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Solimar Research

Thunberg's Voyage May Be a Stunt, But She Has a Point for Planners

Josh Stephens on
Sep 2, 2019

For some people, Greta Thunberg has jumped the shark. Perhaps literally. 

In her 16 short years, Thunberg has already done a nice job of sticking it to The Man, leading school walk-outs and other protests against climate change in her native Sweden and elsewhere. Her simple and appropriately irate thesis is that adults are taking the planet her generation is going to inherent and smoking it like herring. We have mortgaged their future, and Thunberg wants to call in the debt before we’re all underwater. 

The politicians against whom she rails often feign pique whenever pet projects are offended and sensible policies proposed. By contrast, Thunberg is 100 percent pissed off. As well she should be. 

Thunberg is attending the United Nations climate summit in New York City this month. To protest the burning of fossil fuels, she’s sailing there from England rather than emitting 986 kilograms of carbon dioxide by flying coach. That’s actually about 40 gallons of jet fuel — or about what a fully-laden Hummer burns on a trip to Whole Foods. Collectively, though, air travel is devastating. There’s already talk about “travel rationing,” to limit travelers’ carbon footprints. 

Thunberg's voyage has given rise, especially in Sweden, to “flight-shaming”: the notion that, even if they’re not pumping the gas themselves, jet-setters and leisure travelers must reckon with the share of the stratosphere that they’re destroying with every flight. Meanwhile, Thunberg is weathering backlash. Critics claim that her Columbus act is a sanctimonious publicity stunt and noting that she has support staff who’ll be joining her the old-fashioned way: by flying and meeting up with her. 

I’m not about to question the media savvy or the ethical foundations of a16-year-old, especially when the offenses against which she protests could literally destroy the world. Rather than shame tourists for getting on planes in order to visit faraway places, though, I’d rather think about places themselves. 

The world’s increasingly massive middle class flies for all sorts of reasons. A big reason is to visit nice places. Presumably those places are nicer than wherever it is they’re from, be it a complex of apartment towers in Guangzhou, an oversized suburban box 15 miles from downtown Detroit, or a new Hollywood apartment building that looks like a beached container ship. 

What do these places have in common? Density, history, walkability, style. To name a few. 

I completely support travel for the sake of travel. It’s the greatest form of education in the world, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that creates the empathy and mutual understanding – two crucial ingredients necessary to fight climate change. Imagine if 20th century urban planners had learned from the past rather than plunged headlong into the future? On the other hand, we wouldn’t need to travel so much if our cities — in the United States and in many other places — weren’t themselves so terrible. 

You could pick almost any neighborhood in any city in Germany, France, Italy, or Japan and end up someplace nicer, livelier, more attractive, more charming, and more functional than all but the best neighborhoods in the United States. The Netherlands received 19 million tourists last year. That's more than the actual population of the Netherlands. 

If we can create more places -- and learn to make proper sauce for frites -- the Netherlands will have fewer tourists (which is what it wants). If we can rebuild our cities according to those models, with an eye towards human scale and away from the automobile, Americans won’t need to travel abroad just so they can find a decent sidewalk cafe. (Not unlike what we've done with cannabis and would-be visitors to Amsterdam coffee shops.)

Crucially, but not coincidentally, great neighborhoods are greener neighborhoods. California policymakers have adopted laws like Senate Bill 375 and vehicle miles traveled metrics precisely so that residents can live their lives without spewing the remnants of Alaska crude from their tailpipes. Many European countries emit far fewer GHGs per capita than do Californians (who are already on the low end of the American spectrum, at 9.5 metric tons per year).

Of course, development and redevelopment create their own carbon footprints. But that’s a negligible net contribution of GHGs. Population pressures and obsolesce of older buildings demand that many American cities redevelop anyway. We might as well redevelop well. 

So put that into your emissions model: the type of city that enables a resident to walk down the block to get a cup of coffee and say hi to neighbors may also be the type of city that lures a suburbanite who might otherwise felt that the only escape from bedroom-community monotony was a jumbo jet. In a green urban future, more Americans can rely on staycations and actually enjoy the places where they live. That’s probably one reason why Greta is so exasperated: when you grow up in a gorgeous city like Stockholm, you must surely wonder why everyone else is so hell-bent on building shlock.

If you believe in saving the planet through flight-shaming, you might want to consider some city-shaming too. 

As for Greta, I wish her well. May a steady breeze usher her westward and pod of watchful dolphins keep the great whites and haters at bay. Whether or not travel-shaming endures, I hope Thunberg and her generation can indeed lower the boom on climate change.

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