Mr. Green Car: Entertainment and carbon dioxide

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

I have been flying airplanes since I was a Boy Scout seeking an Aviation merit badge—and an “airplane nut” long before that. I first flew a plane when 14 and soloed (permitted to fly alone) on my 16th birthday. A year later, I earned my Private Pilot license on my 17th birthday. No parental money was involved—I was a working teen. Each of these accomplishments was at the minimum age for flying powered airplanes. That was 40 years ago.

I say this only as a perspective to what will soon follow. I have gone to more air shows than I can possibly remember—but none of them was the inspiration for me to become a pilot. My life has always had aviation in it, and while a diminished component these days, it is still a very important part of my life.

With this in mind, I am going to point out the environmental costs of our air show and similar “events” in terms of their impact on the atmosphere.

Our local summer air show is but an example. The same analysis can be applied to any motorsport, professional sport, concert or other entertainment that causes people to travel distances to be amused, thrilled or educated. In the case of the air show, we’re probably looking at the worst-case example. Here we have an event that takes a year to prepare for. Preparation involves meetings of the planners. Leaders of various departments gather by driving from all over to sit down and discuss what needs to be done. Let’s say once a month, with more meetings as the event date draws near. Driving equals fuel consumed and carbon dioxide expelled into the atmosphere.

The week of the event/air show, there is a lot more driving around as the airport prepares for the arrival of its many guests; both those who arrive by ground and air. Vendors set up tents, pack in their equipment. With a day or two to go, airplanes start to arrive from all over the country. Some burn aviation gasoline, some aviation kerosene—all of them consume a lot of it, no small amount on the taxpayer’s dime. Air show participants are driven to their hotels and back each day. Air show staff spend a lot of time running around in vehicles getting things done.

And then comes the day of the show…

Car loads of people drive from all over the Midwest to wander the hot tarmac to inspect and watch airplanes while drinking their $3 bottles of water. Police and security will stand by all day—with engines running in their squad cars. During the air show, jets and aerobatic planes cavort around the sky, burning lots and lots of fuel in some cases. Massive amounts of carbon dioxide are being released into the atmosphere in the name of entertainment. While some military flying could be written off as, “well they’d be flying somewhere training anyway”—that could well be true, but air show flying has little resemblance to combat flying.

A favorite air show spectacle is the “wall of fire,” or simulated bomb drop. Here, buckets of fuel are detonated to cause a fireball and great clouds of sickly black smoke. It’s spectacular, all right—a spectacular amount of carbon dioxide and unburned hydrocarbons are released into our atmosphere. Personally, I find the wall of fire looks nothing like a bomb going off, is often mis-timed with the passage of the airplane, and is not patriotic in the least. Pretend war doesn’t honor veterans—saying “thank you” to them does.

Show’s over. All the planes fly off to the next venue or back to base. Spectators hop in their cars, crank up the A/C and head for home. Airport staff and vendors pack up and return to base. Eventually, someone will drive around and pick up all the “No Parking” signs.

We’re not quite done with driving yet. Time for the organizers to drive to a restaurant to celebrate and to meet on what went right or wrong with the event.

I hate to say this, but if we are ever going to take reducing carbon dioxide emissions and global climate change seriously, this sort of event and its kin will need to be scaled back, if not eliminated. Perhaps less frequent events would be a compromise solution. Do these things have to be EVERY year? Heck, I even question the environmental impact of a Sunday morning church service as people drive from all over to get their spirits renewed.

Think about all we drive. That “we” includes me. We drive a lot to do the things we are fond of doing, and those things not so fond of—like going to work. But drive we do. We are addicted to the habit of driving for everything. There is no hope of resolving our climate crisis while we stick to this lifestyle.

Can conference calls replace a drive to a meeting? Do you need a family reunion every year? Can you switch to the neighborhood church you could walk to? We need to start asking ourselves some hard questions. And one of those is: “Is entertainment more important than a healthy planet?”

From the June 15-21, 2011 issue

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