Tuesday, May 28, 2019

transportation and the environment: air travel

In 1990, I did two big things.

First, I sold my car. It was an '81 Ford Escort, the last year they made a 4-speed stick shift in this model. It had been my Dad's, and when he learned it had virtually NO trade-in value he decided to make a present of it to me, for the cost of title transfer. I drove that car for three years and used it mostly to get to my job downtown (where parking was free) and to haul my drum kit to gigs.
Over time I discovered that my night vision was growing worse, and that the car wasn't in such great shape, either.  I sold the car in July 1990, and never looked back.

The next thing I did was to buy a better bicycle. I had a very old five-speed city bike that weighed a ton and looked cool, but was impractical for where I lived and for the kind of riding I aspired to. So I took the money from the sale of the car (a whopping $600) and put some of it towards a new Trek mountain bike.

These were two of the best decisions I'd ever made.

I rode to work in all weather after that, and if someone wanted to hire me for a gig, they had to arrange for transportation for me and my drums. (Since I was a pretty decent drummer, the folks who really needed me were generally happy to provide a ride.)

From 1990 until 2012, my bicycle was my primary mode of transportation.
In 2012, things began to shift. I left Citybikes and full-time work in the bicycle industry), and began to build a career as a touring Jewish artist- and educator-in-residence. I had to tour because there simply wasn't enough paying Jewish music and teaching work in Portland. There still isn't and for someone like me there probably never will be.

The result of that reality is that I've had to build a nice little career through touring. I've been blessed to travel all over this beautiful country and meet some pretty amazing people. I've even made some pretty lovely friends as a result of my travels. But through it all, I've had a nagging feeling that, while this constituted "right livelihood" as far as my work and talents went, it was a lousy livelihood for the planet.

I have struggled with this ever since I decided to focus on music and teaching in the Jewish world.
My family and friends have tried to reassure me that, with my many years of sustainable travel, I've surely not even begun to burn up all those good effects by a few years of air travel.
I'm not so sure. Because the fact is that air travel is especially horrible for the Earth, and more peoplethan ever are choosing air travel as their first transportation choice when it comes to cross-country -- or cross-region -- trips.

But when I live in Portland, and the high-paying gig that will cover half the mortgage on our crappy-lovely little house is in Florida, what am I supposed to do?
Portland is home. My family is here and my friends are mostly here. The way I live is centered around a place where I can depend on strong public transit and bike-accessible roadways, amenities most cities with large Jewish communities simply do not offer.
I'm an independent freelancer and moving to Florida would not guarantee me ongoing work.
Plus, I can't work full-time anymore anyway. But that's another discussion for later.

The truth is that this career change has serious implications for me, for you, and for the future of the planet. I'm not sure how much longer I can sustain it without feeling like I'm the villain here.

This weekend, a whole lot of my Jewish music colleagues and friends are meeting in the middle of the country at a camp and retreat facility, for one of the most important professional conferences of the year. Some of my friends have attended this event every year for decades, because it's kind of like a little summer camp for them.

Conferences are important for many professions.
They allow people in different parts of the country to network, to share ideas and to forge friendships that are otherwise sustained across the miles all year long. But some conferences continue to offer mostly the same workshops and activities year to year, and past a certain point, one has to wonder how efficient it is to keep going back for the same thing each year. I attended this conference just once, seventeen years ago. It was amazing and eye-opening and I'm glad I went. But it was also clear that this was not something I needed to attend every year, especially considering the financial costs and the fact that the synagogue I was affiliated with would not help with expenses. So at the end of the day, I knew I wouldn't be back.

Since then, I've gone to several conferences. As of this writing I've only returned to one conference, each of the past three years. I had hoped that by returning I might gain a foothold of some kind of recognition and advancement in that conference's universe, and that at some point I might become an instructor for that conference, which happened this year. I'm grateful for the experiences and the warm atmosphere this conference offers. And I'm so glad that my workshops were well-attended and appreciated. But at the end of the day, does it make sense for me to keep going back?
I'm not sure.

Because I keep coming back to the villany of air travel, and what it's doing to the Earth. Some scientists say our planet has only 60 or 70 years left before it's too hot for humans to live here. (At least one famous scientist says that fatal benchmark is coming a whole lot sooner.)

I love what I do.
I love where I live.
And I HATE what some of my choices are doing to the planet.

The good part, if there is one, is that I'm not thinking of eliminating ALL travel forever. Because this dilemma is not entirely on me to begin with.
I know that the US military is the largest consumer of fossil fuels; that travel decreases xenophobia and increases understanding of cultures different than our own; and that the real onus for managing climate change through excessive fossil fuel consumption must fall on governments and industries, not on the individual consumer.

The bad part is that if we want governments and industries to act we are going to have to push them to the wall. And one way to do that is by traveling less. A lot less.

Staying put also gives us time and energy to invest in strengthening the communities where we live. And while the community I've been affiliated with for the last decade-plus has made me consider looking elsewhere for another community to affiliate with, that new community will still be here in Portland. Because I believe in blooming where one is planted. And Portland's big enough that I can find something, someone -- some other folks -- to create community with.

I'm not talking about completely shutting down my life beyond the walls of my house. Nor am I talking about staying in Portland forever. My in-laws are elderly and need our help, and they're a 12-hour drive south of us. I have no hesitation about making that trip anytime, because that's what you do for your parents if you're a loving, responsible adult child. And since my career is still active, I'm making a point of working to find gigs closer to home -- staying on the West Coast when I can, for example -- because if I can take the train or the bus my carbon footprint will be smaller by far.
(I'm 5'7". I fit in the seats on a bus. It's not a problem.)

But I am talking about reevaluating how and why I travel in the coming months and years. Because I really need to, and because I think we all need to.

Today my colleagues arrive at their large conference in the Midwest, flying in from all over the country and a few from outside it. Next week I will be downtown at a Climate Action Event in which young people have taken the lead. Because we trashed their future. I'm willing to own that, and to answer for it. Are you?

(final photo, above: one of our beloved horse rings, hundreds of which can be found all over the oldest parts of Portland. Dating to before the turn of the last century; used to tie up horses while you visited a friend or the market. These little iron rings are protected historic landmarks, and removing one will cost you a lot of money.)

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