Might there be blimps?
A search for some delight in a difficult century
I am writing this dispatch from a southbound train, which left my home in Middlebury Vermont at midday and is making its way—not too fast, not too slow—towards Penn Station in New York. So far it’s been an absorbing and beautiful ride: the trees began to turn in earnest these past three days, and so the hay fields and marshes we’ve passed are fringed with orange and red; herons and ospreys have flown by. The train got to Rutland twenty minutes ahead of schedule, and so the conductor encouraged us to debark and cross the parking lot to the town’s large Farmer’s Market—I came back to my wife with saag paneer and vegetable samosa, which we ate happily as the countryside rolled by; soon we’ll be along the Hudson (always sit on the right side going south from Albany!)
This is a fighting newsletter—though this week it’s more of a dreamy newsletter. If paying the modest subscription fee would cause you financial hardship, then don’t!
It’s been, as per usual, a long week in the defining generational fight against climate change. We won some battles (Joe Manchin’s attempt to ram through a pipeline permit failed) and we had some huge losses (across Puerto Rico, Cuba, Florida, and today the Carolinas, where Ian reminded us what can happen when you keep raising the temperature of the ocean). News came that New York, like California, will end gas car sales by 2035; news came that the sabotaged gas pipeline in the North Sea is pouring methane into the air. Dealing with all of this—slowing down the rise of temperature, speeding up the deployment of clean energy—is our task and there is no ducking it.
But it’s worth asking if we can wring some delight out of that job—if the move away from coal and gas and oil might come with some unanticipated benefits.
Fossil fuel is so powerful—so energy dense—that it produced a particular aesthetic. It became easy to do things fast and by ourselves. The car is the perfect example of this—a sealed box to move your body and your stuff with great speed through space. And of course it’s possible to recreate this with electricity—we drove the ten miles to the train station in an EV and it was fine. Quiet, smooth, and powered by the solar panels on the roof of our home.
But the substitution of electricity for fossil fuels also allows us to do things a little differently if we want, beginning with this question of speed. The train is not as fast as the airplane for the trip to New York, but in every other dimension it’s infinitely superior: big windows to stare at the passing beauty, plenty of legroom and the chance to get up and stroll, an easy wifi connection even below 10,000 feet, no TSA. It takes you to the center of the city, instead of dumping you on the outskirts. No Delta pilot has ever suggested that I get off for a minute to shop at a farmer’s market. It’s cheaper. Oh, and a lot less carbon. (And this is on an American train, plagued by decades of underinvestment. I was on a fast night train through Poland last week. In a bedroom. With a shower.)
But it is slower. Which—well, who cares? Huge numbers of us now work via our laptops. We don’t need to be at the office every day (many don’t need to be there any day). I have rented a rolling office for the afternoon, with a sublime view; I’m going to get more done than if I was at home; and when I’m done I’ll be someplace new.
So now consider the electric bike. A bike bike is a wonderful thing, but it’s tended to be a sporting good—we’re a big sprawling country, and because, postwar, we built it on a suburban model things tend to be car distances apart. But you can use an electric bike to make many of those trips, because it erases hills and allows you to tow three bags of groceries. And when you do, you get some exercise, and you get the wind in your face, and it’s a little like being a kid. You don’t have to do it every day—sometimes it rains and sometimes it snows and sometimes you don’t have the time, which is why I imagine that there will be EVs for a while. But you can do it 70 percent of the time, and I am willing to bet you will be happier for it. (Willing to bet because I have data: exercise makes you happy, and being outdoors makes you happy.)
It’s good that the Inflation Reduction Act will help people purchase EVs. (Here in Vermont state subsidies are aimed directly at middle and low income people, which makes sense). It’s a shame that the Manchin stripped subsidies for electric bikes from the bill, but enlightened cities and states are stepping in to fill the need. Delight needs to be affordable.
But what about the blimps? They are, I think, the ultimate in this new aesthetic, where you trade some speed and power for some serendipitous joy. Kim Stanley Robinson has been the best pr man so far for airship travel—in his bestseller Ministry for the Future, blimp travel across the wildlands of the world repairs with its beauty some of the psychic damage that comes from the harrowing opening chapter with its apocalyptic heatwave. But I liked the blimps even better in his lesser-known New York 2140, when millions of people watch the internet stream of the redoubtable pilot Amelia Black, whose airship Assisted Migration moves species towards the poles so they can survive. (There is, admittedly, a spot of trouble with the polar bears).
