Last April my wife and I were fortunate enough to visit New Orleans. We were there to hear some amazing music, experience a unique American city and warm up after a long Montana spring. As a way to see some country, we had arranged for a guided kayak excursion through a nearby swamp and so found ourselves paddling through narrow, overgrown channels looking for exotic plants, birds and the occasional alligator. Our guide, a young man in his twenties, led us deep into the verdant, sultry wetland and eventually had the group of ten circle up so he could explain the workings of the ecosystem we were now engulfed by.
That’s when things got depressing. The candid young guide was not pulling any punches. As he spoke of the devastating encroachment of invasive species, salt-water intrusion and the destruction wrought by the giant oil corporations, his love for this remarkable landscape was palpable, as was his sorrow over its slow demise. Clueless tourists, we all thought we were looking at a pristine bayou. He described instead a delicate system in its death throes. Many, many factors were responsible for this preventable tragedy; climate change, oil development, poor management decisions. All the usual suspects. Then the young man looked at us and said those were merely symptoms, that the root of the problem was industrial civilization, that is, the way modern society thought of nature. There was an uncomfortable silence, punctuated by the sound of a jet passing overhead. Our guide looked up for a moment and then said; “Someday there won’t be any airplanes.” The tension increased ten-fold. Most of us had arrived by airplane. All of us used fossil fuels. Industrial civilization made our lives easy and comfortable.
Staunch defenders of “industrial civilization”, better known as liberal-democratic capitalism, have seized on this “No Airplanes” language as an example of radical environmental extremism. Crazy talk. They insist the American Way of Life is not negotiable. But the science is very clear on this. In the next decade emissions, not just from air travel, but all forms of transport and shipping, must be dramatically curtailed. Supply chains for many global industries will be disrupted. To reach emissions targets in time to prevent collapse (which many argue is already impossible) will require gutting the auto, petro-chemical, and agribusinesses. Not to mention construction, tourism, manufacturing; a whole multitude of downstream fossil fuel dependent industries will be terminally impacted. In other words, either the American Way of Life goes or we rush off the precipice like lemmings.
As someone who has guided a wealthy, privileged clientele for more than three decades, I truly appreciate what our young kayak guide did that day. Expressing oneself that forthrightly on a subject so controversial takes courage; the kind I have often found lacking in myself. We guides want to please, we want the big tip, so we avoid conflict. But as the situation grows increasingly dire, silence becomes less and less an option. It in fact becomes complicity.
I remember the eerie silence right after 9/11, those tense days when air travel was halted. That familiar background noise of our everyday lives was suddenly missing and that lack was, in a strange way, louder than the planes themselves. I remember as well the threat that such a stoppage was to the global economy. 9/11 was a very brief disruption in the complex circuits of capital. “No Airplanes” takes that disruption to a new level, a level few seem prepared to contemplate. Yet contemplate it we must.