Monthly archives of “April 2017

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When Frequent-Flying Becomes Insane-Flying

I loved my Singapore Airlines ‘Elite Gold’ card. Suddenly, International airports transitioned from being places where food and drink were wildly overpriced, to …. free. When I stuffed-up and missed flights, or political rules changed and I couldn’t board an aircraft – instead of costing hundreds of dollars, the issues were quietly and politely taken care of. I’ve spent several nights in the KrisFlyer Lounge at Changi Airport, helping myself to pumpkin soup and red wine in the evenings and muesli and yoghurt in the morning. And of course, free wifi.

I’m a product of my culture and my times. In New Zealand there is an expectation that you travel abroad at some point. The joke is that one can get their BSc, PhD, and their O.E. (Overseas Experience). For most kiwi travellers this translates into a year or two working and travelling abroad. I did an O.E. but many more trips as well. As a traveller I’ve accumulated nearly 80 countries. Country-totals are a kind of currency travellers use, something that gives them a bit of street-cred. But I’ll be the first to say that most of those countries in my list have been grossly superficial visits. Many have been just single, brief trips, but others I have been to multiple times.

Coming home – flying over the Southern Alps

Somewhere, we kiwis believe, there is a point to our travel. It’s to make us better people, appreciate our own country more, that sort of stuff. But is there a down-side? Somewhere I read a comment that slipped into my subconscious, as good propaganda does, that air-travel was an insignificant contributor to global warming. Blame it on heavy industry and power-generation, don’t worry about your air-miles. With an answer that I wanted to believe in, I didnt worry.

Cruising Amazon for Kindle-content last year, I happened upon a thought-provoking book, “Beyond Flying” (edited by Chris Watson). It means exactly what the title implies – it’s an analysis of how bad flying really is (it’s really bad) and explores the implications of a post-flight world. More specifically, each chapter is written from someone who has voluntarily given up flying. It was in this book (Chris Brazier’s chapter) that I came across the flight amount category of ‘Insane’. I took that to be somewhere above ‘Frequent’. The lower border of the ‘Insane Flying’ category is not defined, but the chapter hints at it by citing UK Dept of Transport figures that only 4% (of one of the richest nations on Earth) took four or more flights per year. This was a pretty clear indication that I’m in it.

Not far from home – Lake Wakatipu in the distance.

As two of the contributors (Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh) in ‘Beyond Flying’ point out, you can be the greenest person you know (walk/cycle to work, recycle, don’t use air conditioners) but as soon as you make one long-haul jet flight, you’ve just blown it. You may as well have been a daily car-user. And that hurts.

‘Beyond Flying’ builds on George Monbiot’s earlier, and thoroughly researched book ‘Heat’, so I tracked down a copy of it too (in a second-hand shop in Brisbane, though since then, a Kindle version has appeared). ‘Heat’ is an analysis of how humans might replace fossil-fuels with other ones. Monbiot came up with various technological answers for various activities. He found, in other words, ways to make the books balance. But when it came to flying (jet-flight), his answer was simple and unequivocal – Don’t.

Don’t fly. Stop-it. Just Say No. Jet flight is a totally extravagant, unsustainable activity.

This, of course, set off a howl of inner indignation in me.

‘But – I’m a New Zealander! I live in the most isolated country on Earth. I have to fly to see the world.’

Now the folks who wrote “Beyond Flying” knew that me and my fellow kiwi travellers would react like this. So they pointedly included a couple of other Australasians who have given up flying. Now those people are commendable, and I take my hat off to them. But really? This means the end of international travel, bar finding a boat to get me out of this place? Even one of ‘Beyond Flying’’s contributors (Nic Seton) gave up trying to get a boat between Australia and Asia and finally took a flight.

I’m not a Brit who can courageously forego flying and instead, take the bike to Paris for the hols, or even to Singapore via the Hindu Kush if they felt like it. No, I’m a bloody kiwi. Isn’t there a way-out? Can’t we be exempted from this?

