Bill McKibben Calls for Slow Travel

The energizer bunny of the climate fight slows down.

train tracks through forest changing leaves

David Chapman / Getty Images

A decade ago, Bill McKibben was described on Treehugger as the energizer bunny of the climate fight. John Platt wrote, "One day he'll be speaking to a packed auditorium to spread the message for the environmental nonprofit he founded, The next he'll be at a protest, trying to stop the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (or spend a few days in jail as a result of that protest)." McKibben was always on the move.

Today, McKibben is organizing Third Act, a new movement for progressive organizing among people over 60, and is not speeding around so much. In fact, he has become a fan of slow travel and wrote his latest post on his substack, The Crucial Years, from a train. He described its charms: "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."

He then made the same point I did in a post about working on a train: "It's 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."

Tern Bicycles GSD

McKibben is now on a slow roll and moves on to e-bikes, which he said work in ways and in places that bicycles cannot, such as the big, sprawling American suburbs. "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," he wrote. "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."

McKibben isn't giving up his electric car, but said "you can do it 70 percent of the time, and I am willing to bet you will be happier for it."

This, again, is something we have discussed in Treehugger, as I am convinced e-bikes can unlock the suburbs for alternative transportation. A British study found that e-bikes would have their biggest impact in areas where it is too far to walk for shopping, but where there were few alternatives to cars. I concluded that "from any basis of comparison, be it speed of rollout, cost, equity, safety, the space taken for driving or parking, embodied carbon or operating energy, e-bikes beat e-cars for a majority of the population."

Airlander over a beach
Hybrid Air Vehicles

Then McKibben wondered about blimps. "They are, I think, the ultimate in this new aesthetic, where you trade some speed and power for some serendipitous joy," he wrote. He noted that blimps cut emissions up to 90%, and that is when the blimp is being pushed by diesel engines. We have shown Airlander's blimps a number of times because it is such an interesting idea. They are even promising all-electric versions, which will take emissions to zero. It's slow, but as they used to say about cruise ships, getting there is half the fun.

slow cars offroad
Isetta goes offroad.

BMW / Isetta

McKibben missed a few other opportunities to go slow and reduce our carbon footprint. Years ago I proposed a slow car movement, noting a decade ago before electric or autonomous cars were on the radar:

"Perhaps, like the slow food movement, we need a slow car movement, a radical lowering of the speed limit so that the private car can survive in an era of peak oil and global warming, simply by being smaller and slower. We don't need hydrogen cars and new technology, we just need better, smaller designs, lower speed limits, and no big SUVs on the road to squish them."

More recently, futurist Alex Steffen came to the same conclusion, especially if the cars were going to be autonomous, noting that "smart streets in future cities—it looks to me—will likely be built not for hurtling suburban SUVs but for happy people and the slow robots that take them where they want to go."

Vienna is a walkable city
Vienna is a great example of a walkable city.

Lloyd Alter

Or we could put it all together in slow cities, where we arrive downtown at a train station, can walk or bike to a wonderful dinner of slow food made from locally grown, seasonal ingredients, and then home to our slow space, described as being “akin to slow food for the built environment, that focuses on human-centered design that is beautiful and long-lasting, healthy for people and the planet and fair for workers.” 

McKibben concluded his article from the train and said: "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." He made a good point: We should all just slow down a bit and enjoy the scenery.