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The Real Fear of Flying

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I have just returned from an airline trip to the East Coast for the funeral of my aunt. Today I am buying tickets for a plane trip to California, where, after two years we will finally visit our children and grandchildren in their new home. Soon I will be shopping for low fares on a summer trip to the Midwest to celebrate my mother-in-law's 80th birthday.

All the while I am thinking of a recent article in The Guardian about aviation being the world's fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. According to author George Monbiot, the total warming effect of aircraft emissions is 2.7 times as great as the effect of the carbon dioxide alone. To compound the problem, airplanes produce water vapor trails (ice crystals) in the atmosphere and these 'contrails,' as they are called, turn into cirrus clouds that trap the earth's heat.

Surely there must be a technological fix. Biofuels have been suggested, but Earth isn't large enough to grow all the fuel that planes would require; switching to hydrogen fuel, also proposed, would result in a three-fold increase in contrails. And even if we could develop such alternatives, they probably wouldn't come on line in time. To meet the crisis would require that we immediately scrap our current fleet for a whole new and prohibitively expensive generation of airliners.

To relieve my guilt about flying in these circumstances, I could join the Rolling Stones who are reducing the environmental impact of their concert tours by purchasing carbon offsets. ( Besides helping to bring about a sustainable energy economy, these offsets educate travelers on the true cost of their choices. Relieving guilt, however, is not a fix for the problem of global climate change, especially when we can't reasonably expect more than a few people to purchase the offsets.

I make a note to look into carbon offsets and return to the ticket search. Surfing through some travel web pages, I catch a glimpse of those gigantic, impassive faces carved in stone slabs on Easter Island. I used to wonder how those moai got there, in what looks like an otherwise lonely landscape. Then last year I read A Short History of Progress, in which Ronald Wright tells their sobering story.

Moai were carved by people who settled Easter Island in the fifth century A.D. They honored ancestors who, according to belief, provided spiritual protection against all disasters. By the year 800, some 10,000 islanders were competing, family against family, to erect larger and more of these giant monuments. Hauling them into place over log skids required workers to cut trees faster than they could be replenished. By about 1400 there were a thousand moai in place, but not a tree left.

For the next 300 years, the islanders kept an ever smaller fishing fleet afloat, repairing their boats with timbers plundered from the roofs of their dwellings. Eventually they savaged each other for the few fish they could catch in their remaining boats. When Dutch sailors found them on Easter Sunday, 1722, the islanders were just hundreds in number, surrounded by barren dunes and eking out a living with miserable canoes made of strung-together scrap wood.

At the noontime of their civilization, the Easter Islanders could see their doom approaching. Still, they couldn't stop themselves. They believed that the spirits of the ancestors would somehow save them.

We can see global catastrophe coming""artic glaciers and ice floes melting much faster than yesterday's dooms-dayers predicted, seas rising and warming, weather becoming more volatile and destructive, draught and exotic plagues spreading into agricultural and heavily populated regions""but we can't do anything to stop ourselves.

In fact, we hasten our destiny. Monbiot reports that a treaty between the European Union and the United States, currently in draft form, would prevent Europeans from taking any measure to reduce the airlines' environmental impact without the approval of the US government. Like Easter Islanders, we believe that something will save us. The ironic and grim truth: the only 'something' on the horizon is the fact of rapidly diminishing supplies of cheap oil. We may be grounded by Nature before we can destroy her.

How can I not make our family trips? Bring up the topic of climate change, and I feel trapped as well as guilty. What can we do? My polite but faint smile is really a grimace. In my mind's eye I still see that travel webpage with its foreboding moai staring blankly into the emptiness.
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James Parker has retired from careers as a professor of theology and as a public relations officer for a research institution.
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