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Boeing 747: Planet Killer
February 5, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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It seemed like a good thing. The Boeing 747 would greatly lower the cost of moving people around by air. It would allow a less elite crowd of Americans to fly to Europe for vacations, for example. But by 1990 it was clear it was a planet killer, as were its successors. Not the only planet killer, not the principle planet killer, but an important one. The Boeing 747 was conceived in 1965. The last Boeing 747 was produced this year, 2023, and flew off, to much fanfare in Seattle, to be delivered on January 31, 2023. In all the media coverage I saw not even a minor note on how it greatly increased carbon dioxide production and thereby contributed to the global warming crisis we are now in.

To get a clear picture of the scope of the problem, allow me to remind readers that in 1700 fossil fuel use in the world was trivial. Cutting trees was the main source of fuel. Much of the cut wood was converted to charcoal. In England the forests were mostly gone, but began to grow back when coal began to be substituted for charcoal during the 1700s. Even so, at the global population of about one billion back around 1800, the human impact on the natural world was usually local in scale. Occasionally a species would be hunted to extinction by humans, or by loss of habitat to farming, but that had been going on since even before Homo sapiens evolved.

In the 1800s the global human population expanded from about 1 billion to about one and two-third billions in 1900. The industrial revolution greatly changed the world, particularly Europe, the U.S., and Japan, during that century. The standard of living increased as factories and transportation powered by coal, and later by petroleum and electricity, created previously unimagined quantities of goods and moved them around the world.

By the time the global population hit two billion around 1930 humans were flying, though in propeller-driven planes. The number of planes was too small to produce much carbon dioxide compared to the cars, trucks, trains, and factories of that era. While a few scientists already kn3w about the greenhouse gas effect and the role of carbon dioxide, any planet-changing impacts seemed in the far future.

In 1960 the global population reached 3 billion. A lot more of the world was industrialized or at least consuming products of the industrial revolution. Improved medical science meant that people were more likely to survive childhood and live longer. Books like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, published in 1962, made the public more aware of the ecological effects of humans and their technologies. Jets had largely replaced prop planes and the more people who flew to Europe (elsewhere), the more other people envied them and wanted to join in the fun. American college students began to think of trips to Europe as a right, a necessary part of a liberal education.

So in 1965 the Boeing 747 seemed like a good thing. With its wide body, it could reduce ticket prices and allow many more passengers per trip than its predecessor, the 707. When delivered in January 1970, it had four jet engines, 366 passenger seats, cost $24 million each to build, and fully fueled held over 47,000 gallons (179,000 liters). Later, larger versions carried up to 63,000 gallons of jet fuel.

It was a tremendous engineering and cultural achievement. Unfortunately the population of the earth hit 4 billion in 1974. As Americans, and others, grew wealthier, more wanted to fly, to drive cars, to flip on air conditioning to keep from sweating. And so carbon dioxide kept building up in the atmosphere. But because weather fluctuates so much, it was difficult for scientists to detect where this was tending: to a higher average global temperature. Because of the Green Revolution, mainly the introduction of low-cost fertilizer and chemical pesticides around the world, food production was keep up with the population growth. In 1987 world population hit five billion.

The 1980s was when some scientists became clear that the earth was warming and that there was already so much carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gasses) in the atmosphere that the entire earth was headed for serious trouble. By 1990 it was clear to honest scientists and politicians that much needed to be done, and done fast. In retrospect we should have limited flying, greatly decreased fuel use for land transportation, ramped up renewable power sources, and taken steps to cause the human population to level off. But powerful economic interests were against that. Ordinary people did not like it either. Flying to Europe had become a privilege. People might revolt if that privilege or others were taken away.

By the time the last 747 rolled out of the factory the earth's population had hit 8 billion. True, in 2022 significant numbers were being killed by the effects of global warming, but not enough to flatten the curve. People died in East Africa from drought and famine, in Pakistan from floods and famine, in many places from heat waves, and in odd places from intensified tropical storms.

Now new models of jet planes rule the skies, but they serve a population of frequent travelers who were trained up in 747s. Many of them will say that they do believe that carbon emissions are causing global warming and should be stopped, even as they board planes saying things like "But I bought a Tesla, and I've never even been to the Galapagos."

It is likely possible to calculate exactly how much 747 flights added to atmospheric carbon dioxide and to global warming to date. It is probably some fraction of a degree. The main cause of global warming is human population growth. With that growth comes the need for more agricultural land, more moving of food around, more of this and more of that until it adds up to a dying planet.

[Disclaimer: I first flew in 1972, on my way to college. I flew to Europe around 1979 because all my friends had. I flew to Europe again in 1984 to join protests in Germany. And I flew to Scotland around 1993 because my wife's father had bought tickets he was unable to use. I flew to Tahiti twice. Yes, young people, it isn't fair that I now think no one should fly, and that you missed out, and also have to live through this Slow Motion Apocalypse. I hope sailboats are built that will take you to Europe on wind power.]

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