My pathology is an unfortunate combination of a mania for collecting, added to finding it hard to throw anything out and, worse – wanting to catalogue what I accumulate. This odd way that my brain works told me it was time to work out, just how many flights were made in racking-up those 80-odd countries. And, and from there, the point of the exercise, work out what my personal impact, in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, was on the planet.

So I started with boarding passes. Not having thrown any out of curse, I dug up little stacks of these all over the place. I know there will be more to find – they will be slotted in the pages of whatever book I was reading on the flight (How many books do I have? Let me check my database….. 856), but beyond a few I’ve given to employers, I will have most, somewhere. Then I scanned them all – all 359 of them, and entered them into a database. It’s then that I realised airlines seem to have had an infuriating aversion to including a year on a boarding pass. This seems to have changed in recent years, but I have a whole bunch with just days and months. Most boarding passes are at least on solid card, but a few of them are on paper – currently very blank paper. These airlines, or rather, just one airline, has (commendably, maybe) cut costs and resource-use to a point where the ink rapidly fades and the information that was once on your pass, has vanished (Mr Branson, I’m looking at you).

So then I turned to the paper or email record of tickets, and travel-agent itineraries. These recorded flights that I currently don’t seem to have passes for, although some of them could be the faded ones. For other trips I made for which I still haven’t found any documentation, there are my diaries. After marrying the two lists on a relational database, followed by a bit of editing, I came up with a provisional, minimum figure. And it’s kind of astounding.

I seem to have made more than 500 flights.

This is a sobering figure. In ‘Beyond Flying’, John Stewart pointed out that only around 5% of the worlds population have ever actually flown and Chris Watson added that perhaps just 1% are responsible for 80% of all flights. I’d guess I am in that 1%.

For better or worse, many of those flights are ‘long-haul’, rather than a daily commute. These were getting me from New Zealand to somewhere on the other side of the planet. Some of them may as well be called a long-haul commute – for instance, I’ve done the Singapore-Brisbane run no less than 20 times and flown across ‘The Ditch” (The Tasman Sea) at least 50 times. But many flights just got me between islands (North and South New Zealand, or Tasmania and the Australian mainland) for which there is a good (if slow) option of a boat

Evening flight past the Kaikoura Mountains.

So how to take all this to the next level? It would be simple enough to add flight distances, and come up with a useless total in terms of the distance to the Moon perhaps. But what I want to know is something meaningful. Specifically, how much carbon dioxide has my travel, pumped into the atmosphere? This has become a hot topic (that’s too bad to be a pun, so it’s not) and there are several websites that purport to help you do this. I’ve chosen to go with one, because it documents the method behind its calculations – a good sign. Its the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is an agency of the UN.

There are all sorts of complicating factors in trying to work out individual air traveler emissions. For instance, the length of the flight (longer ones involving lots of ’cruising’ are more economical), the type of plane typically used on certain routes, weather patterns (tail-winds are good), and so-on. The ICAO methodology at least makes an effort to confront these.

So I entered the various routes I have flown (Quick database check – I’ve flown more than 176) into the ICAO website, plugged the indicated carbon outputs into my database of actual flights – and got my answer.

My personal carbon dioxide contribution from jet travel comes to over 80 tonnes.

Ye Gods.

This is a provisional figure, but its going to be close enough to work with. To give it some sort of perspective, a flight from New York to London generates about 358 kg of carbon dioxide.

I’m a researcher who is familiar enough with the science and literature of climate change, and from that perspective, I realise my carbon emissions are part of the problem. Frankly, they’re appalling. Can I make up for what I have inflicted on the planet? Or better still, can I take care of future flying in ‘real-time’? In other words – have my cake and eat it too? Is it as simple as planting-trees? Apparently not. Mitigation of carbon emissions turns out to be a complicated subject but something I very much want to get straight in my own head. Future posts will explore this. I’m looking for a way out of course. An exemption. Straws to clutch at perhaps.

But Nature, of course, doesn’t negotiate.

