The past couple of months of social restrictions relating to COVID-19 have been strange experience for everyone. Some have had much better experiences than others, but one thing that we all have in common is being a part of a huge social experiment tha has shaken the box and shown us that a different reality is possible.
One of the big learnings for me has been in seeing clearly for the first time our addiction to travel. Only when almost all travel by motorised vehicle (whether by car, motorbike, train, boat or plane) was eliminated, did it become clear just how much we had been addicted to travel, not just for holidays, but constantly in our day to day lives.
On a personal level, I have been pleasantly surprised that I haven’t missed that much in terms of travel. In fact, I have found a new level of inner peace, happiness and contentment in a simpler life at home, in my village, and in the present.
It’s reminded me of Christian Leppert who we have had the pleasure of meeting several times at the vegetarian guest house that he runs with his partner in the Black Forest. He once told us the story of how he had traveled to Hawaii many years earlier. While there he had asked some of the locals what they thought about the other islands. To his surprise, most of them told him that they’d never been to any of the other islands. Here he was as a visitor, travelling between various islands by boat and the locals could not understand why he was doing it. They told him that everything they valued in life was already with them on their own island. Why would they want to leave it?
This experience fascinated Christian so much so that years later, he decided that he needed to experience “island life” for himself. The only problem was that he lived on a mountain in Germany. This didn’t stop him though, and he set about creating his own island by drawing a map of his local area as if sea levels had risen by a thousand meters. Only the mountain tops remained, with his home sitting on the lower slopes of an island.
He decided to live on his imaginary island for a full year to experience what island life is really like. At the end of the year, he felt that it was the happiest and most peaceful year of his life. When his family asked him what he would like for his birthday, to their dismay his reply was that he would like another year on his island.
Christian told us that he found a huge amount of mental peace on his island. He had a lot more time, both physically and mentally, and he realised that travel consumes far more time and energy than most of us realise. It’s not just the time and energy that we actually spend traveling that we must account for, but the time and energy that we spend imagining where we might travel to, how we might get there, who we would go with, how we would pay for it, what we would eat, what we need to take and how to make the time in our schedule. Travel consumes us, not just while we are travelling, but long before we go and even after we return.
Island life eliminates all of it, releasing vast amounts of time and mental space to enjoy in the present moment, in the place that we call home.
In short, island life helps us to find happiness in what we have in the present rather than chasing the elusive dream of happiness elsewhere.
Coming back to my present, the past few months have unintentionally given me an opportunity to experience a form of island life and it really is wonderful. I’ve learned that as exciting and fascinating as travel might be, we don’t need to travel to be happy and sometimes, we can even be happier when we don’t.
The widespread reduction in travel over the past couple of months has had positive side effects on our public spaces. I live in the New Forest National Park, which is quiet at the best of times but the recent change has been profound. It has been quieter than ever before and it has highlighted just how much noise pollution there normally is here from traffic and planes.
Although audibly quieter, it has been socially busier, with people out and about in, walking and cycling in the village and surroundings far more than ever before. The reduction in traffic has made people feel safe to intuitively reclaim the streets and enjoy the space fully, with cars now the secondary citizens. Many streets have inadvertently become pedestrianised areas with vehicles that do enter moving slowly and giving priority to pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders. Country lanes that normally might seem scary for many people to cycle down have become a cycling paradise.
Despite social distancing rules, the reduction in vehciles on the roads has rather unexpectedly increased the sense of community in the village. People have become more friendly and spent more time outside, talking to each other, greeting each other and smiling at each other like never before. The only comparable experiences that I have had in the UK have been when roads become undriveable due to ice and snow and people reclaim the streets, or during protests such as last summer’s closure of Waterloo Bridge by Extinction Rebellion. It also ties in with my theory that towns should be designed like campsites, inherently putting people first and fostering a tighter sense of community and outdoor living.
In addition to reduced noise and air polution and an increased sense of communty, people are inutively taking more exercise. Vineeta’s phone recorded that we had walked and run over 100km per month during the past two months, significantly more than what we would normally have done.
We have built our modern world around cars, but this recent experiment is highlighted just how much we’ve sacrificed as humans by doing that.
A similar phenomenon can be seen in the sky, where we have big clean skies without vapor trails – a sight that many of us have rarely seen. It’s something truly special even here in the New Forest where we planes flying overhead every day, coming in to land and taking off from Bournemouth airport. Now, all that we can see is clouds and birds. It has highlighted just how rude it is to fly over people’s homes, causing noise and polluting the air with no consideration for the impacts, just for a cheap jolly to some foreign land.
This leads nicely on to the issue of air pollution and carbon emissions. I recently calculated how much CO2 our company Wholegrain Digital, a web design agency in London, would save if these restrictions were permanent. I was shocked that despite having a no-fly policy already in place, our team travel about 120,000 kilometres per year, making up almost half of our business carbon emissions.
Moving humans around in vehicles is hugely energy-intensive and it illustrates just how much of our greenhouse gas emissions and our local air pollution are caused by our addiction to travel. Our default mode seems to be that if we can travel then we should travel. Maybe that would be fine in a world of infinite space and resources, but on a finite planet it is simply not sustainable.
