The day I found myself carsharing from Brescia, Italy, to Berlin, Germany; jam-packed in the backseat of a Honda Civic for 12 consecutive hours, slotted in-between an Indian guy with a bad case of halitosis and a Quasimodo-like father of two fleeing the economically disintegrated Italy, for a moment I questioned the commitment I made almost a year earlier.
I quickly moved on from those sinful thoughts pondering whether the hump of my fellow traveller was closer to Victor Hugo’s vision or to Igor’s bulge. My “highly conceptual” thinking was repeatedly interrupted by the somehow tragicomic romance happening in the front-seats between Sir Serafino, DJ from Brazil recently relocated to Berlin and his lovely Miss, Anita from Bulgaria. They shouted at each other for the whole duration of the trip, “slow down! The limit is 120km/h”, “It’s freezing in here, turn off that bloody air conditioning!”, “Oh oh oh!! Did you not see that car coming?” and systematically each time the driver’s mental endurance limit was smashed by the other, he/she would stop the car on the side of the highway shouting, “Now you drive! I’m sick of all this!” Same story the other way round. This ritual happened three times each side.
The reason why it was “fucking freezing” in that car is because Sir Serafino suffered from palmoplantar hyperhidrosis, which basically means he was sweating a hell of a lot from his hands. The solution he devised was to set the car’s temperature to 12 °C with air conditioning at full power. To increase the skin’s surface hit by the fresh flow of air he would drive holding the steering wheel only with his thumbs and indexes, projecting the rest of his fingers outwards to reach as much air as possible (try to picture it!).
Quasimodo, giggles at me with only one eye looking my way.
I smile back trying to avoid the life threatening indian breath between us.
This truly Bukowskian car ride experience was probably the pinnacle of my year without flying.
On September the 23rd, 2013 I landed at Stansted airport on the 10.30pm Ryanair flight from Pisa to London. A safe flight with no major inconvenience. However, that is to date the last flight I took. On that night I decided to challenge one of my most common activities, flying.
A year that saw me travelling everywhere in Europe finding alternative ways to the commonly accepted grievance of Ryanair flights, intrusive airport security searches or the politely infamous UK Border Agency team. I travelled by bus, train, car and ferry to 12 different countries, 13 cities, collecting more than 12 000 km and saving an estimated total of 1.67 Tons of CO2.
To my and all my mates’ surprise, originally asking how I was going to survive such a challenge, I am still alive, I managed to graduate with a first, I kept my job as a design critic for Daily Inspiration, I found new exciting jobs, I maintained most of my friendships in a rather healthy status, I also kept in contact with my family and apparently my girlfriend still loves me- even though it must be a rather agonising experience to look at me after a 22 hour long bus ride from Berlin to London.
I went through snow storms, heat waves, floods, hailstorms, a four in the morning fist fight, understanding what a sardine might feel like, torrential rains, beautiful dawns, massive headaches, car breakdowns as well as a couple of sleepless nights.
There has been a number of truly amazing people that have done something similar before me, possibly to a much greater extent.
Probably the most celebrated was Tiziano Terziani, with his best known book, A Fortune-Teller Told Me. In this book Terzani describes his travels across Asia by land and sea following the cautious advice of a fortune teller in Hong Kong that he must avoid airplanes for the whole year of 1993. He decided to take on the challenge, not because he necessarily believed the prediction but rather because he saw incredible potentials in the unconventional experience. The result is a bestseller uniquely describing the Asian lifestyle, facilitated by the exceptional conditions not flying represents.
A more contemporary story is the one of Graham Hughes, a 2012 Guinness World Record that visited every possible country on earth without taking one single plane. Quite an achievement.
Niall Doherty, is an Irish web developer that has been travelling around the globe for the past 2.5 years in a mission to circumnavigate the world without flying. He chose to embark on this no-fly adventure because he figured “it would be a more interesting/challenging/adventurous way to travel”. As if this was not cool enough, Doherty also doesn’t have to pay any taxes given that he is not living in a country for long enough to be considered a resident.
Or again, Michael Hodson that took off in December of 2008 to circle the planet with no reservations and without leaving the ground. He succeeded sixteen months later, while being a foreign correspondent for different newspapers.
The concepts and means behind my challenge and these incredible peoples’ adventures are very similar, however the driving reasons differ to an extent.
I’m a designer.
