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Blimps for Ecological Observation

SEEING IS BELIEVING (SORT OF). Images of the whole Earth like those that gave rise to this magazine are wonderful, but they're distressingly deceptive, too: looking at the sparkling blue sphere floating in the void, you're struck by its ethereal beauty and have no notion of the true state of its surface; you see neither the glories nor the depredations of the works of man and nature, neither the human litter scattered across ocean and desert nor the trees uprooted and killed by sudden high winds or burned by lightning. The scale is wrong for human eyes.

Last year I went for a blimp ride not one of the gentle little fifteen-minute promenades offered to thousands of friends of Goodyear each year, but a real trip. I'd asked to ride along on a positioning flight; six months after I made the request, the Goodyear blimp Columbia left Gardena, California, on the first leg of its trip to the Goodwill Games in Seattle. I started the trip as an aviation enthusiast, but ended it thinking about ecology, precisely because seeing is believing. I now believe that we're doing more harm to the Earth than I'd thought before riding the gasbag for six hours.

An airship is perhaps the world's best observation platform. At a thousand feet above the terrain, you're able to see good distances, to relate place to region, but you can still see fine detail. Dogs and cats are identifiable as such. The speed, about 25 miles per hour, keeps you over an area long enough to take in more than just fleeting impressions. One of the most telling sights on our trip up the California coastline was the city of Santa Barbara, ravaged not long before by a ferocious brushfire that raced down canyons to the beach, destroying dwellings, animals and people indiscriminately... except for the few houses that had been properly designed and maintained for the environment in which they were built. Tile-roof houses with flammable plants kept well clear stood in splendid isolation on streets where every other building had been reduced to a pile of gray ash. If every home buyer could see that view, there would be a lot more concern for where houses are placed and how they are made.

There's a lot of activity in lighter-than-air craft right now, with wonderful new vehicles based on modern lightweight, high-performance materials popping up in all sorts of places. (A particularly nice project is for a solar-powered dirigible, which will be about as close to a perpetual-motion machine as we're likely to see.) This resurgence of interest in airships is the kind of thing that's cyclical, like solar heating. Back in the twenties and thirties, Germany offered reliable, high-cost airship service across the Atlantic, just as the British and French today offer reliable, high-cost supersonic flight from New York and Washington to London and Paris. The Hindenburg accident put an end to Zeppelin service.

I'd like to think that airships will come back, because we really need them now. If I were as rich as the Sultan of Brunei, I'd underwrite the renaissance of passenger-carrying airships, because only when the world's really fortunate people (i.e., those able to pay the fare for travel on a magnificent dirigible) see what is being done to the world so that they can remain rich will there be any tempering of the rape of Gaia.

I can imagine that this time around, huge, luxuriously outfitted dirigibles might cruise the continents, not cross oceans. A trip down the Pacific coast from Canada to Tierra del Fuego would reveal a great deal. The trip back up across the disappearing rainforests of the Amazon basin would show more. A cruise over the Sahel and down the center of Africa would show better than anything else how deforestation based on the collection of firewood for cooking is denuding the whole continent. Seeing slash-and-burn agriculture being practiced might inspire a voyaging industrialist to imagine new implements affordable by the people on the ground. Just observing the highly populated countries of China and India is bound to engender new ideas on how to improve the lot of the people there without destroying even more of the natural environment.

In any case, a fleet of airships moving slowly above the Earth would expose hundreds of passengers to a view that would inspire them to think globally and act locally almost certainly the pattern we must follow if we are to work our way out of today's ecological problems. We won't do it by "returning to the past" and eschewing technology, as some advocate. But some past technology like direct-observation airships could lead to new approaches that will help us keep the Earth healthy.