Collapsing ice shelves and the death of cheap travel

I just made the mistake of reading The Long Emergency, by James Kunstler, cover to cover. This isn’t a book review, so I’ll just stick with the bare outline. If you’re even mildly concerned about peak oil (that is, the abrupt end of cheap fossil fuel energy), climate change, financial market meltdowns, and people’s inability to cope intelligently with mass crises, then don’t read this book. Just don’t. Kunstler’s reportage is deeply researched, rationally presented, scientifically sound, and well written — it’ll scare the pants off you.

For anyone who, as Thomas Swick has put it, “came of age under the weight of a backpack,” it’s also depressing as hell. Because in a post-cheap oil future, there won’t be any bargain tickets to Europe, or flying back from South America when you’re tired of busing it.

The news this week (oddly overlooked in headline reports) that Antarctica’s Wilkins ice shelf is set to collapse any day or week brings home some of the dire and sad situations we face as travelers. First, as I’ve spoken about before, the loss of the world’s icy regions, will have a detrimental impact on the quality and depth of travel writing and experiences. Second, the Wilkins shelf collapse won’t raise sea levels, but it throws the gates wide open to glaciers that most certainly will. If you believe any of the climate change predictions, we could soon have urgent issues close to home that will keep us occupied and our weighty backpacks stored away.

But hell, I’m an optimist. Assuming Kunstler’s predictions don’t all come to pass (like the breakdown of the US government), even if and when travel becomes too expensive to be democratic, both it and travel writing will become even more important. It’s at times of crisis and shrinking imaginations that we most need to widen our worldview. Just don’t read that book.

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