Glance at any major news source homepage right now, and you’re bound to see a headline photo of mask-clad passengers being temperature scanned while in line for their flights, or teams of sanitary workers in alarming uniforms spraying down the surfaces of a security checkpoint or wiping down aircraft cabins. At the New York Times, a video entitled “What the Impact of Coronavirus Looks Like from Space” features an aerial view of an international terminal. The Conversation recently ran a piece about how “airlines and airports are key to stopping the spread of disease,” focusing specifically on the problem of unvaccinated passengers. A Wall Street Journal article rightly situated air travel as a critical component of the “superspreaders” that are making the virus difficult to track, much less contain.
It’s glaringly apparent that airports and airplanes are fraught zones amid attempts to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Yet the status of air travel in this matrix is anything but clear. Some airlines are cancelling flights to certain countries; others, to others—but it’s hardly a consistent, collective effort. Air travel churns on above us, carrying people—and the virus—to all ends of the earth.
It’s often cast as a “personal decision” whether to travel or not, or how precisely to keep one’s own seat space perfectly clean. But viruses are not bound by personal decisions or as-if boundaries; they are inescapably collective entities. My own local airport, exhibiting a certain tone deafness, announced new international flights in the midst of the outbreak. We want to keep flying, keep going as fast we can between places, even as we know on some level that air travel is a problematic part of (and a particularly vulnerable point within) the spreading of the latest pandemic. Trump’s European travel ban is a similar category mistake: as if certain people on certain flights could be banned, thereby affecting the spread of the virus. Flight is inescapably collective, even though it’s advertised and sold as an individual pursuit.
On March 6, as the novel coronavirus was sweeping across the United States, an odd message appeared on Twitter: “We’ve got good news. #TopGun: Maverick will now be jetting into theatres two days earlier on Wednesday, June 24, 2020!” This long awaited sequel promises, among other spectacles of airborne warfare and supersonic flight, to recreate the iconic scene of Tom Cruise’s Maverick racing a motorcycle alongside a runway as a fighter jet takes off with a roar. When I saw the trailer, I was reminded of that catchy line from the first film: “I feel the need…the need for speed!”
“The need for speed.” With COVID-19 acutely in mind, this may be a pithy biological description of our species. On the one hand, it makes certain sense that speed is critical to survival: for the capture of prey, for escape, for competition, and so on. On the other, Homo sapiens express a need for speed that has metastasized over recent generations, alongside the rise of global capitalism, consumer culture, and, yes, the spread of novel viruses.
In my new book Searching for the Anthropocene, I reflect on how the normalization of high-speed human mobility has put our species—and countless others—on a course to ecological collapse. While “the Anthropocene” as a concept may be imprecise, audacious, and might even be a joke, planetary destruction is happening no matter what we call it. It’s critical that we identify the drivers while we can, if we as a species want to last longer and coexist better with other species. In this case, we are the literal drivers—and now we’re also the coronavirus, too.
Yet, if the need for speed is a species function, it is also something that can be adapted, changed. It is a collective trait that the species could grow out of. In other words, we might, together, feel the need to slow down, and quickly.
In order to imagine and invent new means of transit, we have to be willing to radically question the old ones. So that we might discover new modes of mobility, ways of traveling that will help us and our innumerable companion species last a while longer on this one-of-a-kind planet that is, against all odds, still able to sustain us.
Late last year, climate change awareness activist Greta Thunberg set sail across the Atlantic Ocean for Madrid, a long journey that rejuvenated debates around flygskam, or “flight shame.” We would do well to see flygskam not as some sort of anomalous stunt, but as a serious and potentially collective action.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however it ends up playing out for better or worse, is an indicator of the kind of viral potential we’ve unleashed through our need for speed. It might cause us to pause and reassess our travel habits and patterns. It’s a matter of survival, one that the present moment makes chillingly real.