In a little over a year, Ed Gillespie traveled around the world–through 31 countries and over 40,000 miles–without ever getting on a plane.
The trip was partly motivated by the huge carbon footprint of flying. Gillespie, a cofounder of the U.K.-based sustainability communications agency Futerra, had tried to do everything possible to reduce his own carbon footprint, like biking instead of driving, and sharing an apartment. But every time he flew, all of that was overshadowed.
“I started to get to the stage where I was feeling slightly hypocritical about talking about carbon and climate change and flying,” he says. “So about 10 years ago I gave up flying on holiday. It was partly to do with reconciling that tension, and saying I feel a bit weird making all these cuts in carbon in other aspects of my life, but then actually destroying my personal carbon budget when I get on a plane.”
But his recent round-the-world trip wasn’t just about the environment. Slow travel–like slow food and slow fashion–is just a better experience, he argues. “It wasn’t supposed to be a kind of carbon evangelism,” he explains. “It was actually as much about wanting to take a trip where I traveled through the world rather than over it. And putting some romance back into the journey.”
Taking a long flight, he says, can make people less likely to connect–you enter one airport and then exit hours later thousands of miles away, noticing nothing but the differences around you. Traveling on land, with gradual changes, makes it easier to notice similarities. It’s also more fun.
“On a plane, you’re sort of infantilized: Sit there, belt in, eat this, watch that,” he says. “Whereas on the train you’re independent. You can actually have some pleasure in the travel.”
Gillespie and his girlfriend traveled by camel, horse, trains, a camper van, and cargo ships, arriving home on a ship with 10,000 tons of bananas and pineapples. Though there were some challenges–like dealing with multiple borders and visas that expired because of unpredictable schedules–he says that flying is no comparison.
“Giving up flying wasn’t a sacrifice, it was a liberation,” Gillespie says. “It’s enabled me to have all sorts of crazy adventures that I wouldn’t have had if I’d still been frequenting airports.”
In a new book that came out this summer called Only Planet, Gillespie wrote about his experience. “Partly it’s about inspiring people to try a little bit of overland adventure,” he says. “But also it was about just trying to get people to think.”
At work, Gillespie is also developing tools to make non-plane travel easier. One website, for example, lets travelers book train trips throughout Europe, which might have previously required multiple bookings on sites in different languages. “The idea is to make it as easy to book a train as to book a plane,” he says.