Insomnia, A Fascinating Enemy

Sleepless in Geneva
Sleepless in Geneva
Nic Ulmi

GENEVA — When it comes to insomnia, some use the megaphone of the digital era, posting Facebook status updates to round up companions of misfortune — one-night or lifelong problem sleepers who want to talk. But there are myriad other coping mechanisms for this growing societal issue. And though insomnia can mean pure agony, it also inspires a kind of fascination.

"There's the nightmarish aspect the following day, but it's also some sort of a special moment," says Kate, co-director of the Black Movie Festival. "Everyone around me is asleep. I feel as if I'm secluded from the whole world."

Sometimes insomnia can even be productive. "During the time when I don't sleep, I imagine solutions to problems," Kate says. "Finding these solutions and writing them down gives me a sense of relief. But the following day, when I read them again, they often seem crazy. There may be a productive side, but it appears afterwards. There seems to be underground activity going on during these nights."

Secretary and dance therapist Catherine feels a real ambivalence about the nights when she has difficulty sleeping. "They can be unbearable, but there's also something I like about them," she says. "I become inspired, have personal revelations, things I had never thought about."

Awakening dreams

Rocco, a journalist from the Tribune de Genève, admits he has trouble going to bed and accepting that the day is over. "It can be appealing, yes. In the silence of the night, with everything becoming calm around, you feel almost privileged," he says. "There's a nostalgic side, linked to my post-adolescence: a period during which I prompted the insomnia, I refused to go to sleep, I spent my nights reading. But the romantic aspect of insomnia fades away after a few years. You know you will pay the consequences the next day. Now, when it happens to me, it's quite discouraging."

American novelist Kenneth Calhoun has imagined an insomnia epidemic. In his remarkable book Black Moon, published in March, no one sleeps anymore. The causes are unknown and the consequences apocalyptic. Mankind wanders around in a state of insomniac confusion, where memories are fading away. There are still a few sleepers, and no one knows why. Their sleep causes fits of deadly rage in those who do not sleep.

Photo: bark

"This idea is an exaggeration of a situation I lived taken very far," the author explains by phone. "My partner couldn't sleep while I slept perfectly. Just for fun, we acted as though there was a kind of resentment. In the wake of these jokes, I started asking myself: What if this became pure anger?"

Oliviane, an art historian, says she finds it incredibly annoying when someone falls asleep quickly. "I've been awakened by the sound of a hamster running on a carpet in another room," she says, adding that she doesn't really enjoy sleeping. "I tend to be in control a lot, so I don't like situations where I can't control anything." Still, getting some rest seems to be a little easier with earplugs on. "I've accepted the presence of this foreign body in my little bubble," she says. "It's a way of letting go."

Thierry, a librarian and musician, characterizes his sleeping troubles as chronic, and he's been under the care of a physician for more than a decade. "Sleep analysis — polysomnography — detected the reason why I wake up at night: dreams," he says. "Not necessarily nightmares, but mostly extremely realistic dreams, like ultra-high-definition films."

Random fact: For the Romans, the term "insomnia" was initially used to describe the condition of having disturbing dreams.

The war on sleep

In Insomnia: A Cultural History (Reaktion Books, 2008), New Zealander Eluned Summers-Bremner traces the first references to the problem to the Epic of Gilgamesh tablets. Ancient Greeks believed insomnia was caused by obsessive love. This was the case for Dido and Medea — and later, in Hindu mythology, Radha, who couldn't sleep when she imagined Krishna sleeping with another girl.

In the Middle Ages, it was customary to sleep in two distinct stages, waking up around midnight for one or two hours of a socially established insomnia before returning to what was called the "second sleep."

With every era bringing new sources of anxiety, insomnia has become more common over the years. Of course, in the 18th century, industrial society effectively declared a war on sleep. That's when the idea of political leaders and top managers barely sleeping yet still functioning at a high level settled in. "There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all," Thomas Edison said in 1914. He spread his ideal of a sleepless world by posing for the press with assistants gathered in an "Insomnia Squad."*

Meanwhile, regular people these days try to sleep by finding techniques that have varying results. "I picture a speck of light in the dark, and I get closer to it," Kate says. For Thierry, eating yogurt tends to help, as does reading. "It has to be as boring as possible," he says of his reading material. "Philosophy books on time, death, religion or essays in foreign languages."

Faustine, an artist, says she suffers from insomnia when she's working intensely on a project and has lots of creative energy. Sometimes, if she's not working the next day, she'll smoke a joint to help get to sleep. "And I drink warm water," she says.

So is insomnia an individual disorder or a civilizational pandemic? A frightening void or the result of unmanageable overflow of tasks? "Both," it seems, is the answer to these questions. Eluned Summers-Bremner writes that in contemporary cities, which are like "laboratories of insomnia," a sort of invisible community appears. Insomniacs of the world, unite!

* Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness, Alan Derickson, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!