I’m used to responding to briefs in fresh and creative ways. Overcoming limits and solving problems is a daily exercise that fills my life with excitement and joy. On the other hand, contemporary western lifestyle offers no limits, nearly no regulations or restrictions to our wants. Life is easy, and consequentially boredom easily creeps in. The current western lifestyle also comes at a cost, none of us like to talk about it but it is a reality. The cost my project is provocatively trying to address is the environmental impact of our lives. I try to use design as a form of creative critique to pose questions about an aspect of our current society that I believe needs consideration. Not falling back on moralistic judgements or paternalistic rhetoric is very difficult when dealing with said issues, so excuse me in advance if this might come through while reading, it is not what I originally intend.
By 2050 we are supposedly meant to reduce our emissions by 90%.
Does anyone know how? Is there a plan? Are we hoping in some sort of green Che Guevara? Or do we still hope in democratically elected pirate parties to save our asses? Or maybe some next level-flashy-smart, Silicon Valley designed but obviously Chinese made CO2 converter kind of technology? Or even better waiting for some UFO space ship to come and rescue us?
My challenge is mainly a sociological, political, economic and primarily cultural experiment to find out what it takes to reduce our impact as individuals. Is it even possible to meet certain figures? Can a 26 year old Berlin/London based designer, with mamma in Italy, girlfriend in London and a job as a design critic that continuously requires him to travel around Europe to go without the commonly accepted commodity that aviation represents?
In this radical social experiment I am playing the lab Guinea Pig role, there to be tested against future scenarios, to explore alternatives, to establish a critical/analytical context for discussion and debate, and to possibly collect useful bits of information for the future. Whee, Whee!
Over the past 365 days I had many discussions with people arguing that flying in itself is “not too bad in the end.” Different scientific research projects demonstrate how the impact of aviation is worse than previously thought. Figures place aviation’s total pollution at 13-15 % of the entire emissions. Heathrow by itself is apparently polluting as much as Sweden. This commodity, which we daily take for granted, can be 5 to 10 times as polluting as a train journey and 20 time as polluting as a shared bus or car.
Analysing my western lifestyle I rather quickly realised the one activity to question, if I was to cut my own impact on resources and the climate, was obviously flying.
I could buy local, organic or biodynamic greenwash/brainwash, always use public transports, reduce meat consumption, buy dangerous recycled toilet paper, save water every flush, buy energy efficient lightbulbs (beautiful infographics) that basically transform your living room into a hospital reception or even naively install a solar panel in London’s dull, cloudy weather.
I could do all this, and I’ve done it, but if I was gonna take just one single airplane to go and see mamma, or to cover some fancy design conferences, or enjoy my next deserved holiday I would simply render all my efforts useless, polluting three or four times as much as I could possibly save in a whole year.
Aviation is the single, most polluting activity a single person can engage in- obviously, unless you are oil-lover George Bush, fracking enthusiast British Prime minister David Cameron, Europe’s most feared Vladimir Putin or my dearest compatriot Sir Silvio Berlusconi.
If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
In order to better interpret the impact of my challenge and put it into perspective I tried to calculate the environmental impact, or no-impact, of my year worth of travelling.
Using different online tools I calculated the total CO2 that has not been emitted thanks to my avoidance of aviation. I would like to stress how these figures only represent an estimate, they are by no means exact or precise- they need to be taken for what they are, an approximation. There are so many variables influencing the total CO2 production that it would be nearly impossible to take all of them into account- number of passengers, engine’s type, tyre’s conditions, car/plane model, fuel used, environmental conditions (wind, rain, snow etc) and many more.
The estimate says that 1.67 tons of CO2 has not been introduced into the atmosphere due to my radical challenge. I don’t even know how to visualise tons of a gas or make concrete sense of those figures in an accessible manner but it still seems like a great reward for an environmental freak like me.
A constant reward of this experience has been the fascinating people I met all throughout. Robert Levine once said, “sociability suffers at speed”. My project is the tangible translation of this concept, or rather the opposite of it. With time on your side it is much easier to communicate, debate and share information, knowledge or feelings.
Having to spend several hours in a limited space with strangers allows time and space for discussions. Topics are the most diverse and interesting depending on the crew. An eclectic spectrum encompassing travel, design, money, football, dance, music, sailing, society, culture, sex, sailing, food, education, love, drugs, alcoholism, farming, raves, religion, carsharing privatisation, environmentalism, genetically modified food, girls, cultural stereotypes and of course the ever present weather chats. Most of these people have a lot to say as well as many life experiences to share, and you can be sure there is always something to take home with you! The absence of an internet connection is also a key catalyst for social exchange in this particular instance.
