We're shaken up about the earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan. A little over a year ago, we got off a container ship to spend a month in Japan, where we documented part of the No Nukes Festa, a huge event protesting Japan's use of nuclear power. Sponsors included groups like the Citizen's Nuclear Information Center, which warned of earthquake and tsunami risks.

In light of the nuclear accidents of the past several days, we thought we would share some of our photos of Japanese citizens standing up for environmental health and against nuclear energy policy. (Can't see the images? Click here.)

Green and global poverty groups march together

The bird

Anti-nuclear salarymen


Multigenerational anti-nuclear activists

Black and white

Colorful signs

(With much love to our friends in Japan, and to all who work for environmental health.)

With national U.S. climate legislation failed, and Republicans running away from market-based solutions, the onus is on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop national greenhouse gas standards. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA must regulate dangerous greenhouse gases as a pollutant, environmental NGOs asked the EPA to start setting standards on dangerous mobile emissions from ships and planes, as explicitly required by the Clean Air Act. But after two and a half years of inaction, five frustrated NGOs turned to the courts to get the EPA to follow the law:

Sarah Burt, Earthjustice

We talked to Sarah Burt from public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice about her work on the case on behalf of clients like Friends of the Earth and the Center for Biological Diversity. Burt describes the case:

  1. The Supreme Court has ruled that greenhouse gases are indeed pollutants under the Clean Air Act
  2. The Clean Air Act says that if aviation emissions endanger public health then they must be regulated
  3. The EPA agrees that greenhouse gases threaten public health
  4. Given that aviation is a a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, this should trigger an obligation to take action under the Clean Air Act

She later pulls out a copy of the text of Clean Air Act to show us exactly what it says about aircraft emission standards: "The Administrator shall...issue proposed emission standards applicable to the emission of any air pollutant from...aircraft engines which...contributes to...air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare." (U.S. Clean Air Act, Section 231)

According to Earthjustice's petition, in 2008, marine vessels entering U.S. ports accounted for 4.4 percent of domestic mobile source greenhouse gas emissions, while aircraft accounts for 3% of the total domestic greenhouse gas inventory; net impacts may be much greater due to aviation-induced ozone, contrail, and cirrus formation.

How has the EPA reacted to the suit? Burt reports mixed signals, though the government's certainly fighting back. As for now, the case isn't moving. "The government moved to dismiss 3 of the 4 claims. We opposed. We're waiting for a decision from the judge."

Burt's realistic about the complications. "Under Lisa Jackson, the EPA's been good on dealing with emissions from cars and power plants. But shipping and aircraft are different, because they're international, and a variety of international agreements may be involved." She tracks international work in fora like the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which regulate global shipping and aviation, respectively. She's frustrated at the inaction at an international level. "Nothing happened at the IMO meeting leading up to Copenhagen...nations like India and China blocked a deal at the IMO, but if you were to exclude all developing nations from a deal, that would exclude most ships, since 70% of all ships are flagged to developing nations."

What about aviation regulation at the ICAO? "The ICAO has been even worse than the IMO," she laughs, describing ICAO's history of inaction on greenhouse gases. "At least the IMO has more input from civil society." We checked back in after the 2010 ICAO assembly in Montreal, which resulted in what struck us as a toothless greenwashed agreement. "The ICAO agreement is important generally but it doesn't change things [around the lawsuit]...The agreement is not a standard -- they are aiming to have some metrics that could then become a standards by 2013 but from what I hear at ICAO it is likely to codify business as usual rather than putting in place a standards that would actually reduce emissions...EPA has a duty to put in place a standard that complies with the requirements of the Clean Air Act -- a business-as-usual standard wouldn't accomplish this. So bottom line is that while the ICAO agreement is a step forward, it does not (yet) replace strong regional action."

Earthjustice is arguing that the US has the authority to regulate environmental health impacts of US-flagged ships and aircraft, as well as those that land within the US. But that battle's also getting waged outside the courtroom. "The airline industry is very good at controlling the message," she says. "Shipping agencies aren't nearly as proactive. Airlines say they're going under, and that any attempt to regulate will kill the industry." But airlines aren't the only players. Burt walked us through some of the groups doing lobbying work on the issue:

We asked Burt what she could do if she had a thousand more people to support her work. "It wouldn't take a thousand," she says. Just getting a handful of high-profile people to start talking about this issue would do wonders. She points at Richard Branson as one of the few highly-visible people in the industry talking about these issues. "To some extent," she adds, "the solution needs to be technically driven. Stimulus spending support transportation alternatives is a help...there's room for reduction in the U.S, but we need the alternatives. The US is different from the EU -- they can travel by rail."

Sarah Burt isn't trying to remake the world. She just wants the government to follow the law, and for industry to do its job. We ask her about best case scenarios a few years out, and she suggests a mandatory emissions cap. with reductions achieved via improvements in aircraft design, alternative fuels, improved routing and navigation systems -- most of which are ideas industry is batting around as well. "We're ready for a big efficiency step-up," she says. The clock is ticking, and Sarah Burt is waiting.

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Barnali and I are both big readers, and were worried about the prospect of spending a year on the road without books to read. We need not have worried. Thanks to ebook libraries, bookstores carrying English titles, hostel exchanges, and friends' libraries, I was able to read 92 books during our year on the road, just a bit less than average.

We started our journey by sea aboard a container ship to Japan leaving from the Port of Seattle. Hours before we boarded, we discovered Left Bank Books, possibly my favorite bookstore discovery of the year. I bought a copy of Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which I'd tried to read in college, but had quickly given up on. With ten days of ship time ahead (and a decade of reading experience since my last attempt), I figured this would be the right time to give it another try. I failed, managing to slog through most of the book, but finally giving up, defeated by armies of characters, impenetrable prose, and painfully disjoint narrative. Next time, give me a Satanic Verses instead. I finished the journey reading Mishima and Ishiguro's more conventional narratives.

