Would Simply Slowing Down Our Travel & Shipping Help Kick Our Oil Habit?

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When you assess the overall picture of our patterns of global shipping and global aviation you will see we use tons of fuel, leave a high environmental footprint, and that technological changes can help but perhaps not fully solve the problem. Let's move on to how we can change ourselves and our habits. Remember, we want to keep as much of the benefits of global trade and travel as we can, while absolutely minimizing the environmental cost.

So, would simply slowing down the speed, literally and figuratively, with which we move goods and ourselves about the planet be a viable solution?

Greater Regionalization Could Reduce Fuel Usage

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When it comes to goods, we're already moving pretty slowly. Container ships move more goods with less human-effort per unit shipped and with much more regular schedules than did ships prior to containerization and during the age of sail. But in terms of sailing speed alone, we're not moving things about markedly faster than we used to.

Aside from reductions in fuel usage aboard ship due to technological advances, one way to reduce the impact of shipping, in fact, is a facet of slowing down. Broadly conceived, doing that would be to reduce the volume of goods traded globally.

Recognizing that even in a world where energy is constrained and more expensive there will always be a certain volume of goods traded globally. This trade is due to them being only able to be produced in certain locations by virtue of geographical and climatic conditions. Also, production is dependent on the comparative advantage still standing. Greater localization and regionalization of production and trade would reduce fuel usage--provided that shipment of those goods was done via train or inland waterway, not trucks.

Telecommuting Could Reduce (Not Eliminate) Business Travel

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When it comes to moving ourselves around, there is great room for slowing down and reconsidering the whole enterprise of modern intercontinental travel.

On a business level, while there is undoubted value in face-to-face contact with colleagues and clients. Telecommunication technology can reduce the need for business trips--especially if good video-conferencing is further developed and more widely used.

Not every organization can run as Treehugger does, coordinating activity across multiple time zones, countries, and continents with employees very rarely meeting in person. But it's something more companies could implement with greater regularity.

For the remaining necessary business travel—even if transoceanic travel was reduced to ship speed and intercontinental ground travel was done by rail—if it is reliable with fast internet connection aboard, the resultant greater transit times could easily be accounted for in planning. With reliability and technology, some levels of productivity are maintained during the travel itself.

When it comes down to it, does anyone really enjoy (not just accept or tolerate) jetting across the Atlantic or Pacific for a one- or two-day meeting and then jetting back. It's uncomfortable and largely inconvenient in many ways.

Less Frequent But Longer International Vacations

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On a personal level, as I said in the introduction, travel is an absolutely great thing, at its best exposing a person to new ways of doing things, new experiences, and chances to personally grow, let alone simply the undeniable pleasure of seeing novel vistas, people and places, experiencing new cuisines or at least eating them in their place of origin not a restaurant down the street.

If we slowed this down, even doing it with far less frequency but doing it for greater lengths of time when done, all these pleasures and benefits remain.

The productivity and creativity benefits of regular breaks from our work routine are well documented. What if a slower travel routine was centered around more frequent shorter breaks throughout the year--four day weekends, taken short distances away from home, perhaps--accompanied by scheduled and regular longer holidays occurring less frequently. Perhaps taking three months off of work every other year, accompanied by maybe a nine-month or year sabbatical every seven years or so. The latter half of that suggestion is what's advocated by Jocelyn Glei in a recent article about how to maintain creativity and I think it has some solid merit.

That schedule may not be appropriate for all industries, or all people--an indeed, there probably isn't one right balance between work and vacation time--but what I want you to do is start thinking whether there isn't a better way to allocate your time so as to encourage slower travel, less fuel consumption while doing so, and hopefully more meaningful and fulfilling holidays all at the same time.

Obviously this all runs counter to established business and personal practice for the majority of people in the United States, but that's hardly a reason to not consider it. When these sorts of breaks were scheduled well in advance, there's no reason to think they couldn't be accommodated within most people's lives or businesses.

This has drifted into the realm of personal productivity, but it would likely have benefits in terms of environmental impact and oil usage as well. If you know you have three months off, let alone nine months to a year, the speed with which you travel suddenly becomes far less of an issue than if you've got a week and want/need to cram everything in, taking the fastest route. And even if flying still was the preferred travel method, simply reducing the frequency with which it's done, reduces impact as well.