but in the past few years they seem to have added many late-night courier and freight flights, which are generally routed over our house at about 3:30 am. I got back to sleep just in time to wake up, and my bleary eyes could barely focus on a newspaper report about the Copenhagen meeting of climate change scientists. The article stated that many of the scientists at this meeting think that global warming has already progressed past a “tipping point”: we will be coping with some very serious effects of climate change, regardless of what we do now. 

From this conjunction, I began to think about the linkages between airplanes and climate change. Of course, we all know that air traffic is a significant contributor of greenhouse gases, but the airplane itself is also a potent metaphor for our modern society. The way we behave when we are traveling by air says much about our relationship to the natural world, and helps to explain how we have gotten ourselves into this predicament.

About a dozen years ago, when our first daughter was a toddler, my family was taking a daytime flight from Europe to Canada. Those of you who have flown across the North Atlantic more than a few times will know that cloud cover is the rule in that part of the world, but this was one of those rare days on which you could see almost forever. I was sitting by the window with our little girl so that my wife could have a nap (she had been child-wrangling through Madrid while I was relaxing at a conference), when the pilot’s voice over the intercom announced that we were coming up to the east coast of Greenland. I could see the icy land looming ahead, and along our side of the plane the window blinds opened so that people could see what the pilot was telling them about. But after about 30 seconds, they began to close again, and within a couple of minutes ours was the only blind open in that entire part of the aircraft.

The movie was starting (I recall it being part of the Die Hard franchise) and I’m sure that many of the passengers didn’t want to miss any of Bruce Willis’  acting, but there seemed to be more to it than that. Some of them appeared to be afraid to know that they were actually flying over this remote and forbidding part of the world, and many others seemed to have no interest in knowing. In any case, they were all quite disconnected from the landscape sliding by below. And so we passed the East Greenland coast, with its glaciers calving into numerous icebergs. We floated over the Greenland Ice Sheet, punctuated by angular nunataks with their tendrils of mist. West Greenland was obscured by cloud, but then it cleared for a while over Davis Strait and Baffin Bay, so that we could view the rugged land and ice of Baffin Island. We did not see south Baffin, but then again passed out of the cloud as we slipped smoothly above Hudson Bay and Churchill. It was a wonderful, unique opportunity, the only time in my years of traveling that I have had the chance to see those sights.  And yet, at least 95% of the people on that flight could just as easily have passed the time in a suburban shopping mall for all the effect it had on them.

In the years since, there have been many times that I have stood on the shore at Churchill on a clear day, watching the growing contrails of a plane headed from London to LA. Where I stood, belugas fed in the bay nearby, gulls circled, and the shotgun lay at the ready in case a polar bear expressed an interest, but a few kilometres above there were 400 people watching a movie and enjoying their drinks. This disconnect seemed even stronger when we did fieldwork at McBeth Point and Cat Head, on the North Basin of Lake Winnipeg. This area is sufficiently remote that it requires major logistical planning: we chartered a floatplane, hauled in all of our food, slept in tents, and assembled a zodiac so that we could get around on the often-treacherous lake. On long quiet evenings I would sit on the shore; if I sat sufficiently still I could see a beaver swim across the little harbour, or even better, the family of otters might run playfully from the water, oblivious to my presence. But again, if  I looked up, there were the jets, rushing from Paris to San Francisco, or New York to Tokyo.


Cliff between Cat Head and McBeth Point

Cliff between Cat Head and McBeth Point

Two of the otters at McBeth Point

Two of the otters at McBeth Point

If I was thinking about the otters, beavers, rocks, or weather, were the people on those planes aware of any of the wonders they were passing? I very much doubt it.  They had passed from a large city to a nearby airport, gone through ticketing and security, wandered through a huge mall-like duty-free area, found their seats on the plane, and were being cossetted through  hours of forced inactivity in an internally focused metal box. They would arrive in another big city, which, given the extent to which they had experienced anything between, might as well be a short commuter train ride away from the place they had left.

We are, effectively, living in a world that has been reduced to a single urban connurbation, linked by rides in sealed tubes. The great majority of humans in the developed world are “city people.” To them, London is linked directly to LA, and Berlin is next to Beijing. The only “nature” they see is in the groomed areas that developers have chosen to keep adjacent to beach resorts and cottage developments. Their world is a world of people; the only issues that really matter are human issues, the only important news is news that affects people, and empty time must be filled with the consumption of goods and entertainment.  


One corner of the world city: Beijing traffic

One corner of the world city: Beijing's traffic and smog

When people have spent all of their time in the human-created world, they seem to find it difficult to understand and appreciate the natural one. In conversations with people possessing graduate degrees in non-science disciplines, I have often been shocked that some of them are not only ignorant of the natural world, but that they have little curiosity about it. In contrast, I have had conversations with relatively unschooled fishermen in backwoods places in Quebec and Manitoba, and have discovered that they possess deep knowledge of and respect for nature. But which of these two groups is more likely to have a say in the development of government and business policy?

Can we learn to travel differently? Is it too late for us to learn to appreciate and respect the wonders that can still be found between our cities?  Nature does not exist simply for our enjoyment and profit; it exists because it exists. I don’t claim any moral superiority; my treatment of the environment is no better than anyone else’s. But if we ignore the world, how can we begin to treat it properly? When we next get on a plane, let’s put away the laptops and iPods, darken the movie screens, and keep the blinds open.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2009 11:04 am

    In 2006, I was flying from Vancouver to Cardiff (via Amsterdam) and was disappointed that the KLM flight attendants insisted on making us close our blinds as we banked over Greenland. It was a red-eye and dark outside, but I suppose the fear was that when the sun came up, it would be blinding for those sleeping. What it meant was that I couldn’t watch the Northern Lights that I knew would be visible, or even the incredible carpet of stars unhampered by light pollution. In ’95, I’d experienced the phenomenon from the air flying to Holland and it was awesome. I realised then that my priorities were not like others, even those who insisted on having window seats.

  2. September 25, 2009 1:01 am

    Whenever I take a flight, I would choose the window seat, with a camera on stand-by, to photograph the world from 30k feet. I insist that no one order me to close the blind. I have watched hundreds of time the wing of the plane turn from one piece to pieces and finally the top flung open (breaking) upon landing, but I still watch. The reward was a photo of nice extended wing, with the end tilted, of an Airbus with the view of Istambul in the frame as background.

    When Mr Graham refers to university grads who know nothing about the natural world, I could only regret with a comment : they put a lot of information and knowledge in their brains but still remain uneducated…


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