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Flight of the Penguins March 15, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, climate, society, sustainability, transportation.
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Have you seen the movie “March of the Penguins?” You should. If anything, it will convince you that the last animal you want to come back as in your future life is an Emperor Penguin. After the penguins mate and females return to the sea, the males are left for five months to incubate the eggs in the only safe and semi-warm place they have–on the tops of their feet. What did you think I was going to say? The temperature is -70 (what’s the HTML for degree?). I don’t know whether that’s -70 Celsius or Fahrenheit, but does it really matter? To maximize warmth (and I am using that term loosely), the penguins huddle together in a big circle and because it’s warmer on the inside of the circle, they rotate perimeter duty. If the egg should fall off the feet during the rotation, the male has about 4 seconds to pick it up before it cracks and the chick inside dies. Needless to say, unless you’re the Penguin equivalent of David Beckham, you’re toast (or the anti-particle of toast). And you should see the look on a penguin’s face when this happens. You would think that it’s difficult to express anguish if you have a beak instead of a mouth. You would be wrong. Of course, female penguins don’t exactly have it easy. They have to march out 100 miles back to the ocean on those tiny little penguin feet and come back with “food” for dad and baby. Mostly for baby. Should something happen to the mother along the way–oh I don’t know she gets eaten by a sea lion–dad and baby die. It is really difficult to believe that a species would go these evolutionary lengths just to avoid competition. Yet there they are.

I find all birds fascinating. Can you tell by the name of this blog? But I find penguins especially so because they gave up the ability to fly. They had it. And they genetically “decided” they were better off without it. They were better off standing in -70 degree weather for five months with an egg on the tops of their feet than flying. And so are we. Well, not the -70 degrees part. Or the egg on the feet part. But we are better off not flying. Or at least flying less.

I read an op-ed in the NY Times recently in which the writer complained that airlines are alienating their primary constituency and only true cash cow (the business traveler) by charging for erstwhile free “amenities” like checked luggage, extra leg room, and in-flight meals. Business travelers–many of whom have to fly on the cheapest possible ticket and cannot expense upgrades–are now choosing to drive routes they would otherwise fly. I think the example was Boston to Pittsburgh, i.e., something long-ish but certainly road-trip-able. My response? Great! Way to go airlines! Go airlines go!

Aside from owning and operating your own cement plant or CAFO, flying is about the most environmentally unfriendly thing you can do. Flying is the most energy-inefficient mode of transportation. This is especially true for short-range low-altitude flying which must burn more fuel per mile to overcome higher air densities. Here is a page that shows that driving any reasonable car alone over pretty much any distance produces less CO2 than flying in a full plane over said same distance, with the relative advantages of driving increasing the shorter the distance. Presumably, the crossover point is Boston-Sydney. In that case what you should do is drive from Boston to Tierra del Fuego, take the slow boat to Perth, and then rent a car and drive to Sydney.

I’m being intentionally ridiculous because the whole argument of business flying versus business driving is ridiculous. What about business Skyping? The norms of business travel developed in a pre-high-bandwidth-Internet world. Why is so much business travel necessary in the current world? A few weeks ago, I was at a technical program committee meeting at the O’Hare Hilton. 44 of us flew in for what essentially was a 10 hour flame-session to decide which 42 of 245 submitted papers would appear at a conference in June. How different would the set of 42 papers have been had we done a conference call instead? 5%? 10%? By definition, they wouldn’t have been more than 57% different, because 18 of the selections were effectively decided before the meeting. And so what if the final set was 10% different. Trust me, it is just as likely to have been 10% better as 10% worse.

Who would actually fly these days unless it was either absolutely necessary or to some exotic destination like the O’Hare Hilton? Almost everything about flying is a giant pain in the ass. Flying itself. TSA checkpoints. Airport parking. Even buying a simple ticket on Orbitz requires clicking through 28 screens to decline everything from cancellation insurance, to rental car, to rental car cancellation insurance, to attraction tickets, to attraction tickets cancellation insurance. I predict and hope for a future in which we fly significantly less. And when we do, we will be forced to go through security naked, through a -70 degree airlock, balancing a egg on our feet.

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