Alain de Botton on a Future Without Flying
Imagine a world without flying: What would it be like if there were no planes in the sky?
In a future world without aeroplanes, children would gather at the feet of old men, and hear extraordinary tales of a mythic time when vast and complicated machines the size of several houses used to take to the skies and fly high over the Himalayas and the Tasman Sea. The wise elders would explain that inside the aircraft, passengers, who had only paid the price of a few books for the privilege, would impatiently and ungratefully shut their window blinds to the views, would sit in silence next to strangers while watching films about love and friendship — and would complain that the food in miniature plastic beakers before them was not quite as tasty as the sort they could prepare in their own kitchens.
The elders would add that the skies, now undisturbed except by the meandering progress of bees and sparrows, had once thundered to the sound of airborne leviathans, that entire swathes of Britain’s cities had been disturbed by their progress and that in an ancient London suburb once known as Fulham, it had been rare for the sensitive to be able to sleep much past six in the morning, due the unremitting progress of inbound aluminium tubes from Canada and the eastern seaboard of the United States.
At Heathrow, now turned into a museum, one would be able to walk unhurriedly across the two main runways and even give in to the temptation to sit cross-legged on their centrelines, a gesture with some of the same sublime thrill as touching a disconnected high-voltage electricity cable, running one’s fingers along the teeth of an anaesthetised shark or having a wash in a fallen dictator’s marble bathroom.
Everything would, of course, go very slowly. It would take two days to reach Rome, a month before one finally sailed exultantly into Sydney harbour. And yet there would be benefits tied up with this languor. Those who had known the age of planes would recall the confusion they had felt upon arriving in Mumbai or Rio, Auckland or Montego Bay, only hours after leaving home, their slight sickness and bewilderment lending credence to the old Arabic saying that the soul invariably travels at the speed of a camel.
This new widespread ‘camel pace’ would return travellers to a wisdom that their medieval pilgrim ancestors had once known very well. These medieval pilgrims had gone out of their way to make travel as slow as possible, avoiding even the use of boats and horses in favour of their own feet. They were not being perverse, only aware that if one of our key motives for travelling is to try to put the past behind us, then we often need something very large and time-consuming, like the experience of a month long journey across an ocean or a hike over a mountain range, to establish a sufficient sense of distance. Whatever the advantages of plentiful and convenient air travel, we may curse it for being too easy, too unnoticeable – and thereby for subverting our sincere attempts at changing ourselves through our journeys.
How we would admire planes if they were no longer there to frighten and bore us. We would stroke their steel dolphin-like bodies in museums and honour them as symbols of a daunting technical intelligence and a prodigious wealth. We would admire them like small boys do, and adults no longer dare, for fear of seeming uncynical and unvigilant towards their crimes against our world.
Despite all the chaos and inconvenience of our disrupted flight schedules, we should feel grateful to the unruly Icelandic volcano — for allowing us briefly to imagine what a flight-less future would envy and pity us for.
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