What you learn in 25-hour Days on a Train
Green Issues are about People
It was September 2011, and I was taking the journey of a lifetime. This journey was inspired by a desire to see the world and its people and a wish to travel in an environmentally sustainable manner. As green issues are about people I felt that the two aims linked nicely. I was taking the train back to Europe from my last teaching job in Hong Kong. I rode a bicycle around Beijing and a train took me from Mongolia into Russia a few days later. I wondered around the beautiful wooden mansions of Irkutsk. My destination was Kyiv via Moscow by train.
Look at the people in the then peaceful streets of Kyiv in the background of the photo for this post. If your concern is primarily for them right now, I’d say you are on the right track. If you are thinking only about the comparative climate impacts of the bicycle and the car in the foreground, it might be time to step out of your current thinking.
The Longest Day
That evening I boarded the train to Moscow, some 5000 kilometres away. The days were broken up by three things. These were the colourful villages that would appear out of the forests as we trundled across Siberia. Second, I would turn my watch back one hour each morning as we crossed a time zone, making my 24-hour day on the train a 25-hour day. Above all, there were the people I met. They included the workers playing cards who looked up and smiled as I walked to the Samovar. There was the engineer who shared the cabin with me for a couple of days. He said little and was engrossed in his Kindle, but I felt comfortable in his presence. There was the Muslim Russian from Kazan who proudly showed me his Crescent tattoo as I sipped my beer. There was the woman who checked I had enough in the station as the MiG fighter jets growled overhead, much as the NATO jets do in my native Wales.
Night Train from Moscow to Kyiv
After so long on a train, it was great to walk around Moscow for a day. That night, I boarded the train to Ukraine. The next morning, I woke up to the familiar sight of Kyiv. Earlier that year, I’d been there on a train from Bulgaria. I remember being taken to lunch by a journalist I’d met on the train. I remember the cyclist who helped me fix the puncture I got riding from the train station to the centre. I also remember the Ukrainian friends of my brother he’d made while teaching English in Odesa.
Ten Years Later
Now I feel grief and disbelief at what is happening since Putin has let loose war on Ukraine. It is more the memory of the people that I met on both sides of the divide on my travels, and my concern for their well-being, that pains me as the serious global consequences of all this.
What Hope is There?
These are dark days and there seems little hope. If, however, there are any pinpricks of light, mine would include the following. First, there are the demonstrations by Russian people against this war. Back when I was in Russia, I remember a strong environmental protest undercurrent in Irkutsk against the pollution of the crystal waters of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest body of freshwater, by industry. If you are Russian and protesting against this war, I have the deepest admiration, especially given the harsh treatment you potentially face for your courage. A second thing is that this onslaught is underwritten by the petrodollars. I highly recommend this article by Bill McKibben This is how we defeat Putin and other petrostate autocrats. It’s a compelling argument on how a transition to green energy takes away the fuel of such wars while also overcoming the climate crisis. He makes a powerful analogy of the ridiculousness of someone driving a tank across Europe while having to stop every time he needs to smash a solar panel with a hammer.
2% for 1.5 degrees
I am a great fan of the podcast Outrage + Optimism. In a recent episode, the philosopher and thinker Yuvar Noah Hariri describes his campaign 2% for 1.5 degrees. Recorded just before the invasion of Ukraine, he laments the fact that such wars are wrong on so many levels, and one of these is that this takes us away from the slow-burning climate crisis at a point when it needs our full attention. He makes an incredible call to action which is that we can avoid the worst impacts of the climate emergency by keeping to 1.5 degrees of warming at a cost of less than 2% of world GDP. That might sound a lot, but when you compare it to the 15% of world GDP spent in 2020 on getting through COVID, or the 2% of GDP spent on the world’s collective military, it’s clear that we can manage it.
A Reminder that green issues are about People
When I boarded that train out of Hong Kong those years ago, my head was full of measurements of carbon footprints of different types of transport, and the term environmentalist was central to my identity. Now, as I look for a picture to go with this post from that trip, I hope my views are less set within certain disciplines. Look at the people in the then peaceful streets of Kyiv in the background of the photo for this post. If your concern is primarily for them right now, I’d say you are on the right track. If you are thinking only about the comparative climate impacts of the bicycle and the car in the foreground, it might be time to step out of your current thinking.
A Lesson Plan
After this journey, I created this lesson plan about sustainable travel. I’ve had great experiences using it over the years since. Green issues are about people, so I encourage you to use this lesson, and if you do, spend a little more time talking about the cultural enrichment from meeting people on an overland journey and avoid single-mindedly focussing on the comparative carbon emissions of train vs. plane.
Travel by Train Lesson Plan https://eltsustainable.org/2012/03/15/green-travel-language-lesson/
How do you keep the focus on people when you raise green issues in class? If you have any ideas, share them in the comments or via the contact page!