Travellers are the most disparate, rare people: random folks, mad Brazilians, skippers on wheels, salsa dancers, Oxford philosophy teachers, acrobats, professional plane photographers (yes, this can be a job!), over-talkative german mothers, illegal workers, broke students, Romanian builders, unemployed fathers, doctors, walking experts, rich kids, boring motherfuckers as well as the inevitable Polish workforce.
The experiences I collected throughout the year have been the most diverse. Highly dictated by the context, the social aspect of the project has brought this experience to a whole new level, enriching me on many different levels. The project has evolved into an anthropological research study of a distinctive portion of society that enables new perspectives on culture, economy, and the homos-consumericus.
sociability suffers at speed Robert Levine
Praha, August 2014. I’m carsharing again to go and cover Dimensions Festival.
Front seat is Katrina, sixty something German driver, next to her is Sabrina, Chinese girl travelling around Europe, in the back is me and two other cool German guys.
We arrive in Prague’s centre, instagram serotonins, obviously Sabrina gets her shiny camera out to take the ever-present Chinese picture. But Katrina knew an even better spot a few meters ahead of us and all of a sudden furiously shouts, “No, no, don’t take the picture! Wait!”. The shocked Sabrina politely agrees and holds on her natural instinct. I’m already secretly laughing in the back. Stereotype orgasms, German effectiveness against Chinese photograph-everything-you-can-as-much-as-you-possibly-can. Then as we approach the supposedly better location (we could argue about it), Katrina points out with her arm, “there, now you can take the picture”, Sabrina obeys. As Katrina was pointing out, her whole body leaned right, including her left hand holding the steering wheel. The car smoothly drifted right against the pavement. We hit the pavement at some 25-30 km/h, nothing serious but I can’t help to burst out in a massive laugh. Car accident because of the infamous Chinese picture? Priceless.
On my way back from Transmediale back in february, I took an overnight bus from Berlin to London. I sat right in the back seats (after a while of travelling on buses you realise that there is only one way you’re going to sleep, and that is back seats!). A seventy-something man sits next to me. I’m like, damn! With all the free seats? Here? Anyways, we start talking and it turns out he is an Oxford philosophy teacher. We start an endless discussion on every possible topic. This invaluable experience carried on all throughout the night until 5AM to the great distress of the rest of the passengers. I eventually passed out even though I couldn’t stretch my legs. I felt good. Then, I wake up the morning after and the man is gone! No stops in between, but he has vanished. I didn’t even know his name, too much to talk about. And just in case you are now wondering- no, I did not smoke heaps of pots and dream the guy up!
In May, I was travelling to cover TypoBerlin with my dear friend Freddy (yes I did manage to convince him to come carsharing with me from London to Berlin!). The driver this time is Frank, now Franky! A lovely German travelling Europe to walk the most incredible routes. A truly nice person. In Belgium we had to pick up two more people. To cut a really long story short once we reached Brema, the picked-up guys’ final destination, they didn’t want to pay Franky. Moreover, as Franky urged them to vacate the car the small-motherfucker-arrogant-cheeky-bastard became incredibly aggressive and in a blink of an eye starts a fist fight with Franky.
Bear in mind is 4AM, me and Freddy just woke up, to say the least we’re not very responsive, we quickly jump out and take Franky’s defence, we immobilise the small bastard on the floor. We throw his stuff out of the car, Franky restarts the engine and we go. I can’t believe what just happened. I look at Freddy, I smile with a mix of surreal feelings, checked on Franky’s condition (he is bleeding) and tapping Freddy’s shoulder, “I told you it was gonna be memorable”.
There are many more stories but this article is becoming gigantic.
I told you it was gonna be memorable
At the beginning of the project the prospect of an 18 hour journey was coming with a rather daunting feeling. It is physically testing, and for as many books or offline work you can pack with you, there are going to be times when you are bored, want to stretch or just be at the final destination. However, as I got deeper into the challenge my relationship to time and speed completely changed.
The project led me to a wonderful change of pace in my life. Despite the perpetual expansion of time-saving travel, many of us feel more pressured by the lack of time.
Paradoxically, the more the speed the less the time.
I have literally experienced this in first person, by taking more time to get anywhere I actually have more time. My timeframe is now days, not minutes. One, two or three hours does not make a difference to me anymore, I’m more relaxed with no stress about seconds, hence I have more time. If I get to Barcelona at 8pm instead of 4pm because of a traffic jam in Montpellier, it’s ok. If it takes 22 instead of 18 hours to get to Berlin it’s not such a big deal in the bigger picture. This beautiful discovery is interestingly changing the way I go about life.
