Thoughts on Flying Less
I feel like I know many people from my own demographic of university-educated, middle-income, working-class millennials, who would consider themselves as holding socially progressive beliefs and values, and who would likely claim that climate change is a major issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
But what I often find disheartening is that many of these same individuals seem (for the most part) disinterested or unwilling to make lifestyle changes which might help A) reduce their own footprint and/or B) signal to others that there’s a need to urgently address this issue.
Air travel is an obvious example that comes to mind. With most people seemingly content to ignore the ongoing pandemic and transmission risks, I am noticing many more friends and acquaintances traveling all over the world again, despite what we know about the massive carbon footprint associated with flying.
I recognize that some air travel is still necessary (i.e., family deaths, emergencies, and to enable the migration of refugees), but seeing so many people I know — who would likely agree that climate change is a serious problem — taking multiple flights for vacations, at least once (or more) per year is disappointing given current circumstances.
It’s as if people are content to remain ignorant to the fact that their behaviour has consequences for those who are already most marginalized or over-exploited around the world, where climate change is already having a serious, tangible impact to their daily lives. Climate change is already the reality for many people around the planet, and not everyone can just move or leave when things get worse.
There seems to be a collective unwillingness to make the sacrifices required at this moment in our history. What’s even more frustrating is that many of these so-called sacrifices hardly impact our basic needs. They are just luxuries that we have grown accustomed to — such as flying.
This criticism of mine isn’t meant to target any specific individuals I know (or even those I don’t know), because a large part of the problem is systemic. We don’t have many affordable or realistic alternatives to air travel — especially in North America.
Despite the systemic issues, flying less is one effective way to significantly reduce our individual carbon footprint. Another method that helps I learned from Dr. Brett Favaro’s The Carbon Code, which says that if you’re going to fly, try and fit as many purposes into a single trip as possible. This helps to get maximum use-value out of the emissions produced from your flights.
For example, in August I’m flying to Victoria, BC for a cousin’s wedding. We are flying because of time constraints that restrict our ability to drive. But while we are there, my wife and I are taking some vacation days for a brief honeymoon, and then visiting my wife’s sister and some of our friends in the area as well — three trips for the (carbon) price of one.
Obviously, I wish we could do the trip by car, but (like many working-class people) we aren’t given enough vacation time to make it possible. If people had more vacation time available to them, maybe they would feel less inclined to take the faster or more convenient option (flying) and opt for alternative means of travel.
Using shameplane.com, I calculated that my round-trip flight to Victoria will contribute towards melting 0.9m² of Arctic sea ice. That’s just from one person, taking two short flights. It scares me to think about the cumulative impact of all other flights combined in a given day, week, month, year etc. Our choices have a real impact.
Anyways, the core of what I’m getting at is that we don’t have many alternative modes of transportation available to us for long distance travel (especially in North America), and we don’t have enough free time to allow us to travel slowly even if it were a realistic option. But we can make better choices.
We have normalized the luxury of flying around the world despite the consequences it has for those most vulnerable to climate change. We might not be able to end all air travel by ourselves, but by recognizing the power of our own actions we can reduce the harm to others by choosing to fly less or not fly at all. It’s similar to wearing a mask to prevent the spread of covid-19.
Flying is quick, convenient, and relatively inexpensive (at least right now — thanks to the pandemic), but that convenience comes with an environmental cost, and I wish that more people were willing to consider flying less as a form of class solidarity with those people most harmed by the climate crisis. We all have that power.