I recently came across a handful of posts I wrote for ecoTheater that never made it into cyberspace. For some of them it was clear why I had neglected to post them, but others stood out as better than some of the stuff I do post! What follows is something I wrote for ecoTheater last year, probably in the early Summer. I did some editing, and added some info to it (for instance the email interview with Lindsay Jones was conducted on August 22-23, 2008), but the general gist is from the original writing…
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Aside from being the title of one of my favorite childhood movies (the scene on the highway when Steve Martin falls asleep and John Candy is driving still makes me laugh), it seemed an appropriate header for my thoughts today. In fact, it’s perfect.
Through my current work and research here on ecoTheater, sometimes I am approached about the possibility of conducting workshops on sustainable theater for organizations and communities. I couldn’t be more flattered — or thrilled. But the question of travel always comes up because I have been struggling in recent times with how I am to get around the country (or the world) if I follow through with my desire to live more sustainably, thus shunning the airline industry, and its polluting ways.
Years ago, when I still lived on the west coast, in the Pacific Northwest, I regularly used Amtrak to travel up and down the coast. I loved it. It was slow, but I enjoyed the slowness, and I think that we could all use a bit more slowness in our lives.
So, recently I decided to look into the difference between auto, air, and rail travel from the perspective of carbon footprints, and greenhouse offsetting via NativeEnergy, a carbon offset program that has received high marks from critics. I was not surprised to learn that rail travel was the least polluting mode of transport, but was surprised that there appeared to be such a slight difference.
For my trip, the numbers worked out like this:
Auto: 1.95 tons of CO2
Air: 1.387 tons of CO2
Rail: 1.144 tons of CO2
That means a difference between air and rail of only 0.243 metric tons. Doesn’t sound like much, right? The equivalent of a few barrels of oil, which in today’s numbers, where we regularly read about millions of tons of CO2 and billions of barrels of oil, it seems insignificant in the extreme. In fact, it seems impossible. It seems wrong. When I contacted NativeEnergy about the seemingly too slight difference, I received a very thoughtful response, which I quote in part:
“According to our calculator, which uses Google Maps to calculate distances, the miles traveled by car was 1,993.5 and since roads tend to be more windy than either train tracks or distance as the crow flies, the highest emissions for cars makes sense. The calculator estimates 1,733.48 miles for both train and flights, which can’t be exactly true.
“The factors other than distance that go into calculating emissions are type of fuel use – and jet fuel used by planes emits more CO2 than diesel fuel used inAmtrak trains – and speed. Needless to say the train is just traveling for a much longer time than a plane since it’s going slower.
“In the end, trains are still the least polluting of the three, and supporting rail transportation has the added benefit of showing support for railway improvement. Improvement of the rail infrastructure will allow there to be faster trains, which in turn will be more competitive with flights, and this will give people a viable alternative to flying.”
So, there you have it. It should be pointed out that the folks at NativeEnergy also emphasized that the best they can do is estimate. Which explains how the mileage for a flight is equivalent to the mileage for a trip on the rails in their system.
Of course, in the end, the train still wins. But unfortunately, what it comes down to for most folks is speed. How fast am I gonna get there? I need to be there tomorrow morning! Perhaps it’s just about logistics, or economics. That is, we can’t afford to take two days to travel on a train when we could take a four hour flight instead, because we have jobs to hold down, and families to attend to.
I think this is particularly relevant for what I’ll call the “regional theater circuit,” supporting as it does a bevy of designers, directors, and actors that routinely travel from afar (New York, L.A., etc.) to work in Houston, Portland, Seattle, Milwaukee, and all points between. In my book, Careers in Technical Theater, one such designer (a great guy, and great sound designer named Lindsay Jones) confesses that he designed about 30 productions in 2005 — many of them far away from his primary home in Los Angeles — meaning thousands and thousands of airline miles, and many metric tons of CO2.
For Jones, taking the train is not an option. “I fly constantly to gigs,” he told ecoTheater recently via email. “I usually fly about 150,000 – 200,000 miles a year.”
“I don’t think I’d be able to continue my career as a freelance theatrical designer if I just worked in Los Angeles,” Jones wrote.
But what about the unsustainable nature of air travel? What about focusing on localizing and supporting the theater in L.A. — or wherever theater artists may live?
“There are hundreds of theatre companies in Los Angeles, that’s not the problem,” Jones responded. “It’s that quite a few of them do not pay anything close to a living wage, and have very primitive working conditions from a technical standpoint.” he continued. “To a lot of people in L.A. theatre is just something you do until you get a job in TV.”
Listen, I think Lindsay is great — he’s a great designer, and a great guy that I’ve had the privelige of watching work a few times (I say watching because I was just a stagehand-type on those shows) — but our email over this traveling point has brought an important debate to the fore: I say, localize theater, thereby reducing the amount of unsustainable travel and resource transport that needs to take place, while increasing theater artist’s obligation to their community and creating a more truly regional theater for all. Lindsay says, no, No, NO: I cannot make a living as a theatrical sound designer by staying in one place.
Jones writes —
“I suffer no illusions that if these communities did have someone locally who could contribute in the way that I do, they would hire those people every time and I would never work in those places again. There are a bunch of theatres in this country that actually have staff positions for my job for this exact reason. They save themselves money, and I’m sure it’s easier to know exactly what they’re gonna get from this person on their staff than some person who’s coming in from out of town.
So, if they don’t have those people on their staff, then they’re hiring me for one of two reasons:
1. They don’t have anyone locally who can do it. Which happens.
Or more likely, and what I hope is the reason is:
2. I have an unique artistic perspective, which, combined with my technical expertise and years of professional experience, can enhance the overall audience experience in ways that are unusual and exciting.
Now, before you think to yourself “Gee, that Lindsay Jones sure does think highly of himself”, let me just say that, to me, it’s really not about that. To me, your position is the same as saying “Why would I go see a concert by some band from England when I can watch my friend play guitar right here in my house?” The answer is sure, you could watch your friend, and you’d have a great time. But you instead might go to see the band from England, because they’re coming from a completely different perspective and, as a result, it’s a totally different experience.”
The man has a point, doesn’t he? Funny thing is, I have thought about that when I have paid good money to see a musical performance by someone who has traveled from some far off place. Is it possible to localize everything? Well, yes, it is in theory — but perhaps it’s not realistic. BUT, what I’m talking about is not a touring company — I’m talking about a local, supposedly regional company, based in a certain physical place, and thereby connected to a regional community of some sort. Jones’ analogy is therefore a bit weak, as it seems to apply more to Broadway tours, than a company grounded in locality — I mean, the staff is local, the audience is local, the performance space is local.
To give Jones the last word…
“I have a great deal of respect for your position of only using local artists and think that you should definitely do it. You may find things in that experience that you would never find by working with someone from out of town. And you’ve really made me think about how my work lifestyle is not the most eco-friendly, and I probably should look at ways to address this. But, you know, I worked really really hard to get to this point in my career. I still work really hard. I’m married, I’ve got two kids, and I gotta make a living. Right now, traveling is how I do it. It’s this or knocking off liquor stores.”