As soon as we arrived in Tokyo, I couldn't help but notice that a large percentage of subway riders seemed to read on their phones. Inspired, I went online and started downloading public domain and Creative Commons books from ManyBooks.net, and putting them on my Palm Treo. I felt like a local with my phone held aloft, reading Tokyo Zero: My Tokyo Death Cult by Mark Horne, a thriller about a secret society trying to gas the Tokyo subway (while actually riding the Tokyo subway). But I started feeling the itch for "real" (i.e. print) books and tracked down a bookstore that carried English books. While on the road, weight, space, and cost were paramount, so I bought the densest trade paperback I could find, the wonderful thousand-page fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I later picked up a copy of an English translation of Oishinbo A La Carte, a manga about a Japanese food journalist; Charlie had told me about Oishinbo years ago, and it was just as good as he'd described. Both Barnali and I ended up substantially deepening our understanding of the ins and outs of Japanese food culture from the fun and readable anthology. I'll never look at chopstick etiquette the same way again.

From Japan, we sailed to China by ferry, to Vietnam by train, and by bus to Cambodia, where I did something I never thought I could bring myself to do: buy pirated books. I've spent a decade working in the book industry, and while I'm a critic of copyright maximalism, I'm still a boy scout at heart; I don't pirate music, movies, or books (even when nobody's looking). But reader, I succumbed. On the opposite side of the planet, starved of reading material, and surrounded by references to the depradations of the Pol Pot regime, I ended up buying pirated copies of First They Killed My Father
 by Luong Ung and The Gate by François Bizot, memoirs of the Cambodian genocide, which helped bring past events startlingly to life as we visited genocide sites and killing fields. We left these and most of the other books we purchased on the road at hostel book exchanges, where travelers were welcome to leave their read books and take new ones.

We proceeded from Cambodia on to Thailand, where I read the worst book of the trip, Thai Touch by Richard Rubacher, an atrocious expat memoir. From there by plane to India (the most difficult decision of our trip), where we spent over a month, seeing family. Barnali, her brother, and I traveled by train around South India. I ended up reading several Creative Commons ebooks on my phone. I was sitting in Bangalore reading Makers by Cory Doctorow, the newest novel by one of favorite writers, about entrepreneurship and hackery in the post-post-industrial American economy. On the night trains, after the lights would go out, I'd slip under my sheets and read free books on my backlit phone, as India clattered by outside. My favorite discovery was Mothers and Other Monsters 
by Maureen F. McHugh, her collection of thoughtful character-driven specfic short stories. I typically buy a handful of books on every trip to India to take home, but were prevented from doing so because of the limited weight we could carry on our backs (though we did pick up a copy of Micro Credit Myth Manufactured: Unveiling Appropriation of Surplus Value and an Icon in Dhaka).

By the time we got to Beijing to board the Trans-Siberian Express, we were equipped with a small bag of books, including several volumes of world history to help us put all that we were seeing into context. But we'd also bought a copy of The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson, the second volume of the trilogy which, oddly enough, we'd never heard of. We'd been on the road for so long that we had no idea of what kind of a publishing phenomenon Larsson's mysteries had become; all I knew was that the book was long, had a great cover, and intriguing jacket copy. We were hooked. We both read the book during our five-day journey across China, Mongolia, and Russia, and looked forward to reading the remaining books when we got a chance.

It was cold in Russia, so we veered southwest, spending a few days in Odessa, and then on to blessed sunny Turkey, aboard a ferry full of travelers unable to fly, grounded by the Icelandic volcano. We picked up a copy of ode-to-therapy-by-travel Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert at a hostel, which we read, and took turns alternately ripping apart and damning with faint praise. Gilbert wrote so well, and yet the thought of finding transcendence and love on a budget and schedule just seemed so terribly shlocky. By this point in time, we'd been blogging about our trip and the climate action movements we'd been meeting on the way for eight months straight, and we knew fully well how much work went into finding a string of experiences that would have the narrative cohesion to read well in print, and how much power a writer has in shaping that narrative of true events. It felt like we were being led along a flimsy plotline by a narrator we couldn't bear to dislike. This wasn't one of our favorite books of the trip, though it may have been the one that spurred the most discussion.

Our blood quickened as we made our way through Western European capitals, discovering climate movements addressing familiar challenges as we enjoyed staying with bookish friends. In Rome we read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, in Berlin The Women by T.C. Boyle), in Paris Perfume by Patrick Süskind, and in London, Chowringhee by Sankar, which we enjoyed discussing at Indraneel's book club. I raced through 28 books while in Western Europe, thanks to easy access to English books at bookstores and in friends' bookshelves. So many books around! It felt like home.

We took a container ship back westwards the Atlantic, where I spent a large chunk of time going through notes, writing about the three weeks of interviews we'd done in London. The only book I finished was The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (again, we'd accidentally bought an interesting book without having read the prequel). We arrived after two weeks at sea, spent some time with friends and family in central Pennsylvania and Boston, and took the train back to the San Francisco Bay Area via New York and Chicago. I loved the past year, but it took coming back for me to realize how much I'd missed being in a place full of English-language books to read, from libraries, bookstores, and in friends' generous bookshelves.

Ironically, most of the books I did over the past year were American or British. It's only now that we're home, with easy access to translated materials, large nonfiction collections, and no backpack weight or space restrictions to worry about, that we're getting a chance to read what we'd wanted to all along -- books from and about the places we went. Another wonderful year of reading awaits.

What tech gear do you bring with you if you're spending a year backpacking around the world? We're not gadget-heads, but about 20% of the weight we carried with us consisted of gadgets of one sort another -- camera, laptops, cell phones, power adapters. As we started planning gear for our trip, we had four concerns in mind:

  1. Weight: Every extra ounce we took would further strain our backs
  2. Loss: We might have things lost or stolen, so we preferred cheap gear we could keep hidden, and replace if needed
  3. Cost: We wanted to save money, reusing things we owned whenever possible
  4. Resilience: Things would break or get stolen, so backup capacity was important

Here's what we brought, and why.


