The New Normal

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Maria Jose Silva will never ride the bus again. The trip to visit her relatives in a far away state used to take 72 hours—3 days crammed into a sweaty bus—but now, thanks to the recent arrival of a low-cost airline in her country, it takes just 3 hours. And the plane ticket, incredibly, is a few dollars cheaper than the bus fare. Maria could hardly sleep the night before her trip, she said, because she was so excited for her first flight.

This is all music to the ears of executives at Jet Blue, the American discount airline that has recently begun operation in Brazil—a country of two hundred million people with (until now) only two airlines. Without competition, the prices and services offered by those two airlines had gone unchallenged, and remained the province of the country’s elite. As a result, the vast majority of Brazilians have never flown; if they need to travel, they barrel through the night with everybody else on crowded overnight buses. But things are changing: NPR reports that twice as many Brazilians than last year will fly Azul this year, the new, modestly priced Brazilian arm of Jet Blue, and the company is expected to be “solidly profitable” near the end of 2010.

Earth’s atmosphere, of course, will take a beating. Air travel accounts for about 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually—and in a country with a quickly growing middle class, the number of Brazilians leaving buses for the sky is likely to explode. Environmentalists in America—and maybe even in Brazil—will bemoan this news. But they’ll do it quietly. After all, what argument can stand up to the excitement Maria Jose Silva feels as she waits to fly for the very first time?

Maria’s story reflects the limits of environmentalism as a framework for dealing with the nexus of an ecologically-full world and the global struggle out of poverty. It also points to one of the systemic causes of un-sustainability: prices that don’t reflect true costs (if you factor in the environmental cost, flying should be pretty expensive).

As the world becomes simultaneously richer and poorer, we’ll have to adjust our sense of what’s normal—and that sense, whether we come to it in a planned and dignified way or not—will revolve around the twin forces of ecological limits and the struggle out of poverty. We’ll have new normals. And as places like Brazil and India and China develop, I suspect Maria’s story—trading a bus ticket for a once-in-a-long-while plane ticket—will be told more often. But meanwhile, places where Maria’s story has already been told millions of times, like the United States, will need to accept that activities like flying are expensive. Often prohibitively so. As Paul Dickinson, executive director of the Carbon Disclosure Project, told Yale Environment 360: “I’m absolutely, definitely sure that people like you and me will be flying a lot less in 5 to 10 years.” And, if you live in the U.S., people like you and me will probably use the refrain “In this economy…” for a long time. Soon, though, it might be more accurate to say: “On this planet…”

Image credit: Flickr/pynomoscator. Creative Commons license.

Published by Scott Gast

Scott walks, bikes, reads, and lives in rural western Massachusetts. His day jobs have included stints at YES! Magazine, the City of Chicago's Waste to Profit Network, and The Nature Conservancy. He is a graduate of the Environmental Science program at Allegheny College, and Special Projects Assistant at Orion Magazine.

2 replies on “The New Normal”

  1. It’s the big question in environmental circles: how do you oppose damaging behaviour everywhere without sounding like you’re putting down development? One could argue that in a domino effect, those of us with long histories of privilege and excess, like the US and the UK, will have to stop first and slowly other countries will rise to relative affluence, develop ecological concerns and taper off their usage naturally.

    Also, the miles flown (and subsequent oil burning and carbon emitting) by politicians, NGOs, advocates, corporate executives and the very rich would, if stopped, alone offset a significant amount of sorely needed development in less well-off countries. This “headroom”, if you will, is the only way that both the people of the developing world and the world itself can maintain some semblance of mutual accommodation.

    Unfortunately for Ms. Silva, not to mention the majority of travellers in the world today, the oil that gets the planes off the ground, not to mention the buses through the night, is due for a peak soon (that is, if Colin Campbell’s 2007 peak in total liquids is incorrect). What chances are there for any kind of growth as we know it in a post-peak world? Nil. Whatever ecological room to maneuver is possible in developing countries will be swallowed up by rising oil prices. The sad truth is that first we in the West hoovered up all the resources, then we gave ourselves the most comfortable, orgiastic existence humans have ever known and now, when everyone else is finally getting a taste of it, there’s nothing left. I for one wish I could apologise to Ms. Silva personally.

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