Climate Matters: A search for some delight in a difficult century

Photo by Nancie Battaglia

28th in a series

I am writing this dispatch from a southbound train, which left Middlebury at midday and is making its way — not too fast, not too slow — toward Penn Station in New York City. 

So far it’s been an absorbing and beautiful ride: the trees began to turn in earnest these past three days, and so the hay fields and marshes we’ve passed are fringed with orange and red; herons and ospreys have flown by. The train got to Rutland 20 minutes ahead of schedule, and so the conductor encouraged us to debark and cross the parking lot to the town’s large farmers market — I came back to my wife with saag paneer and vegetable samosa, which we ate happily as the countryside rolled by; soon we’ll be along the Hudson (always sit on the right side going south from Albany!).

It’s been another long week in the defining generational fight against climate change. We won some battles (Joe Manchin’s attempt to ram through a pipeline permit failed) and we had some huge losses (across Puerto Rico, Cuba, Florida and the Carolinas), where Hurricane Ian reminded us what can happen when you keep raising the temperature of the ocean). 

News came that New York, like California, will end gas car sales by 2035; news came that the sabotaged gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea is pouring methane into the air. Dealing with all of this — slowing down the rise of temperature, speeding up the deployment of clean energy — is our task and there is no ducking it.

But it’s worth asking if we can wring some delight out of that job — if the move away from coal and gas and oil might come with some unanticipated benefits.

Fossil fuel is so powerful — so energy dense — that it produced a particular aesthetic. It became easy to do things fast and by ourselves. The car is the perfect example of this — a sealed box to move your body and your stuff with great speed through space. And, of course, it’s possible to recreate this with electricity — we drove the 10 miles to the train station in an EV and it was fine. Quiet, smooth and powered by the solar panels on the roof of our home.

But the substitution of electricity for fossil fuels also allows us to do things a little differently if we want, beginning with this question of speed. 

The train is not as fast as the airplane for the trip to New York, but in every other dimension it’s infinitely superior: big windows to stare at the passing beauty, plenty of legroom and the chance to get up and stroll, an easy Wi-Fi connection even below 10,000 feet, no TSA. It takes you to the center of the city, instead of dumping you on the outskirts. No Delta pilot has ever suggested that I get off for a minute to shop at a farmers market. It’s cheaper. Oh, and a lot less carbon. 

But it is slower. Which — well, who cares? Huge numbers of us now work via our laptops. We don’t need to be at the office every day (many don’t need to be there any day). I have rented a rolling office for the afternoon, with a sublime view; I’m going to get more done than if I was at home; and when I’m done I’ll be someplace new.

So now consider the electric bike. A bike bike is a wonderful thing, but it’s intended to be a sporting good — we’re a big sprawling country, and because, postwar, we built it on a suburban model, things tend to be car distances apart. But you can use an electric bike to make many of those trips, because it erases hills and allows you to tow three bags of groceries. And when you do, you get some exercise, and you get the wind in your face, and it’s a little like being a kid. 

You don’t have to do it every day — sometimes it rains and sometimes it snows and sometimes you don’t have the time, which is why I imagine that there will be EVs for a while. But you can do it 70% of the time, and I am willing to bet you will be happier for it. (Willing to bet because I have data: exercise makes you happy, and being outdoors makes you happy.)

It’s good that the Inflation Reduction Act will help people purchase EVs. Here in Vermont state subsidies are aimed directly at middle and low-income people, which makes sense. It’s a shame that Manchin stripped subsidies for electric bikes from the bill, but enlightened cities and states are stepping in to fill the need. Delight needs to be affordable.

But what about the blimps? They are, I think, the ultimate in this new aesthetic, where you trade some speed and power for some serendipitous joy. Kim Stanley Robinson has been the best PR man so far for airship travel. In his bestseller “Ministry for the Future,” blimp travel across the wild lands of the world repairs with its beauty some of the psychic damage that comes from the harrowing opening chapter with its apocalyptic heat wave. But I liked the blimps even better in his lesser-known “New York 2140,” when millions of people watch the internet stream of the redoubtable pilot Amelia Black, whose airship Assisted Migration moves species toward the poles so they can survive.

Anyway, it takes days — a week or two or three — for Robinson’s aeronauts to circle the planet. There are passenger blimps and freight blimps and just people who’ve taken up the blimp lifestyle and are floating above the planet their whole life. Some of this may be nonfiction reality before too much longer; a British company is supposed to be offering intercity blimp travel by 2025, on routes like Seattle-Vancouver or Liverpool-Belfast. It cuts carbon emissions up to 90 percent compared with jet travel (the helium provides buoyant lift, so the engine just has to push you through the sky), and soon the diesel engine will apparently be replaced with an electric motor, cutting emissions to almost nothing.

But, to be absolutely truthful, I don’t care about the carbon as much as the joy. I want to do this; I’d save my pennies for a long time to get to go on the trip to the North Pole scheduled for next year (I’d probably never save enough, however, since the very first trip will run you north of $30,000). I’d settle for Seattle to Vancouver, because what I really want is to feel that tug as the thing glides from its tether. Here’s Robinson: it “felt strange, lofting up over the bay, bouncing a little on the wind, not like a jet, not like a helicopter. Strange but interesting.”

And I can tell you that he’s right because … I’ve flown in one. Long ago, so long ago it almost seems like a dream. It was the summer of 1986, at the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, and I was a 25-year-old Talk of the Town reporter for the New Yorker. To help with the giant celebration (fireworks, tall ships, concerts) the Fuji Film blimp came to town. They asked if I wanted to go for a ride, and so, I said, “Please.” Two dear friends were there too. We climbed aboard in a New Jersey field, and soon were silently floating toward the Lady in the Harbor. The pilot handed me the controls and showed me how to circle the statue in ever-tighter circles, just about crown-level. Then we glided up the West Side, along the Hudson, going just slowly enough that you could peek down each street as they clocked by. We ended up at Coney Island, of all places, and the pilot — maybe showing off just a bit — did a series of dives that brought us down within feet of the ocean before climbing steeply back. And we got something sublime: It was like being suspended in air, striding around from one floor-to-ceiling to the next. It was close enough to magic.

This is going to be a hard century; we better look for delight where we can. It could be on the ocean or on an e-bike. Or the train. You’ll have to excuse me now — the trees out my big Amtrak window are too glorious for me to spend another moment staring at the screen.


Bill McKibben is an internationally known climate activist and writer who lives in Ripton.

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