As we were planning our trip, we decided to try to avoid buying souvenirs, and focus on taking pictures. Barnali likes taking photos, and she owns a Nikon D50 digital SLR. It's an SLR, and therefore heavy and visible, but if we didn't use it now, then when? We also brought with us her second lens, a lovely (and large) zoom lens. We knew we'd be taking a lot of photos, so we bought eight 2-gigabyte memory cards (the largest size her camera can take) as primary storage, and decided to back them up to a laptop with 160 gigabytes of hard drive space. On the computer, we managed the photos with Google Picasa, which we synced online with a private Google Picasa Web Albums account, paying $50 for 200 gigabytes of online storage.

We've been uploading photos to Facebook and to our Flickr accounts. Check out some of our favorite photos on Flickr.

Laptops and WiFi

We've spent a year coordinating interviews, meeting people, processing photos, and blogging while on the road. Netbooks, the new wave of cheap little laptops, have been our salvation. I had with me my Asus Eee 701, about the size and weight of a hardcover book. I'd bought it for about $300 in mid-2008, and have since used it on several trips. It has only 4 gigabytes of hard drive space, but it runs Linux, Firefox, a text editor, and my beloved Unix shell. What more could a boy want?

Barnali has an older Mac laptop at home, but we decided to go with something cheaper and hardier for the trip, so we bought a refurbished Asus Eee PC 904HA running Windows XP for $300. Her netbook was much heavier than mine, but also had more memory, a larger screen, and 40 times more hard drive space (160 gigabytes to my 4).

We each used our own laptops for email, writing, and web work, but used mine when we needed a light computer to take in our day pack, and Barnali's for Skype and photo management. Having two different computers was incredibly helpful. Barnali could run Windows software that I couldn't, and I could safely read data from USB keychains that we'd taken to Windows virus-laden cybercafes. It helped that Asus is a major global brand; when Barnali's laptop screen broke in Thailand, we got a replacement from the local Asus service center in less than 24 hours.

Internet access was nearly ubiquitous wherever we went. Though it would sometimes consist of a PC in a hostel lobby or a cybercafe down the street, we were almost always able to get WiFi in our hostel/hotel rooms. But on occasion, we got a wired Ethernet connection in our room, which could connect to only one of our computers. This was irritating, because it meant only one of could be online at a time, negating the advantages of having two laptops, and meaning we couldn't always finish our work in parallel. We took care of this problem in Vietnam, by spending $100 on a brand-new Apple AirPort Express, a tiny portable WiFi base station. We'd plug the Ethernet port into the AirPort Express, and voila, instant wireless. I wish we'd known about this before, so we could have bought a used one at home, instead of needing to buy one on the road.

Software tools

The four most useful pieces of software we had running on our computers were:

  • Picasa -- we prefer iPhoto, but came to appreciate Picasa's strengths as a photo manager
  • Firefox with the Read It Later extension to store content offline -- we could save articles, blog posts, web pages of interest, and read it offline
  • Gmail's offline support -- it was incredibly useful to have emailed phone numbers, directions, and content available offline anytime
  • Skype -- for phone calls, much cheaper than any other source; we particularly enjoyed video chats with our parents

Mobile phones

Phones were probably the most complicated part of our planning, in part because phones do so much more than make phone calls. We wanted to make calls, but also to manage schedules, store contacts, manage lists, run software, and listen to music and podcasts.

At home, we do all this with our Palm Treo and Centro smartphones, running on the AT&T network. AT&T has a remarkable international roaming network, but it's also expensive. If we were going to make calls and send texts from abroad all year, we'd need a cheaper solution. A New York Times story led us to MaxRoam, a company that sells international roaming SIM cards offering coverage around the world at nearly half the price of AT&T -- exactly what we needed. The only downside? MaxRoam SIM cards use a complicated callback mechanism to make calls, which won't work with our Palms, so we had to buy cheap used multi-band GSM Nokia phones to use with MaxRoam.

The end result? We used the Nokia/MaxRoam phones for phone and SMS, but brought along our Palms (with the phone turned off) for organizer, music, software, ebooks; if we ever had problems with Nokia/MaxRoam, we could always fall back to Palm/AT&T. The best part of all this was that our new generic Nokia phones were quite unexceptional and used by people of all classes the world over; that meant we would never look out of place by having a flashy phone, helping attract a little less attention.

(There were further twists. We didn't want to lose any important calls on our home cell phones, so we had calls redirect to our new MaxRoam phone numbers. Call redirection worked fine, but apparently SMSes don't get redirected, so we'd turn on the AT&T phone every once in a while, just to see if we'd missed any important texts. Even worse, we spent a month in Japan, where ordinary GSM phones don't work, so we borrowed a Japan-compatible phone from my dad, returning it to him when we met up a few months later.)

Mobile phone content

Before we left, we loaded up our Palm phones with favorite music, podcasts, and free ebooks to keep us occupied over the coming months. When we arrived in Tokyo, I was inspired by the prevalence of reading on mobile devices during dead time on the subway, and ended up reading dozens of free ebooks from ManyBooks.net over the course of the year. Barnali installed a podcatcher, Juice, on her computer, which she used to keep up with favorite shows like This American Life and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.

More practically we were also traveling with an offline dump of the entire WikiTravel website. Having all of WikiTravel in our pockets ensured that we had some basic documentation for virtually everywhere we went, regardless of whether or not we had a relevant paper guidebook. It was a great comfort, highly recommended for other long-distance travelers.

But my most delightful download all year was a wonderful free software package called Métro, a multiplatform offline transit planner with support for dozens of world cities. We installed it on our Palms, and had instant directions between transit stops in places like Moscow, London, and Paris, saving us time and aggravation with paper schedules.

Everything else

Power was a universal problem. We brought three international plug adapters with us, allowing us to plug our American gear into a wide variety of outlets. In India, we picked up a small power strip, which we used for a few months; it was a relief to be able to charge multiple devices at once. Sadly, perhaps coincidentally, the power strip also seemed to destroy some of our chargers; we had a Palm charger fry on the Trans-Siberian express, and a laptop charger die in Germany. We'd brought backup chargers, so while neither was a calamity, they were still irritations.

