Wednesday, 8 August 2018

On flying and its contrails

The trip was everything and nothing I'd imagined. You can read about what we got up to here.  This post is more about where I've been in the weeks since returning.

My return flight to Longyearbyen Svalbard from Manchester UK was, apparently, equal in its carbon emissions to one person’s yearly output in India (a per capita equation made by Atmosfair, the German government’s carbon ‘offsetting’ scheme). That’s one trip, within Europe - with a stopover - the taking off and landing are the most costly (environmentally speaking) elements of flight (when about 25% of flight emissions happen). I was there for just under three weeks, travelling on a boat which for most of the time motored since the winds were not strong enough to sail. It was a not-for-profit artist residency (although with the organisation’s registered offices on 5th Avenue NYC I wonder about the relationship between profit, status and tax deductibles). Out of the twenty nine artists I think five were vegetarian, two from non-Anglophone countries, four people of colour. I don’t know how many were funded to go and how many self-funded. It wasn’t cheap. We were a privileged crew, researching, making, sharing and discussing art, the arctic, and our distant lives.

Evidence of that privilege shone in how ill-equipped we were to be there. I don’t mean without thermals, Gortex, Muck boots, fleeces etc - we had plenty of those with their silly macho names (I remember a pair of wellies branded ‘Aggressor’) - but how blatant it was we were surface visitors in this wilderness, this inhospitable-to-humans place. We had armed guides who were never out of sight. We made few decisions for ourselves. We did not belong there. As such our presence is sorely felt. A polar bear was shot last week in an encounter with another tourist group. One of my fellow writers describes it here 

In its huge vast whiteness, Svalbard, and visiting it, could be a metaphor for the Global North. I am reminded of Wall-E : on the boat, as all tourists in Svalbard, I am one of those far away from the dump Wall E inhabits. We are not quite on our loungers unable to move, but you can only tour the place if you’ve got the money to pay for protection from the nonhuman land that is Svalbard. The majority of us are no longer able to inhabit the wilderness we have stripped from the world. This doesn’t make it less alluring, just a whole lot more expensive. A little like the cost of air on Mars. We were like an inverse zoo: staring out from our invisible bars at the land and its creatures.

One of the most poignant moments of our trip was our arrival at the northern most islands of Svalbard: Rossøya and Vesle Tavleøya. We only knew they were the most northern because of the chart (although we were actually in unchartered waters). They were as rugged and sparse as the slightly less northern islands. Smaller, and therefore less snow, therefore more birds and therefore more algae. It was the algae that prevented our landing, well, thick slimy algae combined with a long rolling swell. But I loved the fact that something so small and so essential to our lives (for every three breaths we inhale, one is produced by marine phytoplankton) was preventing our (albeit temporary) colonisation of this most northern of rocks.

We weren’t in desperate need to land. And however much I enjoyed being repelled by the algae, I am still can't quite grasp everything I think this foray means to me. More and more species are moving north in the warming seas. Many of the places we went to were not accessible at the same time of previous years. We, as tourists, are part of that migration, albeit on another level. We are hungry with curiosity rather than hungry with empty stomachs. As tourists what do we contribute? Not much to the actual place. We can’t. It, like the sea, is not for humans to occupy beyond how we do - through our extended selves of chemicals, plastics and other unwanted waste.

We come back with our stories (read this one) and make art. But how does that square to being complicit in the destruction of very thing we uphold? I know flying is a major contribution to carbon emissions. How can I expect our political leaders to make fundamental changes from the top down if I don’t? The first Lancashire fracking well was given governmental go ahead this summer, a second is due to follow, providing fuel for us to continue in our energy consuming ways, until … what? There aren’t enough glaciers (and associative ecology) in Svalbard to lure us; or the true economic cost of flying is finally passed down to the consumer making them prohibitive to all but the 1% megarich; or weather conditions disrupt our travel plans?

I don’t have answers: I’m a poet. I’m a white, Northern European, poet writing in English; in some ways part of the status quo that needs to be disrupted. What I’m writing at the moment in response to the trip is so disruptive it’s incomprehensible. I like it but am, metaphorically speaking, floored; grounded, detained for not offering a straightforward narrative. Maybe that's the point. I don't know. What happens next, after that and after that could be, in part, up to me.

(For a more tender version of these thoughts read Eloise Shepherd's piece in Zoomorphic)

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