Relationships with friends, family, colleagues and employers have also changed quite drastically. I will not be there in an hour dear stressed-out boss, I will be there in 2 days! Mamma, I will see you every 6 months instead of every 4 weeks but this time for longer at a time, forget short week-end teasers that always leave us both with a bitter feeling. Bear in mind, this approach does not mean I will be late, it just means I will be there in 2 days. As long as you discuss the conditions in advance you will never be late. So far, no one has ever lamented against my, “I’ll be there in two days” kind of answer.
The socially accepted rhetoric of speed proposed to us is a rather false one, I believe.
Faster is not equal to better. Unique Italian designer recently passed away in New York, Massimo Vignelli, once intelligently said, “Good things takes time”.
Time has to be re-appropriated in a society that tends to glorify speed and efficiency to the extreme. Everything goes faster but really, do we have more time?
I leave the answer to you, to yourself.
Time has to be re-appropriated in a society that tends to glorify speed and efficiency to the extreme. Everything goes faster but really, do we have more time?
What primarily began as a fundamental question about sustainable living has, by the end, mutated into a greater research project exploring ideas of society, culture, economy, design, travel, time, the nature of change and the environment that will hopefully serve as catalyst for public debate. The ultimate goal of the project is to pose questions, offer new perspectives, spark debate, encourage thought, provoke action, raise awareness, expose assumptions, and ultimately inspire.
Moving beyond clichés like “the journey is more important than the destination”, which are outdated and no longer relevant in our 24/7 society I would like to emphasise how, thanks to this project travelling itself is again lots of fun, and a source of serendipity, excitement, creativity, exchange, learning and happiness for me. The experiences collected during the past 12 months have enriched me beyond any previous expectations!
A year in, and every time I approach a new journey I’m now thrilled!
Thrilled by what kind of adventure awaits me, no time anymore to worry about my luggage size or to print my boarding pass to avoid massive rip offs. An exuberant energy is now welcoming the journeys ahead, pure excitement for the journey in itself.
How will I get to the final destination? What kind of interesting character will be sharing the journey with me? What is going to happen? Another fist fight? What kind of stories will I listen to? How long will it take? What kind of new exotic profession will I discover? What new exciting place will I hear of?
As I previously mentioned not everything have been nice and easy, it has also been extremely tiring and tough with extremely long south-america-like journeys, car breakdowns, cold at times, no internet connection most of the time, a few nasty people, heavy luggage to carry around as well as eccentric Brazilians! However, I am arguing that this is part of the deal if you are to experience an exciting journey, the alternative is a numbing Ryanair experience where you’ll hardly speak to anybody, learn anything or feel little more than 80 £ on two wings polluting as much as fracking lover Canada.
Speed is worshipped uncritically as an engine of investment and innovation, however through this project I am proposing new alternatives to our current relationship with time. Repossess your time, be unavailable, disconnected, take 2 days to get from London to Paris, question efficiency, revisit capitalistic values, challenge comfort, forget silly pressures and meaningless stress. Time is relative, is up to you to make it work for yourself!
Overall, during this whole year without flying the only event I had to renounce was a Turkish wedding in Ankara with my girlfriend, everything else I wanted to do I’ve been able to do. This is to reiterate how a more sustainable life doesn’t necessarily have to mean scratchy toilet paper or 53 second tepid showers, it can also be the trigger for an improved and enhanced life experience.
I am not naive enough to think that my action is changing anything in the bigger picture. What I saved in CO2 is a fraction, of a fraction of an infinitesimal portion of what is emitted yearly. And even if everyone reading this article was to start a similar action, it would still be trivial in the greater picture. However, I believe the importance of this project resides in the refusal of the perpetual acceptance of the current western lifestyle. Challenging status quo and social norms is the first step towards change.
Maybe, as acclaimed philosopher Slavoj Zizek often points out, I’m just a traumatised post-consumer individual seeking for redemption. Or even worse I’m the contemporary version of what a bishop could have been in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, after my year long social experiment I’m happier, I feel slightly less shit about myself and I’ve gathered a series of incomparable life experiences to share.
Will I go back to fly?
Maybe, but not for now…
PS: If you’ve been awesome enough to read all the way till here I’d be happy to hear from you. Concerns, criticism, support, hate or love I’ll be happy to know how you feel about the topic under discussion. You can send me an email at [email protected] or comment below.
Thanks for reading.
Proofing by: Maxwell Jeffery