About a week before we left on our trip, I spent about $40 on a small pocket-sized translator device. You could select any of a few hundred common travel phrases, and it would speak and spell the translation in about a dozen world languages. We didn't need it as much as I expected, but it was nice to have in places like China, Japan, Russia, and Turkey. In the far East, I found that playing a recording of "where is the subway?" was much more clear than my mangled attempt at the local language. The device was small enough that it spent the whole year inside my day pack.

And finally, there were convenience gadgets from home. I carried my electric shaver, a nice convenience to make my morning routine a little bit faster. Barnali had left a small hair dryer in India, which we picked up midway into our trip. We could have done without our personal care gadgets, but they were small luxuries, injecting a little comfort into our travels.

What we would (and wouldn't) do differently

We'd planned the technology for our trip around the lowest common denominator, looking for things that wouldn't make us look like targets or stand out too much. But having made defensive choices, we didn't think to bring a very easily portable WiFi device that we could have used to access the widely-available free WiFi networks in Japan and Western Europe. If I had to do it all over again, I would have considered replacing our phones with WiFi-capable MaxRoam-compatible smartphones (preferably with reasonable web browsers, cameras, video, and GPS).

Having access to power in the absence of power outlets would have allowed us to work on our laptops during more long train and bus journeys. Barnali had to do it all over again, she would have tried to bring an external battery device, to store extra backup juice for laptop and cell phones.

Reading this, it feels like all we did all year was fiddle with tech gadgets, but the point of technology planning is to remove stress. Careful planning helped ensure that we'd be able to take pictures, call home from anywhere in the world, and write on the road, without fear of single points of failure, so we could actually enjoy our trip instead of worrying about spiraling costs or things falling apart.

Our Year of No Flying has come to an end. Our container ship brought us from Europe back to the East Coast of the United States, where we traveled by bus and train to see family and friends in central Pennsylvania, New York, Boston, and Chicago, before crossing the continent on Amtrak's amazing California Zephyr train line. We had a front row seat to some of the most stunning landscapes in the United States, passing through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. We were surprised when our train arrived early. Charlie met at the train station and drove us home to Berkeley. And then back to reality, learning to live again without a backpack on one's back, a money belt in one's pants, and our perpetual questions: "how are we getting there? who can we talk to? who's writing the blog post?"

As soon as we got home, we started volunteering on the No on Prop 23 campaign, hoping to defeat an oil industry-funded effort to shut down California's landmark 2006 climate change legislation. (Anirvan even popped up in an anti-Prop 23 ad.) The good guys won, and California, the world's 8th largest economy and 12th largest emitter, is now on track to roll out carbon caps in 2012.

We knew our year of no flying had really ended when we subsequently got back on a plane and flew to India for Barnali's brother's wedding. For all the talk about the climate impacts of aviation, here we were spewing the climate equivalent of driving a car for two years. Love miles had gotten the best of us again.

We felt a twinge of discomfort at the airport as we removed our belts, shoes, jackets, phones, laptops, and liquids; it's as if Big Aviation had been conspiring to make us feel as unwelcome as possible, and indeed, the introduction of the new backscatter X-ray full-body scanners and associated security groping techniques had led to a full-fledged libertarian-tinged American anti-aviation movement, calling for boycotts of flying, airport shutdowns, and even years of no flying. Activists against the aviation security complex fought back, networking online, organizing a national day of action, taking off their clothes. The general media message? Pesky protesters fail to slow down the aviation machine; all's well with the world, and the issue's no longer worth covering (despite significant public unease and significant questions about radiation health impacts).

Thankfully, we were neither groped nor had naked photos of us taken as we took our flight to India; on a plane full of folks heading to India and the Middle East, for once, the color of our skin wasn't enough to place us in the likely-terrorist camp. Our Emirates flight flew over Iran, which we may never have the chance to visit; our inflight displays showed historic Tehran below us as a tiny blip, as we passed overhead without getting the chance to explore what was below. The wedding was wonderful, and we loved the week-long family celebration of the happy occasion. We'd vowed to ourselves to cut short-haul air travel, so we were delighted that our family chose to use trains instead of planes to get from one end of the country to the other.

We've spent the past year thinking about climate and aviation, travel and tourism, justice and pleasure. It's been a minor revelation to us that this doesn't have to end when we come home, that it's something we can incorporate into our everyday lives even after our once-in-a-lifetime year-long project ends. We're going to keep interviewing people who inspire us and sharing stories we encounter in the weeks and months ahead, focusing on our own wonderful crazy nation for a change. Thanks for following us!

Tourism 2023 carbon clampdown postcard

You don't have to be an "environmentalist" to start thinking about climate change -- just realistic. The British tourism industry is trying to come to grips with how climate impacts will affect their business, and the products they're selling; the results are fascinating. While in London, we met Vicky Murray from the Forum for the Future, who worked with partners like British Airways, Carnival UK, and Thomas Cook to produce Tourism 2023, a report on possible futures for the British travel and tourism industry. It breaks the possibilities down into four scenarios of the world their customers will be traveling in, and how energy and emissions policy will affect them. According to KPMG research, the tourism sector is one of those least prepared for climate change and among those most commercially exposed to the physical risks it presents. "Climate change will have dramatic impacts on how, where and when (and even if) people travel, and will reshape the industry over time."

Murray, a primary author of the Tourism 2023 report, described how "there were a lot of environmental campaigns that were going on, but not enough work being done in the solutions space." The Forum for the Future works with industries to develop scenarios to help understand the kind of futures they want, and how to get there. She faced initial resistance. "The tourism industry is short term focussed, they couldn't see that it [tourism futures planning] was all about protecting their product." That resistance eventually wore down, and mainstream tourism industry partners started coming on board to participate in the industry-wide futures planning process.

