Travel now triggers a warning light thanks to lockdown
How many times a day did we used to find ourselves saying or texting, “Safe travels” to others, or having them sent to us as we secured our seat belts? Over the last month, that phrase — previously part of the everyday vocabulary of humanity — has exited our lexicon faster than “cassette tape” or “Y2K” ever did. “Stay safe” is what we say now, even when the journey being contemplated is one to the local supermarket.
We suddenly live in a radically shrunken world. If this is the end of an age, what an age it was. After decades of long-distance travel becoming cheaper, safer, more comfortable and more reliable, the coronavirus pandemic has suddenly dragged it back into the space it occupied for most of history: Forbidding and disorienting, filled with dangers both known and unknown.
For many centuries before the age of mass travel, crossing the globe had been the preserve of a class of professionals — such as sailors, traders and soldiers — or those fleeing war, epidemics or famine. It was associated with hardship and peril, with pain and separation (consider the millions of slaves sent from Africa to the Americas in chains). Only the very wealthy traveled for pleasure.
Then things changed, propelled by landmark transformations in technology, politics, work, and the social order. In 1950, travel statistics show, international airports around the world recorded about 25 million arrivals. In 2018, that number was 1.4 billion — a 56-fold increase. Over that time, the travel industry’s contribution to economic activity rose to about 10 percent of global gross domestic product.
We grew up in, or are the immediate descendants of, a world in human journeys. Prospects and destinies crisscrossed and combined on a scale never before seen in history. Travel became almost a right and a duty: Our path to a wider education, a broadening of our horizons after our formal education had ended. Suddenly, those who showed no interest in travel were considered incurious and out of sync with the time.
And then came the pandemic, which was carried rapidly around the world on the wings of the very same travel network that tied our globe together. After living through the greatest explosion of mass travel in history, suddenly the word “travel” pulses in our minds not with the familiar associations of pleasure, anticipation and escape, but with a red warning light. Whenever the lockdown ends, this extreme situation may abate. But things may never be the same again. For years to come, those who travel will likely set out with doubt and anxiety.
Forced to pay attention to the world around us, we find in it wonders to which we had been long oblivious.
At the level of jobs and livelihoods, or the supply side of the travel industry, the sudden shutdown of humanity’s freedom of movement is undoubtedly a crisis that will take years to resolve. But, at the personal level, is there a silver lining in this somewhere? Could a life without travel be a path to personal growth and development? When we dwell on the experience of the past month — one in which about a third of the world’s population has been in lockdown — it seems that it can.
One of the most wonderful things we took from travel was that it gave us new eyes for our daily lives; the world to which we had become accustomed. But, in a world where we spend ever-increasing amounts of time in motion — the commute to the office, the multi-leg work trip, the vacation to another continent — the sudden switch to stillness can, it turns out, have the same capacity to open the doors of perception.
Everyday experience, obscured and overwhelmed by a world of a million glittering distractions and possibilities, suddenly becomes magical again. Forced to pay attention to the world around us, we find in it wonders to which we had been long oblivious.
A simple walk down the street shimmers with pleasures, both sensory and philosophical. In the last month, some of my most wonderful times have come from staring at a squirrel lying on its stomach on a cool tree branch (to the point where I feel I am it), bees hovering over the stamens of the sparse cluster of flowers in my terrace garden, and the arrival of new leaves on a single branch of a tree outside my window. Reconnecting in a new way with one’s immediate environment is the most rewarding journey of all because it can reshape us at the very level at which we spend most of our time.
And, from the personal to the social, the microcosm to the macrocosm, our enforced break from our almost compulsive forms of work and travel has also been good for the world. For at least a decade now, we have known that our mode and scale of travel, even if thrilling personally and the source of endless economic growth, was unsustainable and was running down the planet’s resources. Yet, as long as change was voluntary, we could not bring ourselves to do it.
But it turns out that a mass lockdown is, environmentally speaking, also a form of mass action. The results are immediately visible in the form of vastly reduced carbon emissions, improved air quality, and cleaner rivers and ponds. In decades to come, we will come to view March and April 2020 as a point of reference for how to fight the battle against climate change. And perhaps this time will also become a reset point in our travel practices — not because of what the pandemic forced us to do, but because of what it taught us about what was possible. Stay safe.
- Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweets