Only Planet by Ed Gillespie, book review: Allow world's flaws and beauty to seep into your soul

 

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The Independent Culture

Ed Gillespie is one of those admirable people who "walks the talk". He founded and runs a sustainability communications agency, he doesn't drive a car and for the purposes of this book – the telling of his low-carbon journey around the world – he doesn't fly.

All of which might scream to the wary reader: "Worthy, preachy, opinionated." It is to his credit that he avoids the first two, integrating his considered and informed views on climate change, globalisation and society's role in shaping the future, with charm, wit and cultural context as he and companion Fi slide through the countries on their itinerary.

If he is guilty of the last, it's in a good way. His willingness to confront opposing or distasteful views adds spice to the regular travelogue format and sparks lively, and at times uncomfortable, interaction with people he meets along the way. On a container ship to Mexico, Gillespie challenges ex-pat captain Les on his derogatory comments about a British Sikh customs official.

The book is part treatise on the benefits of "slow travel", a welcome change from the pace of the south London life he has left behind. Flying, he argues, as well as being environmentally dubious, plonks us from one culture to another with no sense of the incremental cultural and geographical changes that lead from one nation to the next. It exacerbates differences.

Sticking to the surface, the travelling is more visceral – it helps build cultural connections and understanding. Key to the couple's flight avoidance are container ships. Gillespie's descriptions of their travels across oceans on these vast hulls, crewed by ping-pong playing crews of mixed nationality, make for some of the most interesting passages in the book, casting, as they do, light on this little experienced but crucial artery of global trade.

Back on land (riding on buses, camels, the Siberian express, ice hovercrafts and trains), they meet characters from the down-and-out and peculiar to the spirited and inspiring, and visit places of natural wonder.

Herein lies the essence of the book: slow travel allows time for the flaws, degradation and struggles of the world, as well as its breathtaking beauty and indefatigable human spirit, to seep into the soul. This builds deeper connections to the planet and our common humanity and, crucially, engenders a sense of responsibility for taking greater care of them. As Gillespie writes in relation to climate change, "We cannot just drift passively by and hope for the best." Thought-provoking stuff.

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