The worldwide airlift and sail

Few travelers have logged so many miles and spent so many years logging them as Ibn Battuta, who, in 1325 at the age of 21, set out from Tangier on a pilgrimage to Mecca and, impelled to travel “by an overmastering impulse” and “a long-cherished desire” to visit holy places, spent 29 years traveling as far east as China, and as far south as Sri Lanka and Timbuktu. 

Four centuries later, the travel bug bit members of the British upper class, who in increasing numbers set out on a Grand Tour of France and Italy, which provided, if not an education, at least an advanced degree in self-esteem. The bug subsequently affixed itself to the rising middle class and, following World War II, compelled Americans to go a-roving, returning home with slides to show in the darkened living room. 

And more recently? In July 2017, Tatiana Schlossberg of The New York Times supplied an answer: “According to some estimates, about 20,000 planes are in use around the world, serving three billion passengers annually. By 2040, more than 50,000 planes could be in service …” Her article was headlined, “Flying is Bad for the Planet. You Can Help Make It Better.” 

Just how bad flying is for the planet was made clear by Canadian scientist and activist David Suzuki, who last October reported that, “since 1990, CO2 emissions from international aviation have increased 83 percent.”

He went on to explain that countries whose national emission targets were set under the Kyoto Protocol are only required to account for emissions from domestic flights, not from international flights. Ten years ago, calculating that each round trip between Toronto and London creates more than 2,000 pounds of greenhouse gases per passenger, Suzuki — in demand as a speaker in North America and abroad — decided to cut down on his long-haul flights, telling Vancouver Sun reporter Miro Cermetig that he would consider any invitation to speak, “but only by video conference.”

If it was mainly American vacationers in the years following World War II who had the cash and felt the urge to spend their vacations in exotic locations, nowadays the travel bug has found a host in the rising middle class of the entire industrialized world. The Chinese news agency Xinhua, for example, reports that in 2017 more than 6 million Chinese citizens visited European countries, while Statista reports that 2.97 million Chinese came to the U.S. in 2016, with the number expected to rise above 4.54 million in 2022.

This past April, The Telegraph ran an article headlined, “The unstoppable rise of the Chinese traveller.” Digital travel editor Oliver Smith reported, in a welter of metaphors: “In less than two decades China has grown from travel minnows to the world’s most powerful outbound market, leapfrogging the US — and leaving it in its wake.”

Adding to the tonnage of greenhouse gases created by flying machines there is the hefty contribution of those seagoing cities called cruise ships. “Another record was broken in 2015, with an estimated 23 million passengers cruising globally,” according to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association’s cruise industry overview for 2017. This was followed by a forecast that 2017 would see 25.3 million people sailing the oceans on FCCA and/or Cruise Lines International Association Lines. The overview concluded by asserting that the passengers “will have the world as their gangway, with nearly 1,000 ports around the globe.”

Meanwhile, according to a Feb. 26, 2018, Marine Insight News Network report, the cruise lines industry “is expected to witness the arrival of twenty new cruise ships worldwide, with another ninety-seven new cruise ships being launched between 2017 and 2026, with an expected investment of $53 billion.”

To which one can only say: Wow! But that’s not all the news that is wow-worthy. “The vessels themselves are destinations in their own right,” Jacqueline Gifford writes in a July 11, 2017, Travel + Leisure article headlining The Top 10 Large-ship Ocean Cruise Lines. Gifford explains that “guests” can lounge by the cantilevered pool, taste bistecca fiorentina at an Italian restaurant, or take a healing dip in a hydrotherapy pool.

Meanwhile, less glamorously but continuously, “The passengers and crew aboard the biggest ships … produce 210,000 gallons of sewage” in a single week, while in a year “100 million gallons of petroleum products from cruise ships seep into our oceans,” according to a Dec. 7, 2016, article by Kate Wheeling titled “How Cruise Ships Are Polluting Our Oceans,” in Pacific Standard. 

Adding to this warlocks’ brew are urban/industrial effluents and, as Nepali environmentalist Kanak Mani Dixit noted in the June 5 issue of the Indian daily The Hindu, “hundreds of tons of plastics [carried by rivers daily] into the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.” Presumably the great ocean cruisers will steer clear of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, about which everyone knows, although some may be unaware that this aggregation of plastic trash “may be sixteen times as massive as we thought,” as Helen Thompson reported in the March 22 issue of Science News.

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That great traveler Ibn Battuta went by foot, horse, camel and ship, sailing from Calcutta to the Maldives and later to Sri Lanka, where he climbed the mountain of Sarandib to see and pay homage to the impressed footprint — left by Adam, according to Muslims and Christians, and by the Buddha, according to Buddhists. Conversing, learning, wondering as he traveled the wide world, Ibn Battuta left only the faintest carbon imprint, while we in our multiple millions, eager to escape the world we have created, leave an imprint that threatens our survival.


Jon Swan is a poet, journalist and former senior editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Several years ago, after living in the Berkshires for 40 years, he and his wife moved to Yarmouth, Maine. His poems and several articles may be found at www.jonswanpoems.com.