The founder of bookfinder.com and his wife travel across the world for a year without flying to fight climate change
When tech-geek Anirvan Chatterjee and his wife Barnali Ghosh discovered their carbon footprint was more than that of 90 per cent of Americans they were shocked. “We dug deeper and found the culprit: air travel,” says Chatterjee, a University of California Berkley graduate and founder of bookfinder.com. The US-based online resource for finding rare and out-of-print books is considered one of the two best book sites online, alongside Amazon.com.
The Bengali couple based in California felt their flight travels were undoing every other green effort they made, like living car-free: one flight from San Francisco to Mumbai generates carbon-dioxide emissions equivalent to that of driving a car for 1,095 consecutive days. After much hemming and hawing over the climate change issue the two realised that global warming is still a numbers game. “Since we wouldn’t do faulty accounting at work, we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it at home. If we needed to reduce carbon emissions by 90 per cent by 2050, we couldn’t exclude the aviation sector because 4.9 per cent of human impact on the climate comes from planes,” says Chatterjee.
While most would have been happy with paying lip service to climate justice, driven by their passion for the issue, the duo decided to challenge themselves and undertook a year-long experimental journey around the planet sans aeroplanes.
In December 2009, Chatterjee left his job as the CEO of bookfinder.com (which he’d sold to a subsidiary of Amazon.com, Abebooks) and Ghosh took a year’s leave from her work as a landscape architect to backpack across the world: They called it the “Year of No Flying”.
The couple travelled across 60 cities in 14 countries aboard cargo ships, ferries, trains and buses. Avoiding air travel, at first, seemed difficult. However, they were soon happily surprised at how easy it was to get around the world without flying. All it took was following the local modes of transport — the Trans-Siberian railway across Russia, bullet trains in Tokyo, water taxis in Venice, ferries in Istanbul, luxury buses in Turkey and “not-so-luxurious buses in the US”. “About 95 per cent of humanity doesn’t fly and yet they somehow manage to get around just fine,” says Chatterjee. And even though they weren’t used to crossing borders by land before, it quickly became a routine. “Have passports and visas ready, smile at the security guards, and hunt for an ATM as soon as they let you through,” says Ghosh. The two say they particularly enjoyed crossing the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean by cargo ships, and taking the Trans-Siberian Railway across China, Mongolia and Russia.
The journey, however, was not just about sight-seeing. Both Ghosh and Chatterjee considered climate change a critical threat and not an obscure scientific issue; they met climate activists, too, to explore solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.
Whether in Dhaka or London, Berlin or Saigon, the duo heard a common demand that governments pay attention to peer-reviewed science, as they work towards a deal that’s fair, ambitious and binding. “Most young people across the globe are willing to face short-term economic pain if it means averting the possibility of living in a world where India will face greater food crisis, Bangladesh rising sea levels and Pakistan even bigger floods,” says Ghosh.
Though Ghosh and Chatterjee were able to travel from the US to Japan in a container ship and across East and Southeast Asia without flying, once they reached Thailand “love miles” got the best of them. The term coined by British environmentalist George Monbiot is used for the dirty aviation miles people fly across the world for loved-ones. The political situation in Myanmar, security concerns at Indian ports and the winter weather in the Himalayas made it all but impossible for them to get to India from Thailand. “We ultimately decided to break our vow and take a flight to India so we could see our family. In the whole year we took two flights from Bangkok to Kolkata, and then back from Bangalore to Beijing,” says Ghosh.
Travelling westwards around the world, the two ultimately made it from the US to China to Thailand, and then from China to Europe and all the way back to the US via the Atlantic, exactly in a year. Both are back in San Francisco now. Chatterjee is working in the University of California, San Francisco as a technology consultant developing social-networking tools for bio-medical researchers. The duo’s year of no flying has made them optimistic of a future transportation system that relies less on aviation, if not completely free of it.
“The jet age isn’t sexy anymore. There’s no prestige in long-drives to and from the airport, having security screeners paw through your belongings and being packed into uncomfortable metal tubes hurtling through the sky,” says Chatterjee. The two, in fact, feel corporations can lead the way by leapfrogging past the polluting jet age and investing in videoconferencing.
Indians, Chatterjee feels, have a head start because of the substantial experience in using technology tools to work with remote global teams. “All we need to do is execute,” he adds.