Because in new surroundings we must look more closely. Seeing something familiar in a new context could disrupt how we’ve been imagining it to be. We might recognize how it really is, how it is now.
What struck me first on this year’s journey to Nepal is air travel may be at the peak of an unsustainable growth path. The first time I flew on a 747 was 1970 when I came to the USA. They’re magnificent aircraft. No surprise they’re still in service more than 40 years later. In information theory no surprise means no information. We have not been surprised by changes in air travel in the last four decades because the experience is little different. Less than 40 years before 1970, however, it took not hours but 6 days to fly from England to India. That was a dramatically different experience.
The great change in air travel since 1970 is enormously increased volume. We do notice more crowding, less service and so on, but because the degradation has been stepwise we haven’t been provoked to think about the cumulative effect. I do notice it on this trip, first because when my flight from Boston arrives at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5, the shuttle, with no stops or traffic jams, takes fully 15 minutes to reach Terminal 4 for my flight to Doha.
When we approach Doha, it’s over scattered islands of apartment buildings propagated as if by winds over the featureless desert. The airport, already a vast expanse of runways and buildings, is soon to be replaced by an even greater complex. Even now it’s a 20 minute walk from where I disembark to the gate for Kathmandu. When we take off, it’s over a mass of shiny new skyscrapers. The entire spectacle is surreal.
All this vibrant life is possible only because there’s oil under the desert. I remember Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, whose statue was the only thing left of the empire it once surveyed. How will these colonies survive when the oil is gone? How long can we continue to fly?