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The Lost Forests of Southland, New Zealand

Forests that have disappeared so completely that you would hardly believe they really existed, have long fascinated me.  When I left my home in Alexandra for university in Dunedin, I took with me a facsimile map my mother had given me. It was a mid 19th century view of the Southland plains, the area sweeping north from Invercargill. I blue-tacked it in front of my desk, and framed it with two pot-plants, Zak, and Derek the Dicot. What intrigued me about this map, was that it showed huge patches of forest on the Southland plains, that have now vanished, mostly with barely a physical trace.

Unless you’re really, really into cows and very green grass (and I know a lot of our tourists do love this) the Southland Plains are a pretty boring place. It’s been entirely transformed by agriculture, particularly the dairy industry. It’s not a place that comes to mind for a couple of days hiking or biking.

But scattered all over Southland, on maps present and past, are place names ending in ‘Bush’. This is the kiwi word for ‘forest’. For instance, there’s ‘Long Bush’, ‘Makarewa Bush’, ‘Grove Bush’, ‘Ryal Bush’ and even the charming “Six Little Bushes”. There’s also a ‘Druid’s Grove’ and also place names that are simply botanical, recording (using a Maori word) a type of tree that was likely prominent in the area, like ‘Rimu’, ‘Matai’ and ‘Kamahi’. These places are typically little more than a loose collection of houses or farms, but what they mostly have in common, is that the bush the names refer to, has vanished.

I bear some collective responsibility for this. My mother grew up in the tiny farming area of Rimu-Long Bush where her grandfather had been a pit saw-miller (a photo showed him standing in the unenviable position as the saw-man at the bottom of the pit). She remembers, at about age six, being taken to the nearby forest by her mother and uncle and being “overwhelmed” by the size of the forest trees. When she tried to relocate them a decade or so later, they had all gone.

I can’t now locate that map that sat in front of me for two years in room 613 (Men’s tower) at Unicol. It’s around somewhere, no-doubt slotted between something else. But come the Internet Age and digital copies of these things tend to turn up out-there somewhere. I think it may have been the ‘Sketch Map of the Province of Southland’ compiled by the Chief Surveyor, John H. Baker, up to 1865. There is a digital copy of this map on the Auckland Council Libraries website (‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZ Map 3817‘).

‘Sketch Map of the Province of Southland’ compiled by the Chief Surveyor, John H. Baker, up to 1865. There is from a digital copy of this map on the Auckland Council Libraries website ('Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZ Map 3817'). It shows patches of forest (blue-green) where almost none remain today.

‘Sketch Map of the Province of Southland’ compiled by the Chief Surveyor, John H. Baker, up to 1865. There is from a digital copy of this map on the Auckland Council Libraries website (‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZ Map 3817’). It shows patches of forest (blue-green) where almost none remain today.

While searching that web site, I found an even more detailed map (covering a slightly smaller area) – ‘Map of the southern portion of the Province of Southland’ also produced by J.H. Baker in 1865 (‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZ Map 3816 and 3842‘).

This is a cadastral map – showing the surveyed boundaries of plots of land. It’s accuracy is amazing – using GIS techniques, it can be laid over the modern New Zealand 1:50,000 topographical maps almost exactly. At first glance, the surveyed small land plots seem to have been placed with total disregard for the forest, bisecting them everywhere. But only at first glance. A second look shows that it was the forest that was a major controlling factor. The plots were surveyed such that almost everyone (bar those in totally open areas) had about half their land in forest. This meant that everyone had a wood resource to use, and, of course, everyone could do their little bit to get rid of it. The orientation of roads and fence-lines that we see today, are ghosts, in a funny perpendicular sort of way, of those long-vanished patches of bush.

A section of an 1865 cadastral map showing forest/bush patches in the area around Invercargill (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZ Map 3842)

A section of an 1865 cadastral map showing forest/bush patches in the area around Invercargill (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZ Map 3842)

Southland’s patches of bush beg the question – why the patches? This patchwork is somehow unique. Why wasn’t it wall-to-wall forest, such as the vast Catlins area just to the east? It’s likely that fire had much to do with it. Before humans arrived in New Zealand, most of the land that was below the tree-line was probably covered in forest. With humans came fire, and the driest parts of the country, such as Central Otago, to the north of Southland, had their forests incinerated very quickly. It makes some intuitive sense that nor-wester gales would have driven fires from this broadly flammable interior region to the wetter southern areas, where there were more subtle controls on what did and didn’t burn. The Southland Plains also have many outcrops of lignite, which are known to have smoldered for many years, and may have provided repeated ignition pints. There are also lots of wetlands, swampy ground, and of course rivers, where forest would have only colonised with difficulty.

