Fear of Flying

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano hasn’t given up disrupting north Atlantic air travel this summer, but what if it’s the harbinger of something bigger?

The global city is predicated on face to face communication being essential to major business deals. But the global city model, originally outlined by my colleague Saskia Sassen, is almost twenty years old. Trying booting up your Powerbook 100 to read this blog post. In this post I’d like to speculate on the impact of the volcano, technology, and global warming on the global city.  

First, let’s talk global warming and green hype. During the last decade, friendly but misguided green advocates have advocated pedestrian-oriented cities as environmentally-sound alternatives to the suburbs. But looking at America (and many countries in Europe aren’t all that different from this), most cities have seen sustained and uninterrupted declines in the last half century. The starring exceptions are the global city of various scales: New York, Chicago, Boston, LA, San Francisco and so on. For the most part, these cities have seen a remarkable renaissance as centers of business and creative activity. The urbanites who live here live in the global city, thinking nothing of jetting from London to Shanghai and alighting in San Francisco. Often, these individuals literally inhabit the global city and owning pied-à-tierres on multiple continents is increasingly as common among the super-wealthy as owning an estate is. At home, the "creative class" practices localism religiously, probably out enjoying home-smoked bacon cupcakes and carbon-neutral triple-pulled ristrettos right now.  

But the idea that this kind of life—which is as predicated on consumption as existence in deepest suburbia—is environmentally sound is laughable. Apart from the manic rate of conspicuous consumption in the global city, flying one mile on an airplane produces almost  as much CO2 as driving that same mile by oneself in an automobile (other side effects, including polluting in the very thin atmosphere high-up may be much worse). Moreover, if an average driver in the United States drives some 12,000 miles a year, that’s half of what you need to get into a frequent flyer club.

I think by now you get the picture: the high-flyer of the global city is much worse for the environment than the suburbanite. So much for sustainable living. 

Now back to the volcano. The impact it’s had on transatlantic travel has been massive as planes continue to be grounded in one European country or another multiple times a week. Pollution-wise, the amount of CO2 it released is significantly less than the amount of CO2 that would have been produced by the Airbuses and Boeings that happened not to fly on those days (obviously, the volcano also released other pollutants, many of which are quite toxic to life). Business travel had already dropped as a result of the recession. The volcano is a wake-up call. If my business relied on frequent international travel for face-to-face meetings, I’d begin asking myself how sustainable this is from an economic standpoint and how vulnerable my business was to such disruptions.   

There’s more to the story. As I stated earlier, we’re far from the day of the Powerbook 100, which couldn’t even browse the Web. 70% of stock market trades now take place between computers at millisecond-level speeds. I have a hunch that the face-to-face financial deals that used to drive the global financial markets are becoming less important economically. 

Let’s put this all together then. A perfect storm is emerging. Far from the idea that the suburbs will collapse in Richard Florida’s great reset, it is likely the global city that collapses, replaced by ubiquitous high-speed telecommunications and undone by changing climatological conditions, not to mention peak oil.

Make no mistake, I’m not offering up a new utopia of any sort here. What I’m predicting is an end to network culture as we know it and it won’t be pretty. The coming collapse of the global city will be slow and brutal, accompanied by the stationary state that Gopal Balakrishnan described last year.

I don’t see many easy solutions out there. Ironically, the best bet is probably the very scare-word the American right loves to deploy: socialism. Now it’s unlikely to take hold in the US, at least not for a generation or two but some countries will probably get the drift and head in that direction. What gets us out of this morass and what form of global spatial organization replaces the global city is unclear. Still, the late, great global city was far from equitable or sustainable. We can hardly lament its passing.  

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