Constructing scenarios

Why think about tourism in 2023? "In 2008, 2023 was 15 years into the future, just far enough to not feel like science fiction and be ignored but further than the 3-5 year time span that people are generally able to think about." The report took 18 months to develop and was put together by a diverse group of futurists and sustainability experts including historians, transportation planners, sustainable accounting professionals, and environmental consultants working with industry partners. "The four scenarios have been constructed to be plausible. They are not meant to predict the most likely outcomes for 2023 nor represent favourable or unfavourable futures. Instead, they offer a set of possible futures and provide a challenge to the industry, each with their own risks and opportunities. They are tools that industry bodies can use to assess current strategies and come up with new ones that will be fit for a range of futures. " The two axes of scenario construction were the two major uncertainties of the future--will the economy, politics, technology and energy costs enable or inhibit travel and whether the sensitivity of consumers to the environmental impacts of their travel make it more attractive or less attractive.

Scenario 1: Boom and Burst

We really enjoyed the use of fictional "postcards sent back home" to give a flavor of life for British tourists under each scenario. For example:

"Dear Mum, Sorry to send you another postcard this year, but this trip really has been eye-opening. You were right, the supermarket did pick a great itinerary for me, but Manila is not how it looked in the video brochure--it's a lot more crowded. Still, I got my teeth done more cheaply than I could have in the UK and now I have tried remote working I see why you think a second home abroad might be fun! See you next week in Brazil! - Love, David"

  • All is well in the world but it's not clear for how long. Technological fixes like the use of algae-based fuels for planes and carbon scrubbers that clean the air as we fly have allowed travel to continue and grow.

  • The spread of broadband has allowed UK citizens to work from anywhere so binge flying is common and many have second homes.

  • The high prices of oil have made low carbon travel alternatives an economic necessity, so all modes of travel are seeing growth. Kazakhstan transit railway opened to link China to Iran and the Caspian sea. Russia has begun work on the world's longest tunnel that will connect to Alaska and accommodate a high speed train line, gas pipelines and fiber optic cables.

  • This travel boom has led to overcrowded destinations and upped the demand for more land to be opened up to the industry. There is now a paved road to Mt. Everest's base camp complete with vending machines.

Scenario 2: Divided Disquiet

Perhaps the worst possible outcome for the tourism industry:

"Dear Mum, I'm sorry I bothered coming here--three hours queuing to get through security, and then there is a power failure at the hotel. I tried to visit the Pyramids, but there were too many people to see much from the observation platform, the temperature is stifling and the entry fee has shot up. Tell Auntie Anna not to bother coming and get online to catch up with Uncle Tim instead. Better go, I have to queue for water again, x Love David."

  • In this dystopian scenario, the world is a dangerous place to live in, let alone travel. Countries have not taken any action to combat climate change and the business as usual approach has resulted in increased conflict over resources leaving the world divided into "protectionist blocs". Conflict over basic necessities like water and food and extreme and unpredictable weather conditions have caused massive instability. In one incident, the Caribbean islands were battered by a series of storms that wrecked hotels and disrupted food supplies, leading to rioting and trapping British tourists.

  • Tourists are not welcome especially in destinations that are unable to bear the added pressure from tourism. The mayoral candidate of an affected European town promised to limit the number of tourists where as other places have completely banned tourism and are focussed on a post-tourist development model.

  • Having seen the impacts, tourists are now more aware of the social and environmental impacts of their travel and demand more ethical choices.

  • Telepresence technologies for the home are able to beam friends and family right into the living room. People are surprised at their ability to live apart longer without that extra flight thanks to these technologies.

Scenario 3: Price and Privilege

A glimpse into a world trying to live without aviation:

"Dear Mum, You just won't believe it: There has been a heat wave here and they have asked us to stay indoors! There's no way I am doing that though--I have been saving for far too long to let freak weather get in the way of this holiday! The journey down was really easy and the beds were surprisingly comfy -- even great-grandad would get a good night's sleep! The coach stopped at loads of cool hubs on the way. My favourite was an interactive science museum we pulled into on the way out of Madrid. Bit crowded but really cool. Hope the holiday saving account for next year is going well. Love, David"

  • Rising oil prices have ensured that flying is once again only for the rich and famous and the tourism industry is focussed on a small elite that is still able to afford travel. A boat from London to New York is cheaper than flying for the first time since 1969 and people who want to take that special flight have to save for years.

  • Overland travel is the mass market option. Coach hubs have been set up along major routes and compete with each other by offering parklands, meals, rest zones. The roads are where the new tourist destinations like theme parks, gaming zones and museums have pop up.

  • Low carbon holidays are now the norm since they are also the cheapest.

  • Demonstrations and petitions in several cities worldwide over the "right to fly," while "Tourism workers across the Mediterranean region unite in mass protests against poor wages and working conditions as a result of cost pressures."

Scenario 4: Carbon Clampdown

Perhaps the most equitable, if not the most fun:

"Dear Mum, I have finally reached the project in Lithuania and I am really glad I spent the carbon allowance getting here. It's been really fulfilling work with the families and I have learnt more from them than they ever could from me. Did you say you came here once on a Hen weekend? It seems funny that you could just hop on a plane like that. I am sorry you're not able to come see it today but maybe we can fix a trip to Cornwall for the year after next? Lots and lots of love, David."

  • The most promising of the scenarios. The public are clamoring for tough action on environmental issues, tradable carbon quotas are in place.

  • People are making holiday choices that are more ethical while staying within their carbon budget. Carbon labeling is now required for holiday packages and for holiday-makers it is among their top selection criteria.

  • Vacationing locally is on the rise and travel companies offer two week vacations in your own home where they help you discover your city and neighborhood.

  • There is pressure on tourism to be a more ethical business. Leading travel firm goes bust after massive boycott coordinated by social networks over its environmental policy.

Building our own scenarios

Having been tourists the last year, we found ourselves constantly questioning the contradictions of travel. Yes, it made us more aware of the world, opened our ways to different realities and we enjoyed almost every moment of it. But at what cost? Most of us are now able to fly to the most fragile places--if we don't see it, we won't want to save it, but can we ever save it from the tons of carbon already emitted by us in getting there. The more you see, the less there is to see.

