the urgency of slowness

My parents are not originally from Dublin. My father came to Ireland from Chile in the 70s, and my mother came from Wicklow a bit later. In both cases the rest of their family stayed behind for the most part, so visiting family has always meant travelling. My family regularly made the 18-odd hour journey from Dublin to Santiago during my youth. I've since learned that regular transcontinental travel is not the norm, and you don't get free food on short-haul flights.

Driving down to Wicklow we used to pass through the Glen of the Downs. In the Glen, environmental and political activists demonstrated in the forest and painted messages on the wall overlooking the valley. I grew up wanting to be an eco-warrior like them. I wanted to live in a tree in the hills, with a valley to protect. Along the way I forgot about living in a tree and I got caught up in normal life, a life lived safely within the boundaries of social acceptability. Only once have I appeared on television during a protest about anything. In the light of the (semi-)recent IPCC report about the increasingly catastrophic outlook for the planet's climate, I wonder if I and others like me will be looked back at with scorn. Scorn for our inaction, our unwillingness to sacrifice anything, our complacency in the face of unfolding disaster.

I try not to be complacent. In the calculus of personal responsibility for climate change, I think I fare better than others in my situation. I'm going on 8 and a half years of vegetarianism. I don't drive: I don't actually know how to drive. Privileged as I am to live in cities, I cycle, walk, or take public transport everywhere. I donate to environmental charities. I don't buy new things very often, I avoid plastic. Every time I brush my teeth, every time I wash dishes, I think about water conservation. I don't leave the light on. I hang my clothes out to dry. But I am still a (north-western) European, and I'm well-off. The comforts of my life come at a premium that I will barely have to pay. I take warm showers, I enjoy continuous electricity and high-end consumer devices. And I fly. A lot.

In June of 2013, I thought of myself as well-travelled. I had been to Chile countless times; once to Easter Island, and another time to the Atacama desert. I had been to California and Florida, Turkey and Vietnam. When I decided to move to the USA for a PhD I knew it was a more serious kind of emigration than moving to England had been. But at the time I had not deeply thought about being a scientist as well as an emigrant. Between conference travel and visiting home and family in Europe, over those 5.4 years my propensity for air travel increased precipitously. I started writing this en route to South Africa in January 2019 (it's been in the outbox for a while). Between November 2018 and February 2019 I will have been in Zurich (home), San Francisco, New York, Montreal (via Geneva), Dublin (other home), London, Cape Town (via Johannesburg, Paris, George, and Amsterdam), and Mexico City. That's four transcontinental trips in as many months. This would have been unthinkable to a teenage version of myself. One acclimates quickly.

The problem is that flying is very convenient. Flying is unbelievably fast. Flying allows you to convert money into time, in what is so obviously an excellent trade that anyone with the means would surely be foolish to turn it down. This speed opens up the possibility of spending the weekend in another country and returning for work as usual on Monday. Going to the other side of the planet becomes inconvenient only because 12 hours on a plane can become uncomfortable. The entertainment system might stop working, the crying of a child may interrupt already fitful sleep at 35,000 feet, and the food may be bland or unrecognisable. The idea that air travel is damaging in some abstract way to the environment does not practically feature into the considerations one makes around time, money, layovers, legroom, screaming children, discarded water bottles, city views, packing. There is a sense that flying might be contributing somehow to climate change, but for an extra 10 euro you can offset your carbon, and climate change is sort of not obviously happening right now, and there's still some time left, and anyway it's those top 100 companies that are really causing it, so it's probably fine. You move on to seat selection: windows are good for long trips because you can lean against the wall, but what if you want to go to the bathroom?

And so it goes.

In the winter of 2018 I finally got to take the "Adirondack" between Montreal and New York. This is a passenger train route which travels through the Hudson valley and the Adirondack mountains, and it takes about 11 hours end to end. I had previously thought about it in 2015 when I was still living in New York and Montreal was hosting a popular conference in my field. In the end I decided I couldn't afford to add two days of travel to the trip, even if those days could be spent preparing for the conference. I figured any such train-based preparation would be inferior to what I could do from my office, so the most efficient solution would be to minimise travel time. Besides, the money wasn't mine, and everyone else was flying. In December 2018 the conference came back to Montreal, and my PhD defense required me to return to New York, so I killed two non-metaphorical endangered species with one stone and made the transatlantic trip. This time, when the opportunity arose, I took the train.

I'm not a stranger to long rail journeys. Like many middle-class Europeans, I spent one intense summer travelling our small continent on trains of varying speed and quality. These at-times ten-hour journeys were spent eating illicit sandwiches smuggled from hostel breakfasts, debating still-intractable philosophical positions, and otherwise smoothly blurring into the rest of the trip. So I was not worried - I knew I could entertain myself, even without friends on hand to practice Hungarian with. We left Montreal at 10am and arrived in New York's Penn station after 9pm. Over eleven hours I watched the landscape change almost imperceptibly slowly. The urban area of Montreal slipped away as the snow receded. Frozen lakes cracked and melted, and bare trees gave way to the distant brown-green valleys of Vermont. I saw tree swings and tree houses and a pair of wooden chairs on a hill overlooking the river. I thought about life in these places. I speculated. After five years under the abstract sense of panic I attribute to doing a PhD, I basked in the luxury of time. For eleven hours, I didn't really do anything. I didn't try to pass the time, nor did I clamour to use it. I sat, mostly, gazing out the window as the sun moved across the sky.

Choosing to fly is a complex decision. Due to economic and political forces I have yet to understand, it's often the cheaper option, and not everyone has the same abundance of time as an academic who just finished her PhD, nor the same willingness to spend ten hours looking at variations on wintry landscapes. I can't ask people to stop flying, I wouldn't even ask it of myself. But I have come to realise that the idea that flying turns money into time is an elaborate self-deception. You can't buy time. You can only (if you are lucky) choose how to spend it. Spending it in paradoxically-monotonous bursts of speed seems to be the default choice for anyone with the money and the inclination. It was for me, but I'm done. I'm done with priding myself on my tolerance for complicated itineraries, I'm done with "at least you can watch movies!", with habitually storing my toiletries in a plastic bag. I'm done with finding the view above the clouds unremarkable. I'm done with the urgency of flying, the devaluation of time spent doing little. I'm done with a culture of treating environmental issues as sources of guilt and little else, a carbon offset to be purchased, and a hope that everything will get better by someone else's hand. Moving slowly might not save the world, but at least I'll see the trees while they last.