Anyway, it takes days—a week or two or three—for Robinson’s aeronauts to circle the planet. There are passenger blimps and freight blimps and just people who’ve taken up the blimp lifestyle and are floating above the planet their whole life. (If you have a kid, make sure they read The 21 Balloons). Some of this may be nonfiction reality before too much longer—a British company is supposed to be offering intercity blimp travel by 2025, on routes like Seattle-Vancouver or Liverpool-Belfast. It cuts carbon emissions up to 90% compared with jet travel (the helium provides buoyant lift, so the engine just has to push you through the sky) and soon the diesel engine will apparently be replaced with an electric motor cutting emissions to almost nothing.
But—to be absolutely truthful—I don’t care about the carbon as much as the joy. I want to do this—I’d save my pennies for a long time to get to go on the trip to the North Pole scheduled for next year (I’d probably never save enough, however, since the very first trip will run you north of $30,000). I’d settle for Seattle to Vancouver, because what I really want is to feel that tug as the thing glides from its tether. Here’s Robinson: it “felt strange, lofting up over the bay, bouncing a little on the wind, not like a jet, not like a helicopter. Strange but interesting.”
And I can tell you that he’s right because…I’ve flown in one. Long ago, so long ago it almost seems like a dream. It was the summer of 1986, at the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, and I was a 25-year-old Talk of the Town reporter for the New Yorker. To help with the giant celebration (fireworks, tall ships, concerts) the Fuji Film blimp came to town. (Film was what we used to put in cameras, and back then we sadly had fewer qualms about stereotyping entire groups of people; one commonly held idea was that Japanese people loved to snap pictures, and perhaps there was something to it because Tokyo-based Fuji had enough money for a blimp). Anyway, they asked if I wanted to go for a ride, and so I said—please. Two dear friends—a Times reporter and his wife—were there too; we climbed aboard in a New Jersey field, and soon were silently floating towards the Lady in the Harbor. This was, obviously, pre 9-11: the pilot handed me the controls and showed me how to circle the statue in ever tighter circles, just about crown-level. Then we glided up the West Side, along the Hudson, going just slowly enough that you could peek down each street as they clocked by. We ended up at Coney Island, of all places, and the pilot—maybe showing off just a bit—did a series of dives that brought us down within feet of the ocean before climbing steeply back; the throngs along the beach got a real show. And we got something sublime: it was like being suspended in air, striding around from one floor-to-ceiling to the next. It was close enough to magic.
This is going to be a hard century; we better look for delight where we can. It could be on the ocean (Robinson described futuristic clipper ships, whose sails caught both wind and sun—”the glorious glide, crest to trough, trough to crest, long rollers of mid-ocean”) or the e-bike. Or the train. You’ll have to excuse me now—the trees out the window are too glorious for me to spend another moment staring at the screen.
Do you enjoy this? I hope that if you’re able to, you’ll pay the modest sum that makes it possible for me to keep producing it.
Other news from the world of climate and energy:
+Thirteen demonstrators, including two of my treasured colleagues from Third Act Virginia, were sent to jail for four days for their role in a July 4 climate protest which briefly halted traffic on a DC road. The judge reasoned that community service was an inappropriate sentence because…they were already doing community service. Anyway, here’s their excellent statement at the trial.
+Princeton divests from fossil fuel! This is good news for the planet, and bad news for Yale, which now stands out like a sore thumb since Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge have also decided to stop profiting from the end of the world. Meanwhile, Stanford launched its new Doerr School of Sustainability, with about 500 dignitaries—and at least a hundred inspired protesters demanding it not take fossil fuel money!
+The Fed is going to put six big American banks through a climate stress test to see how exposed they are to risk from the energy transition. The authorities were quick to promise, however, that “the exercise is exploratory in nature and does not have capital consequences.”
+A quarter of the cars sold in China last quarter were electric, which makes sense since you can buy them for as little as $5,000—and since China has doubled the number of EV chargers to 2 million in the last year. That’s progress at speed.
I loved this one, Bill. Engineer for delight. And delight needs to be affordable. And a train...ahead of schedule! Anything is possible.
Bill, your words continue to educate, motivate and inspire. This post also added the dimension of the necessity of adding delight on life's journey. I truly needed this after dealing with the complex emotions triggered by hurricane Ian and the devastation of a place (SW Florida) close to my heart, where I Iived and appreciated its natural beauty for decades. In the midst of grieving all that was lost in the storm -- the human life, the creatures, the ecosystems -- I can also use the memories created there to fuel my passion for saving this beautiful world. Thank you. I stand in admiration of your energy and commitment to this cause!