We need to adapt to reality; British travel companies are taking these visions of the future, and using them to think about how to prepare for the future. But the clock's already ticking. The full story behind the "Carbon Clampdown" scenario has President Obama rallying the world to take action at the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009 -- and we know that certainly didn't happen. The further along we go without large-scale coordinated action to limit catastrophic climate change, the more likely the worst scenarios become. It'll take all of our strength and courage to bring our own best scenarios to life.

Tourism 2023 postcard Egypt
ICAO logo

The world watched last year's climate talks in Copenhagen with hope and trepidation. We spent the past two weeks following the ICAO Assembly, the aviation sector's climate talks in Montreal with equal anticipation. Unlike Copenhagen, there was little coverage, and very limited civil society participation. And now that it's over, despite most parties calling it a success, we have to conclude that it's bad news.

Civil aviation generates 4.9% of the total human impact on the climate, but it's not addressed under global climate deals. Instead, the plan was for the global aviation industry to come up with its own sector-specific climate plan, managed by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The ICAO spent the next decade opposing mandatory policies to reduce industry emissions. But Montreal was supposed to change all that...

So what happened in Montreal?

ICAO member states meet once every three years to set policy, and were feeling pressure to make a deal--any deal---at the just-concluded Sep-Oct 2010 Assembly in Montreal. Why the stress? Policymakers wanted to deliver something before the COP16 climate talks in December 2010, while the aviation industry was pushing for a single (weak) global deal to avert the EU's plans to include aviation emissions within its emissions trading system starting 2012.

The debate centered around two major issues: developing nations were adamant about the right to grow, and airlines demanded a global deal to avert a patchwork of local emissions policies like the ones starting up in Europe. It took two weeks of wrangling to come up with an agreement.

The final resolution:

  • Asks for 2% annual improvements to average fuel efficiency until 2020, and "aspires" to further 2% improvements thereafter
  • Allows aircraft CO2 to grow without limits until 2020; industry will "strive" to stick to 2020 CO2 levels thereafter (but may be able to buy carbon offsets to make up the difference)
  • Exempts small nations that generate under 1% of international aviation activity
  • Partly acknowledges regional market-based policies, and sets up plans to develop a global market-based solution that includes offsets
  • Asks the ICAO to collect data, study the problem, and work to support possible solutions like improved routing systems and alternative fuels

How did the players fare?

Humanity needs massive reductions (e.g. 80+%) in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to maintain life on the planet as we know it; environmentalists expect the aviation industry to do its part with big long-term cuts, in line with the scale of overall reductions.

Outcome: Humanity lost. A commitment to increase emissions is precisely the opposite of the substantial reductions needed to maintain human life on the planet as we know it.

The global airline industry, represented by the IATA, were pushing a proposal to have unlimited aviation CO2 growth for another decade in return for a modest mandated 1.5% annual efficiency improvements; if the industry spewed more than 50% of 2020 levels by 2050, they wanted to be able to buy carbon offsets.

Outcome: Airlines did well. Efficiency requirements are higher than preferred, but the carbon caps are even weaker than the ones they themselves had proposed.

The European Union has been far ahead of other regions on the issue, by requiring that airlines buy auctioned carbon emission permits, just like every other European climate-polluting industry; they were willing to drop that plan if ICAO came up with an acceptable global alternative.

Outcome: The EU left feeling like they have some backing for their right to limit aviation CO2, even though the effectiveness of their regulations have been slashed.

The U.S. and other developed nations have generally avoided the issue, though in theory, most are OK with having a global market-based carbon trading system for planes. (In practice, the U.S. and Canada have been condemning Europe's green aviation laws.)

Outcome: The U.S. and other developed nations preserved the ability to have air emissions grow without bound till 2020, and reasonable growth thereafter.

China, India, and other major developing nations have fast-growing aviation markets, and hope to grow without environmental regulations. They're also nervous that if they sign an aviation deal, it might pressure them to sign a binding deal for overall emissions (which they've been fighting against).

Outcome: China hates the agreement, because it may commit them to potential reductions in growth; one representative literally called it an attack on Chinese human rights.

Most developing nations are wary of signing deals limiting their ability to develop, and support the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities, i.e. the biggest climate polluters have the strongest reduction requirements, while low-carbon developing nations are allowed to grow.

Outcome: Developing nations got an exemption if their flights are less than 1% of the global total, exempting all but about 15-25 of 190 nations.

Aircraft manufacturers are often in favor of efficiency requirements, since that's an excuse to sell pricy new planes. (But not too efficient -- the average fuel efficiency improvement of new aircraft since 2000 has been basically flat.)

Outcome: Aircraft manufacturers face a stronger efficiency mandate than expected, but it's still cause to sell more planes.

So what does this mean?

"[A] cap at 2020 emissions levels essentially locks in business as usual and allows another decade of increasing emissions" --Sarah Burt, Earthjustice (via)

The deal is greenwash. Most participants are happy with the outcome -- even though it doesn't set any meaningful standards to reduce aviation growth. Planning to increase emissions less quickly isn't the same as making the major reductions we need to preserve life as we know it. This deal will likely be trotted out as a sign of hope at the upcoming Cancun climate talks; it isn't.

"The Assembly represented a race to the bottom to reach consensus at almost any cost, followed by a descent into farce as many countries distanced themselves from various aspects of the resolution. ICAO's irrelevance grows along with emissions from the world's most energy and carbon intensive form of transport." --Bill Hemmings, Transport & Environment (via)

This is also a moment for us to realize how much more transparency and participation we need. Hundreds of millions of people followed the Copenhagen international climate talks in some way; the Montreal aviation climate talks were probably followed only by thousands, mostly from industry or government. Public pressure works--without it, Europe wouldn't have been as far ahead on its aviation policies. If aviation is 4.9% of the climate crisis, we need to devote a proportionate amount of our efforts to taking on the aviation technocrats and lobbyists pretending to fight a fire as they keep adding kindling.


