Boats and Borders: A Longwinded Meditation on our High-Carbon Society

Cars embarking on the cross-channel ferry at Dover. Is this really the most efficient way to carry people across water?

I’ve recently been invited to speak at my first conference. Even more exciting than that is the fact that the conference is being held in Valencia, Spain. So within literally half an hour of receiving my formal inviation, I came up with a very exciting plan: Go to the two-day conference in Valencia, and then go find a nice Spanish beach to lie on for the rest of the week. I immediately commenced procrastinating from my real work by planning my trip from Manchester to Valencia. Being a bit of a hippy environmentalist who loves trains and boats and hates sitting in front of screaming babies on planes, I looked for a some combination of rail and ferry networks that would get me there. This turned out to be frustrating, however. Partly because the Spanish rail network is an a bit of a shambles, but more importantly because many of the ferries from Southern England to Spain do not allow foot passengers on board.

It is this last point that I want to riff on a little bit in this post. If the fact that many of our major water-borne transport networks can’t be boarded without a car isn’t a knockdown demonstration of car culture, then I don’t know what is. Even those ferries that do allow foot passengers often put them at a considerable disadvantage. I know from experience that such boats often require foot passengers to disembark using a bus that drives off the boat after all the drivers have already left, which effectively adds at least half an hour to the journey time. And port facilities are rarely well-connected to railway or bus terminals. I’ve had to walk over a mile to catch a ferry in the past.

The reason this is so problematic is that ferries are the only really sustainable way to travel over water. My flight to Valencia, which I reluctantly booked after two days of fruitless searching for a viable ferry itinerary, will emit 0.3 tons of carbon dioxide each way, which will add up to a whopping 40% of my ideal annual carbon budget over the course of the whole trip. So if we are going to transition to a sustainable economy then ferries are going to have to play a big role. The problem here is that, under the status quo, in order to avoid using the most environmentally destructive form of transport on the planet (flying), it is highly advantageous and sometimes mandatory to own a car, which happens to be the second-most environmentally destructive form of transport on the planet. There is very little space for people who choose to forego both technologies, and this is a problem.

What I’d really like to see here is an alternative ferry system, designed specifically for foot passengers. It would involve boats that are big enough to carry a large number of passengers safely across the English Channel, but not the behemoths designed to carry cars and trucks. I would like to see these boats making quick, cheap, efficient trips across the channel, in which people would embark on foot from a small pier, rather than having to wait for countless vehicles to be painstakingly loaded on at a gigantic terminal. Of course, I have to confess that I know virtually nothing about the ferry business, and there are probably a lot of very serious problems with the suggestion I have just made. It would, at the very least, require considerable changes to port infrastructure and dominant travel habits. It would also require a major change to how customs and immigration services are managed. More border guards would have to be built at more ports, and they would have to be built with foot passengers, rather than a stream of motor vehicles, in mind. I’m no more an expert on customs and immigration than I am on passenger marine travel, but somehow I doubt that border agencies could easily be persuaded to do such a thing.

This brings me to the final point of this somewhat rambly post: Maybe border guards are an unexamined part of the transport system. Border stations are expensive, and immigration agencies probably save money by building a small number of big checkpoints at major transport hubs. I’m willing to bet that a small ferry entrepreneur couldn’t simply request one wherever she needs it. Since most long-distance travel takes place between separate sovereign states, modes of transport that connect to pre-existing border control points at airports and large ferry terminals have a major advantage over alternatives. This locks in established unsustainable transport systems. Even the land border between Windsor and Detroit-the most highly trafficked border in the world-requires pedestrians to board a “tunnel bus” in order to cross the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. So groups like No One Is Illegal can add one more argument to their arsenal: Borders contribute to climate change.

The general point I’m trying to make here is that the systems that entrench environmentally destructive technologies manifest themselves in complex and surprising ways. We build boats that can only be boarded by cars, and the legal structure of international travel encourages the use of pre-established transport systems. If we want a more sustainable future, then we need to be critical of all this stuff. And we need to have the courage to change it.


From World Wars to Bush Planes: Some Reflections on The Future of Commercial Space Flight

There’s a lot of excited talk about spaceflight these days. The successful completion of the X-prize challenge by SpaceX and the subsequent launch of Virgin Galactic has a put lot of space geeks in a very optimistic mood about the future of private, civilian space-flight. Perhaps within you or your children’s lifetime, it will be both possible to visit an orbital or lunar hotel. Even if that is beyond your price range, you might still wind up using quick orbital hops to make trans-continental business trips in a fraction of the time taken by a jet airliner. The technology is all there, say the space-age optimists. It just has to come down in price.

Of course, if “It just has to come down in price” suspiciously like somebody’s famous last words. The path from an effective technology to mass use by society is far from a simple one. While I am very excited by the prospect of commercial spaceflight (I want to play golf on the moon), the history of technology suggests a critical perspective towards the possibility.