It’s not just individuals who could benefit from reduced travel. Local businesses could too. The recent restrictions have of course devastated retail and hospitality businesses and this is a real tragedy, especially for independent businesses in which people have put their hearts and souls, as well as their life savings in many cases. But these problems are caused by the forced closure of these businesses and not inherently by travel restrictions.
If businesses were allowed to open but people travelled less, then we would likely see people returning to the high street in their local towns, villages and cities.
If I have a limited mileage allowance, I will think twice before going to the out-of-town supermarket or shopping mall and I will generally shop closer to home on a more regular basis. I’ll also holiday closer to home on many occasions, even taking staycations, keeping more money inside the local economy. And when we keep money in our local economies, we make our towns and our country as a whole more prosperous and more financially resilient. When we spend money locally, especially in independent businesses, we keep more money in the hands of normal people, we generate more tax revenue and reduce the drain of wealth to the super rich in tax havens. When we keep our spending local, our money comes back to our own pockets faster and makes us, and our local community, better off.
And so we come to the question in the title of this blog post. Could rationing travel potentially be a good thing?
It’s a controversial question, but as a question that challenges our unsustainable status quo, it shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. Of course, some travel is genuinely necessary, especially for work and to some extent for daily life such as grocery shopping, but even much of this is discretionary.
Yes, we like to travel for fun, but our happiness does not increase proportionally to the amount that we travel. Sometimes less travel can actually bring us greater happiness. It is clear that on average, we currently travel too much, so it seems fair to say that there must be an optimal amount of travel that would meet our needs economically, socially, and emotionally, and be more compatible with the natural limits of our home planet.
So let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario. The average UK car drives about 7,000 miles per year. That’s 134 miles per week. Imagine if we reduced that to a half – just 67 miles per week. We would roughly halve the pollution from cars, and we would massively reduce road deaths and injuries. The UK government states that “air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK”, killing 28,000-36,000 people every year, while approximately 1800 people are killed every year in road accidents and around 25,000 are seriously injured. We are prepared to shut down most of the country and self-isolate to protect each other from COVID-19. What would we give to prevent the deaths and injuries caused by road traffic?
In addition to improved safety, the quieter roads would encourage more walking and cycling, improve local communities and making people healthier.
What if you needed more than 67 miles per week? You could save up some miles for those bigger trips by using less in other weeks, or you buy spare miles from people who don’t need them. It could replace road tax and fuel duty, with the government simply selling a mileage credit and making a small commission from an online trading platform where credits can be sold by those who don’t need them to those who need more mileage.
The money can be reinvested in public spaces, walking paths, cycleways and better public transport. Plus people who don’t own cars could potentially make some extra money buy selling their credits to wealthier individuals and businesses at “market rate”.
And that’s just cars. We could do the same for flights, with each citizen being issued with an annual allowance of air miles which reduce each year in line with science-based targets. You could roll over you allowance to future years to save up for a big trip, but it would depreciate in value in line with the science based targets. Those who don’t use their allowance oould sell them to others through the government trading platform, providing them some extra income and generating some additional revenue for the government.
This is just a rough concept to illustrate the idea. Of course, the devil is in the detail for any idea, but if it’s designed well, a system of rationing certain forms of travel could revolutionize our society in a positive way, making it happier, healthier, wealthier and at the same time support our transition to a zero carbon future.
Realistically, I see little chance of our government ever considering anything so radical, but perhaps it is radical ideas like this that we need if we’re to create a positive and sustainable future. If we are to change the world, we first need to open our minds and imagine very different realities from the ones that we have been living in until now.
Perhaps we don’t need to wait for our political leaders to take the lead. Even if a government would not introduce a form of travel ration, perhaps we could individually benefit from introducing our own. For example, when Vineeta and I decided to limit our own flying to a maximum of once per year, we found it surprisingly easy and started enjoying other forms of travel and discover wonderful destinations closer to home.
If we decided to drive less, perhaps we would have more time and feel more connected to our local communities and perhaps we would get more exercise on a regular basis. Perhaps we could stop running so fast and find greater happiness in the here and now.
As businesses, perhaps we could set targets for reducing the number of kilometres traveled by plane, train and car each year, focusing us on using transport more efficiently within the context of our own business needs.
I think the travel is a great thing and it brings huge benefits to our lives, but it has become so cheap and easy that we take it completely for granted. We are travel addicts, always looking for our next fix. As humans we think that we are wired to be efficient, but we are actually wired to be wasteful when we have an abundance of something, or at least when we perceive there to be an abundance of something.
I don’t think that we need to stop travelling, but I don’t think that we need to break our cultural addiction to it. We need to adjust our perspective of travel to be aligned with reality. Travel should support healthy and happy lives and vibrant communities, not wear us out and destroy our planet.
If we understood how much travel the Earth can sustain, what our community spaces can physically accommodate, and how to be truly happy, then we would be able to see the limits more clearly. We would value our travel opportunities more, we would enjoy them more and we would intuitively use them more efficiently. That would surely be a good thing.