Analysis from aviation/environment watchdogs:

Coverage of the proceedings from Green Air Online:

Text of the resolution, and more details of the discussion:

Background on aviation and climate change:

London faces

We spent three weeks in London, wandering around town, exploring museums, meeting old friends, cheering on a band, trying to help friends move. We also tried to explore Britain's rich movements around aviation and climate. We discovered a tightly-knit web of green activist energy, each thread leading to another. Here's what we found.

DAN GLASS, CLIMATE 9: Dan Glass is a bundle of energy, and an amazing connector; within minutes of meeting us, he had his cell phone out, scheduling meetings with people we should talk to. We knew him as the Plane Stupid member who'd superglued himself to the Prime Minister to protest the expansion of Heathrow, but he was currently doing environmental justice work in Glasgow, and asking us about Oakland's young environmental justice organizing. On March 3rd, 2009, Dan and eight others occupied the runway at Aberdeen airport to protest its expansion to serve a Donald Trump golf course, as well as plans to massively increase Scottish aviation emissions in spite of climate laws. The result? A high-profile court case where they argued that citizens have a duty to stop dangerous climate change. It was the first time in Scotland that evidence of the climate threat and aviation emissions had been presented by climate experts to a jury. We talked about the support they'd been getting, from Scotland to Kenya, India to America, from environmentalists, religious leaders, lay people of all stripes. (Me? I was particularly happy to see support from anti-racist groups, Bhopal activists, and the Muslim Council of Scotland, which based their support in Islamic legal theory.) We talked about aviation, organizing strategies, the American scene, and then our time ran out, because he had another meeting to attend -- would we like to sit in? And then we learned about Vedanta...

FOIL VEDANTA: Without quite meaning to, we found ourselves in a meeting planning a protest against Vedanta corporation, a British mining company on the rampage mining for bauxite and refining aluminum in adivasi tribal communities in Orissa, India. They'd killed over a hundred locals, displaced over a thousand, caused tremendous environmental damage, while receiving support from the British government. Vedanta would hold its annual general meeting in London, and though impacted communities couldn't attend, we could; the Church of England had already divested, and further pressure was needed. Planning the protest came together quickly. That night, we went online to try to verify what we'd heard; it was even worse than we'd thought. The protest erupted two weeks later, about sixty of us outside their shareholders' meeting in swanky Westminster. We were there with Amrit Wilson and other new friends from the South Asia Solidarity Group. Bianca Jagger was there too, as were folks from Climate Camp, ActionAid and Survival International, whose members dressed up as blue characters from Avatar, drawing attention to exploited tribal communities. The costumes were a hit. We chanted and leafletted, while India-based anti-Vedanta author and activist Samarendra Das managed to get into the facility. We checked the papers the next day; the protest was in the international news, with more buzz around divestment; it was a good day's work.

ED GILLESPIE: Ed's part of the club. He's flown only once since 2003, and did a year-long trip around the world with his girlfriend two years back, writing about it in the Guardian. We'd connected online, and had to meet up when we visited London. We met Ed at his office at sustainability communications consultancy Futerra. We swapped stories about the joys (and occassional stresses) of traveling by rail, ferry and cargo ship around the world. Ed's brought his passion for lower-carbon travel back home. "The politicians say we can't cut back on flights, but we have loads of valid alternatives, particularly for short-haul travel." But as we've discovered over the past year, air connections are often easier to look up and book, which is why Ed's invested in flight-free travel planning tools, and working on a book on the subject. Idealogy only goes so far. "We've gone from a time when flying was seen as a high-status behavior to a low-status behavior, like RyanAir. The trick is to make the alternatives aspirational, like Eurostar." He sees great promise in curbing business flights, something Futerra does heavily; he points us to Cisco's suggested third-meeting rule, where the first two meetings are done in person, and subsequent meetings virtually, to achieve time, cost, and carbon savings. What was it like coming back after a year off? "I felt so liberated and free traveling with just one bag. Coming back was a jolt, sitting in front of a computer fifty hours a week -- I'd get all fidgety, wanted to explode." But his work's been rich and fascinating, and drawn him back in. We can only hope we'll have the same experience.

KEVIN SMITH, CLIMATE CAMP: I interviewed Kevin about his work with Climate Camp and Platform, and then suddenly started seeing him everywhere we went: walking to the Foil Vedanta protest with a smile, and taking charge at the SmartMeme event. When we met up, he was busy getting ready for Climate Camp 2010, the fifth annual climate justice movement-building meetup. Climate Camp has been an important part of the story of the Battle of Heathrow; aviation direct action organizers met up at Climate Camp 2006, and Climate Camp 2007 was held at Heathrow. The 2010 camp targeted RBS bank, a major funder of dirty oil, coal, and mining companies, from the Alberta tar sands in Canada, to Vedanta's mining atrocities in India. (Which is why Climate Campers were at the Vedanta protest.) The rub? RBS is 83% taxpayer-owned, meaning British taxpayers are directly funding some of the biggest climate-killing projects in the world. To Kevin, what distinguishes Climate Camp from other climate action groups and movements is that it's "not about the politics of demand. We're not here to make explicit demands of the government or RBS," but to help a thousand seeds bloom, doing movement-building work. We talk about the media. It's difficult, because "movement politics is not about individuals. Profiling individual can sometimes be OK, but we work hard to make sure there are no particular faces associated with Climate Camp." And indeed, it sounds like a space for everyone. And indeed, in a few days time, Muzammal Hussain was telling us about participating in Climate Camp...

SMARTMEME: One of the odder parts of our time in London was attending a training on using story-based strategy in developing social change campaigns. The presenter? San Francisco-based Patrick Reinsborough, from an outfit called SmartMeme. The material? Newly published in a book by Oakland-based PM Press, a publisher we love. Sometimes you have to travel thousands of miles to discover what you have at home. Both Dan Glass and Kevin Smith had suggested we come, and we saw folks from Platform, as well as Samarendra Das from the Foil Vedanta campaign -- it felt like a reunion. It was nice being in a room full of British activists, and realize that they were inspired (and sometimes befuddled) by Americans, just as we were by them. Patrick walked us through their narrative analysis framework, and broke us up for small group exercises. We left the class inspired, playing with ideas for future projects.

