I finished my previous post with: “In my next post I’ll kick around a few thoughts about the symbolic nature of flying, whether people would really be miserable if they travelled less, and why it doesn’t bother me at all that Jonathan Porritt flies”.
I probably need to re-iterate that my discussions of green issues in this blog start from the basic assumptions (which I will not argue in detail because that is done so much better elsewhere) that:
1. there is a real and pressing resources and sustainability problem, and that
2. we cannot rely solely on technical solutions which are untested, unscaleable or, in many cases, uninvented.
Therefore in this particular post I am ignoring the conventional economic arguments about the need for growth because these do not, as it were, fly.
I probably also need to repeat that when I am discussing “personal behaviour”, I am in fact discussion my personal behaviour. I am not preaching at other people to do anything. My limited aim, when I talk about behaviour is to explain why I take certain actions and to use this as a starting point for discussion. I don’t expect any pat solutions. There aren’t any.
The reason I chose to talk about flying early on in this blog, even though it is not that big a deal for me personally, is that it does seem to be a big deal for many people. During a short volunteer stint at FoE in 2006 I mentioned to someone that I hadn’t flown for the best part of a decade and his jaw dropped open. I was bemused, as this was not the reaction I expected from someone in that organisation.
There are two questions of concern here, given my interest in the psychological aspects of sustainability. The first is “will it genuinely make people miserable if they fly less?” and the second “will it be difficult to persuade people to fly less?”. To save you the trouble of reading the rest of this post and the next one and the one after that (I seem to have pulled at a thread that has turned out to be longer than expected), I’ll tell you that the answer to the first question is “probably not” and to the second “definitely yes” (in fact I think “persuasion”, as normally understood, can be a bit of a fools errand, but that’s yet another issue). But first …
“Less flying” as a Very Big Deal
Note first of all, that it is “less” rather than “none”. Thinking is difficult and the world is complicated. One way we make it easier for ourselves (and that “we” certainly includes myself) is to turn everything into an either/or. There are blueprints or thought-experiments or policy documents in which the numbers have been crunched to produce a theoretically possible sustainable world, and in all of them there is still some flying – just less than there is now.
The response to the proposal of a world with less flying can be surprisingly strident, or merely bemused. Either way there is a response, and a firm one, that this is simply not possible. The following arguments are used, in ascending order with the most lightweight first:
1. You patronising middle class git!
Much is made of hard working peoples well-deserved breaks in spain or whatnot. There are two responses to this. The first is that the proposal that there be less flying is not in principal inequitable because it is the very well-off who fly several times a year 1 – they are actually the people to whom the suggestion is addressed.
Note that we haven’t remotely got to the stage of anything being forbidden or banned or even increased in price, we’re still at the trying-to-start-a-discussion stage, yet off we go with accusations of smug greenery and what not. Which is why my second response is to doubt the sincerity of people who make this argument – it tends to be made on behalf of this fantasy family of ‘umble working class folk, by well-off smartypants contrarians 2. Accusations of being patronising, are often themselves, somewhat patronising.
2. Travel broadens the mind (didn’t you know that?)
It is generally assumed – not even explicitly stated – that the benefits of travel well outweigh any negatives. 3 Everyone knows that travel broadens the mind. But if we drag this out into the daylight as an explicit argument it looks odd . Is all or even most travel, as currently practised, inevitably mind-broadening? Hmmm. A skiing holiday may be a good thing in itself, but a ski trip on the other side of the world surely doesn’t broaden the mind any more than one in the Cairngorms. To put it the other way round, is everyone who hasn’t flown abroad necessarily narrow-minded? Ridiculous. Would you suggest that it is simply impossible to go anywhere else in the world for a fortnight and fully retain all one’s prejudices and stupidities? Hardly.
I’m caricaturing the argument am I? Well, yes, certain kinds of travel, undertaken by certain kinds of people, or in certain circumstances, can be wonderfully beneficial, to themselves and the rest of us, oh I’m sure of that. And yes, it is a bad thing to be confined to the same place all ones life and never see the sea or the mountains or the big city but this is very far from the universal free pass that air travel is given. Mass casual travel, as we know it, is over-rated as a self-development tool.
But but but but but…
3. “I would never have become an environmentalist if I hadn’t travelled to the amazon/the himalyas/the rift valley/wherever”
This is a variation on the previous argument, but has the merit of being specific rather than hand-wavy and deserves a short supplementary post to itself. The short answer is that I do think it might sometimes have some truth to it, but that it is by no means as strong an argument as it looks and, as with the other arguments it is compatible with less flying and doesn’t support the weight of maintaining the status quo. (I do tend to blow up in flames when I hear this particular argument though, and the reason I do that is quite interesting too. I snapped at someone recently in the comments of a blog and am feeling rather sheepish and ashamed of myself. So a separate, penitential, post it has to be)
4. But the good I do when I’ve flown justifies my tiny contribution to aviation emissions.
This might be true (that’s the reason it doesn’t bother me that Jonathan Porritt uses air travel). Who am I to make the fine calculations of what outweighs what? But that’s the thing – these are fine and difficult calculations and I’m not Jonathan Porritt. What if someone asked me to attend a conference on the other side of the world, to talk on some greenish topic? That would be so flattering – think how much good it would do, I mean they wouldn’t have asked me if that wasn’t the case. Well isn’t that what everyone thinks? 4 But if everyone was right, wouldn’t things be better than they are? If someone did offer to fly me off to an international conference I hope I’d be able to get over myself enough to see that it’d make not a jot of difference, apart from making me look like a swingeingly hypocritical idiot. (Oh and let me remind you of what Kevin Anderson – someone who plausibly could play the “but my work is important” card – has to say about this).
The thing is, none of these arguments is anywhere near strong enough to justify the situation as it is now – let alone an increase in flights. In a world with less flying you could still have some mind broadening opportunities, you could still have occasional treats, you could still have some love-miles. What you couldn’t have is the assumption of a foreign beach holiday every year, the knowledge that if you moved to the south of France your family could visit you as often as if you’d moved to Devon, an annual Christmas shopping in New York when you live in London. Travel would, I’m afraid, reveal its etymological relationship with travail.
Or, (one more time, fortissimo), in a sustainable world, flying could only be a niche market rather than a mass market. A treat not a habit. Would that really be so terrible?
Next: Will it genuinely make people miserable if they fly less?
2. You know the sort. Think-tanker or media professional with an inflated idea of their own smarts (Claire Fox is a prime example). Obviously, I’m just jealous that they get paid for delivering their half-baked opinions and even more jealous that they get to preen themselves as thinkers for goodness sake. In a parallel universe there go I …
3. For an explicit example of this (and of another smartypants contrarian) see: Brendan May’s 2013 article.
4. At the moment I’m reading (UK-based) Kate Rawles’ the carbon cycle, an account of cycle trip the length of the US and Canada in which she chatted to the random people she encountered about climate change. It seems the same thought occurred to her:
“I’d been assuming my own flight was somehow different, special, more important. But wasn’t that precisely the problem?”