Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Getting From Here to There

We have just been doing some travel planning and that set me thinking, once again, about my relationship to modern modes of travel.

One of my early heroes was Ivan Illich, who died in 2002 at 76 (the age I am now). I was lucky enough to meet and converse with him at one point in my life and it is to him that I owe many of my ideas about simple and sustainable lifestyles.
Illich, as he was when I met him
Illich was famous for pointing out that in many areas of human so-called 'progress' there comes an optimum moment in time beyond which the trajectory reverses and whatever-it-is, instead of assisting us, starts at best to lose its potential for improving our lives and worst to cause us harm, either as individuals or as a species.

This turning point has often come much earlier than we thought (and is almost always unnoticed). For example, as Illich pointed out in his 1970s essay, “Energy and Equity,” so much human energy is used up in the production and ownership of cars that they can be shown to be far less energy-efficient than bicycles. Bicycles, he said, were the really great breakthrough. All increases in speed beyond that have ended up actually being counter-productive—not to mention being damaging to the planet's ecosystems.

Man, unaided by any tools, gets around quite efficiently, and is more thermodynamically efficient than any machine and most animals." said Illich. "Man on a bicycle can go three to four times faster than a pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals, as well.”

When I lived in town I used to ride my bicycle a lot. I rode it to work and back (on the days when I didn't walk) and I used it for all my shopping trips. The only reason that I don't use it now is that these days I live in a very hilly place and have to spend so much time pushing my bike uphill that it is easier and more comfortable simply to walk.

But whether walking or cycling, travelling at slow speeds keeps us in contact with the world around us in a way that car travel never can. Cars encapsulate us in little, fast-moving bubbles that somehow seem to create a barrier between our bodies and the environment through which we are moving. Of course, buses and trains, too, whisk us around at far beyond bicycle speed, but for some reason that I haven't yet quite worked out I always feel much more comfortable on a bus or a train than I do in a car. Maybe it is because I can move around more inside the vehicle—especially on a train—and because the space feels larger, airier and less claustrophobic.

Planes, whilst more spacious than buses, are a hundred times more claustrophobic—especially in the Economy section. Air travel catapults us from place to place and across time zones in a way that creates havoc in our body's energy systems, turns our vision of the Earth's surface into distant wallpaper, subjects us to all kinds of discomfort, indignities and airborne viruses (not to mention the awful food) and totally confuses our natural, animal sense of distance.

This is why, even though it takes us three days (and three buses, four trains and a ferry) to get to our favourite vacation place and costs probably four times as much as flying, I would still rather go there slowly.

(I only wish I had the energy and stamina to ride my bike from here to there instead. That way I would really see the countryside. But of course I'd still have to take the ferry across the watery bits)