MUZAMMAL HUSSAIN, WISDOM IN NATURE: Muzammal Hussain sees angles. He's a founding member of Brighton-based Muslim ecology group Wisdom in Nature (WIN), and spends time discussing issues like Islam, GMOs, and climate change in both Muslim and environmental spaces. There's an emerging UK green Muslim scene, with groups like WIN, IFEES, various campus groups, a self-described "first green mosque" in London, and even an international Muslim Seven Year Action Plan on Climate Change. For Hussain, a permaculture student and advocate, it's all about systems; while he appreciates the symbolic power of green Islamic movements, he's pushing them to go deeper, empowering lay people while also "challeng[ing] people's comforts, the framework by which we gain our pleasure." WIN is an attempt to build a non-hierarchical space for learning and organizing, and action. It wasn't obvious that Hussain, a British Pakistan doctor of psychiatry, would choose Muslim spaces as a base. he described some of the challenges of working in the community, ranging from the disconnect between some community members' inner spiritual lives and the outside world, to organizational barriers to working at mosques. And yet so much promise...he described a recent talk in a Shia space, where some audience members connected issues of resource consumption with their concern over non-materialism, while others (primarily women) connected with the concern over the kind of world they'd be leaving for future generations. We identified with Hussain's efforts at working in and outside the community, and attempts to integrate a wide range of influences, Gandhi and Greens, anarchist spaces and Palestine solidarity movements.

The battle against dirty aviation takes many forms. While community groups and direct action activists focus on environmental and community impacts, British businesses in the midst of a recession are reevaluating aviation, from an economic angle. Flying employees around costs money, takes people out of the office, and decreases productive time, at a time when rail, video conferencing, and web conferencing are becoming even better alternatives. We were at an AirportWatch coalition meeting when we bumped into Jean Leston, Transport Policy Officer at WWF-UK, which is working to get the message out via its One in Five Challenge. According to a WWF-UK report, 89% of the UK's largest public companies already expect to fly less over the next decade. That's a great place to build.

Jean Leston

THE CASE FOR REDUCTION: Launched in 2009, WWF's One in Five Challenge team works with organizations to help them cut one out of every five business flights within five years. According to coordinator Jean Leston, "for public service [i.e. non-manufacturing] companies, CO2 from flights can be more than 50% of their total emissions." According to Tim Johnson of the AEF, "Price Waterhouse Cooper's annual travel budget is $200 million--it's obviously important for them to produce value for money." The potential for cutting both costs and carbon emissions are enormous. WWF-UK found that 90% of British government flights are domestic, and it could save £300M (about US$450 million) and cut emissions by 60,000 metric tons over three years by replacing domestic flights with alternatives. Per WWF, "If all European companies cut their [air] business travel by 20%, it would save 22 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to taking one third of the UK's cars off the road."

GETTING COMPANIES ON BOARD: WWF decided to focus on a small number of high-profile companies they view as industry thought leaders. Participants include British Telecom, Capgemini, Marks & Spencer, Vodafone, and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. The success of these high profile institutions may signal a new way of doing business, and hopefully encourage others to reevaluate their own policies. Leston told us that she sometimes met some initial resistance from companies over certain aspects of the challenge. Some companies would have preferred a 20% reduction per employee, instead of a fixed company-wide cap (regardless of employee growth). Some also wondered whether they could use carbon offseting. WWF stood firm on both grounds; to be part of the program, companies had to make real cuts in the their overall flying--no cheating allowed.

ALTERNATIVES: UK meeting planners are increasingly turning to audio, video, and web conferencing technologies as an alternative to packing employees in metal tubes hurtling through the sky. Consulting companies are particularly sensitive to these issues. Our favorite new business practice was the "rule of two" -- meeting business partners in person the first two times to establish trust, and online thereafter. When in-person meetings are unavoidable, WWF-UK recommends trains as a lower-carbon higher-productivity alternative to flying: you can often be online during the whole trip, and don't have to deal with lengthy security and boarding procedures.

CHANGING CORPORATE CULTURE: Committing to reducing flights is the easy part. Following through is where the hard work begins. WWF-UK does its part by providing a green travel planning toolkit, access to an online tracking system, workshops, and consulting. Implementation takes cooperation from many departments; HR departments retrain employees of new ways of working, while IT departments focus on technology alternatives. The goal is to ensure that cuts are locked into the system, rather than being set up as one-offs. Policies and programs were easier to put into place if there was support from the top. Leston described how the most difficult part of the process is often the cultural shift necessary to accept reductions and adopt alternatives. Flying for business trips is still seen as a prestige issue; in most companies, 80% of the flights are taken by 20% of the people. Johnson told us how KPMG had to work with top employees to convince them that they are not valued based on how much time they spent in planes. Leston found that older employees sometimes enjoyed the jetsetting lifestyle, while younger employees with families were happiest about air travel reductions; work-life balance improvements are often a major benefit of the process. And yet face to face meetings are still seen as critical to running a business. The emerging leaner, greener business culture means getting comfortable with doing more business using audio, video and web conferencing technologies. Learning to build acceptance of aviation alternatives into everyday business culture is also a kind of future-proofing in what WWF-UK calls a "carbon-constrained world," where aviation is too costly, environmentally and economically, to be a viable option.

MAKING THE MARK: Participants go through an auditing process. Those that achieve the target reductions receive the ultimate prize: major cost savings, as well as the right to use a snazzy One in Five Challenge logo featuring the WWF panda. British Telecom, will be the first company to receive the award, achieving a stunning 23% reduction in the first year alone, by using their own videoconferencing systems. Other participants are making solid progress toward the five year reduction goal. The One in Five Challenge seems like it would be a great fit for technophilic American companies. Though WWF USA hasn't taken it on yet, there's nothing stopping us from pushing for smart reductions in aviation use in our own workplaces today; the cost and environmental savings are their own reward.

About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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