The question of ‘why the patches of bush in Southland’ is a good one for future academic research. But in fact, the whole landscape ecology is crying out for study. For example, the forest types are not controlled by volcanism, like much of the North Island, by slips and flooding braided rivers, like Westland, or by montane cold, like much of the rest. Southland’s forests show what grows without much of this extreme disturbance. There is now a growing public perception that these forests even existed, and an interest in understanding just what made them up. Paul Star’s article ‘Towards an environmental history of Seaward Forest’ is one such contribution. Star’s research stimulated an exhibition at the Eastern Southland Gallery, where 12 artists produced works on the topic. I didn’t see this, but I’d love to get a hold of the catalogue.

A section of an 1865 cadastral map showing forest/bush patches in the area around Waimatuku (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZ Map 3842).

A section of an 1865 cadastral map showing forest/bush patches in the area around Waimatuku (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZ Map 3842).

Tramping in New Zealand has become virtually synonymous with negotiating high-country. That’s because that’s where our ‘wilderness’ and large areas of forest are left. We’ve whacked all the lowland stuff. For better or worse, this country now plays on its Middle Earth image. But it’s largely the dramatic. However, the subdued landscape with scattered patches of forest, also evoke a very Tolkinesque feeling. In fact, what could look more like some parts of Middle-Earth than that 1865 cadastral map – absent the cadastral lines of course? Imagine Southland’s tourism industry if more of that had survived? It would be a different kind of experience than completing a mountain trail, getting that sense of satisfaction at having lugged a huge pack from A to B (sometimes the same point) and taking the zillionth photograph of a scenic view. Instead, there could be something we don’t presently have much of in New Zealand, but is far more a European phenomenon – a network of lowland pathways. People could plot out a relaxing route, from bush to bush, stopping off at village cafes, or for Devonshire teas at enterprising farms. Even a small patch of bush, enough to shelter a picnic table, would be enough for some of Southland’s little ‘Bush’ settlements to re-establish their namesake.

The bushes have mostly gone, but from the point of view of a walker or cyclist, it may not take that much effort to reconstruct the feeling of being in them. Southland has a huge network of sometimes rather wide ‘long paddocks’ (the strip of land between the road and farm. It also has the rivers, and at least technically, public access along them (in reality this is more complicated, as in Southland, the rivers have often meandered away from the surveyed public land). The planting of native trees on these, and in fact, all over New Zealand, is an accelerating phenomenon. For the feeling of a trail through a forest, these only have to be wide enough to cut out the view of the road, and muffle the sound of traffic. It would be a kind of ‘geoengineering’. But, with a bit of political will and some long-term thinking, I think wonders could be worked.

What strikes me most about that 1865 map, is not just the huge areas of forest that have totally vanished, but that there are a few tiny patches of bush, perhaps just a hectare and peripheral to a huge forest, that are still there. Thanks to the vision of a few generations of some Southland farmers, these tiny remnants remain. There are shades (pun unintended) here of Geoff Park’s book ‘Nga Uru Ora’ (a weird coincidence: a friend and I had just completed 10 days walking around Stewart Island. We were relaxing at a picnic table back near Half Moon Bay, discussing Nga Uru Ora, when Park’s son literally walked out of the bush beside us). So it’s something I’ve wanted to do for ages – now that I can see exactly where those patches of bush were, I want to go and have a look. I want to see what remains, get a feel for what vanished, and what might be done… I’ll get back with future blog-posts.

Looking back, I suspect that ‘Derek the Dicot’ who framed one side of that map, was probably a monocot. But like my copy of that map, he seems to have vanished.