What we essentially have with space-flight is a completely new technological function which allows forms of consumption that are completely impossible without it. On the one hand, this helps space entrepreneurs, because what they offer is so completely different from any other consumer product that they will have to compete with any existing industries. On the other hand, it also means that they will have to build a customer base from scratch, which is not always an easy thing to do with an unproven technology. To understand better how this process occurs, it would be worthwhile to look at another example of a radically new technology that was successfully introduced to the market.

To that end, I want to draw your attention to the Silver Dart, which was basically Canada’s answer to the Wright Flyer. It flew for just half a mile in 1909. That same year, it was able to complete a circular flight of around 35 kilometers, and shortly afterwards it successfully flew with a passenger. These accomplishments are impressive, but the Silver Dart, like most aircraft of the time, was more novelty project than business venture. It was never intended to fly with paying customers. In fact, the only way that pilots ever managed to make any money in Canada before the First World War was by performing acrobatics at fairs. Flight at this time was a technological novelty used mainly by the rich.

Things became very different very quickly after the First World War. Bush flying became a commercial pursuit, with pilots reaching places in the Canadian hinterland that could previously could only be reached by canoe and dogsled. Government and corporate surveyors began to use planes to document the natural resource wealth of the Canadian North, and during the depression a series of airstrips was built to link the country from coast to coast. Air services were also being established in Britain, Australia, and the United States. And those are just the countries I have researched. Planes had, in short, became a profitable proposition in a very short time.

So what happened? Well, in Canada, at least, this happened:

The HS-2L Flying Boat


The Curtiss HS-2L flying boat was ubiquitous in the early years of Canadian bush flying. While it was designed for practical use and was therefore an improvement over the Silver Dart, the specific practical use it was was designed  for was submarine hunting. This meant that it had some major drawbacks when it was pressed into civilian use. Its large wingspan made docking  difficult, and it had to be periodically lifted out of the water or its hull would get waterlogged. Despite these problems, however, the HS-2L is commonly thought of as the aircraft that kick-started commercial flight in Canada. This had nothing to do with the technological sophistication of the aircraft, and everything to do with the fact that hundreds had been built for a war effort that was now over. This meant that an aspiring commercial pilot could get his hands on a surplus flying boat for very cheap. The glut of unemployed pilots returning from the war created a class of entrepreneurs ready to take advantage of this opportunity, and so Canadian air industry was born. This dynamic was not limited to Canada: surplus war aircraft and pilots were similarly central in the creation of the American, Australian, and British air industries. This was strengthened even further after the Second World War and its more advanced aircraft opened space for the air industry as we know it today.

Let’s return to space, then. Each of the two examples above shows that a major global event, namely war, was necessary in order for a new consumer technology to become attractive to the private sector. I suspect that the large-scale commercialization of space might require something similar. While Virgin Galactic might show promise , I think that in its current form it fills the same role that was filled by air and car travel around the turn of the century: that of a recreational novelty for the rich. In order for a new commercial space industry to take hold, something will need to spur the construction of large numbers of manned spacecraft, the development of inexpensive launch facilities, and the training of space pilots. Whatever that is will then have to end abruptly, so as to create a surplus of vehicles, infrastructure, and manpower that can be used in a new commercial space industry.


Does this mean that I won’t get to play moon-golf until there is a war in space? Hopefully not. In this case, a war might not even be sufficient, due to the fact that most realistic visions of space warfare don’t involve very many manned craft. There needs to be some other massive, publicly-funded push to get large numbers of human beings into Earth’s orbit, and it has to produce surplus, reusable, manned spacecraft. Perhaps this is a justification for Neil Degrasse-Tyson’s one penny proposal, or an international mission to Mars. Honestly, I don’t know what it will take. Maybe the unique economics of space flight will mean that all but the rich will just have to stay in the atmosphere. If you don’t like that, then start thinking of ways to get massive investment in manned space-flight from the public purse.

Further Reading

Butler, Tom.,1971. Flying Start: The history of the first five decades of civil aviation in Australia. Sydney: Edwards and Shaw, 1971.

Blee, Jill., 2007. Aviation in Australia. Wollombi: Exisle Publishing Ltd.

Fortier, Rénald and Masters, Don., 1996. Flight into History: Canadian Vignettes. Ottawa: National Aviation Museum.

Hutchison, Iain., 1987. The Story of Loganair. Isle of Lewis: Western Isles Publishing Company.

McCaffery, Dan., 2002. Bush Planes and Bush Pilots. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company.

Piggott, Peter., 1997a. Flying Canucks II: Pioneers of Canadian Aviation. Toronto: Hounslow Press.

Piggott, Peter., 2002. Wings Across Canada: An Illustrated History of Canadian Aviation. Toronto: Anthony Hawke.