Steve Hanson reviews Plane Truth by Rose Bridger (Pluto).
This book provides a critique of an aviation industry which is enmeshed with ‘the globalisation of manufacturing’ and ‘extreme oil projects’. Bridger’s book is a great resource for both activists and concerned citizens.
Air travel is of course ‘international’ by its very nature, but its hubs are locally-specific. This means different conditions for passengers, for instance, ‘citizens of Africa fly the least’, but ‘the accident rate is appalling’. It also means that the ground-level opposition to massive air infrastructure projects have different levels of resistance, from both sides, in different nation states.
This book is a crucial addition to my growing collection of resources about the ‘other side’ of ubiquitous, taken-for-granted modernisms. Wolfgang Schivelbusch on shop window lighting, or Kittler on media fusing into ‘secular’ form, out of discarded military ordnance. Bridger’s book isn’t historically or theoretically grounded in the same way, but it is at least as useful in our age of permanent crisis.
Plane Truth now sits on my shelf next to After the Car by Dennis and Urry (Polity). Because they traced the development of the motor car back, via some incredible quotes, in order to understand how what we ended up with was not neutral or inevitable. Bridger does similar things for the aeroplane. A popular nineteenth century journal existed called ‘Horseless Age’, and in 1896 an article described how:
‘…there is absolutely no odour connected with the electric vehicle, while all the gasoline motors we have seen belch forth from their exhaust pipe a continuous stream of partially unconsumed hydrocarbon in the form of a thin smoke with a highly noxious odour.’
The electric car was ditched, as the power of the internal combustion engine was essential for modern warfare. This turning point partly led to our current crisis. Dennis and Urry understand, as anyone well-versed in Marx does, that twentieth century capitalism isn’t the strong reassuring force its surfaces seem to suggest, but sharkish, chaos in organised groups, with little regard for the long-term availability of raw materials, or even the long-term viability of its own game.
Bridger points this out very clearly in regard to aviation protests. There have been voices of dissent, but they have been drowned until very recently, by the sheer machine noise of material wealth-gathering, ‘progress’. Her work is always grounded in careful research.
The car sits alongside these issues in terms of the consumption of raw materials and pollution, but more immediately in traffic accidents and how they crowd city life, eating up pavement space, even when stationary. Bridger’s book covers these issues for aviation, but sticks closely to resource economics. She adds to the picture of the airport what the techne of the aeroplane does to the ecology.
Imagining what the future might look like is a risky business, and again, reading Marx tells us why. Buckminster Fuller once wrote that ‘you never change things by fighting the existing reality’, to actually change it, ‘build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’
I only half believe this, but Bridger’s urgent plea for disorganised capitalism to change is very worthwhile. The imaginary space of futurology is crucial to stimulating real action, however different from the speculation this may eventually be.
Elsewhere, John Urry has described how solipsistic we are to imagine ourselves ‘special’, aloof or superior from the forces of nature or physics. Our culture is the ultimate outcome of the separation of everything, the product of a kind of Kantian humanism gone feral. We thought we’d started the engine and flown away, but we were attached to the earth all along. Bruno Latour describes this well, as does Peter Sloterdijk.
Blake’s portrait of Newton seems even more important now, although many aspects of the romanticisms which followed it show how we were drugging ourselves with dangerous delusions. We can only hope that the post-car era isn’t only possible in a post-pedestrian one, which is a very literal and final reading of the term ‘post-human’. I also hope that we are not finally ‘grounded’, on a kind of neo-Medieval floodplain. Speaking at the very broadest level, international travel is at least culturally desirable.
Dennis and Urry’s text is almost ridiculously upbeat in tone, as they explore the possibilities still open to us, local sustainability, radically altered technologies and modes of transport, but these suggestions always arrive next to ominous passages about a return to a kind of feudalism.
Bridger’s voice is similar, and I pay tribute to all of their willful optimisms and pessemistic intellects.