Flying (part 1)

I mentioned in a previous post that I haven’t flown since 1996. I am not going to spell out the environmental impacts of aviation because there is plenty of that discussion elsewhere. Rather, I am starting from the assumption that it is a problem (and not just for climate change reasons either), and am going to share a few thoughts about individual behaviour in relation to it. The aviation question touches on so many interesting social and psychological issues so I shall split this into two posts. As one of the themes of this blog is personal behaviour, and in an attempt to demonstrate good faith, I shall start with my own experience.

I was never a frequent flyer. I can easily count up the number of air trips I’ve made I in my life and, counting there-and-back as two journeys, it comes to just 13. These were mostly long distance but that total does include two short light-aircraft tripettes, one to make a parachute jump and the other a tow for a glider I was in. I tell you about these two in order to forestall any suspicion that this not-flying business is merely a positive spin on what is in reality fear. If anything the reverse – it’s well possible that I will never get in a long-distance aeroplane ever again but I must admit the offer of a short trip in a helicopter would probably be accepted (and I still might make it onto a hang-glider or microlight one day). On the other hand, I will admit that though I consider the off-the-ground part of an air trip to be fun and exciting, I loathe with a passion the surrounding stuff. I am reduced to a puddle of anxiety by the whole administrative palaver of getting to the airport on time, waiting around, all the security hoo-hah (which presumably is now even worse since 9-11) and the bloody jet-lag. The only thing that could tempt me to do this again was if I was actually going to live somewhere else in the world for a proper length of time (minimum 6 months). And if I really was going away for that length of time, I would presumably have enough time to take some mixture of train, bus and boat instead. (Before you say it, yes I know. Boats aren’t entirely blameless either, nor trains for that matter. We really are in the soup).

If it were possible to distribute all resources fairly (it isn’t possible of course) then there will be a theoretical amount of sustainable air-mileage-per-person and I kind of suspect I’ve already had my fair ration, so I’m pretty happy with my decision not to fly again. Except that it was more of an accident than a decision. During the period when really cheap flights first started there was no question of me taking lots of exotic holidays because even if you’d given me the plane tickets I still couldn’t have afforded to go – transport is not the only cost of holidays and travel. My financial situation did improve though, because some time in the early noughties, I found myself with a few unexpected days holiday from my then job. “Ooh” said one of my colleagues “you could take a cheap flight somewhere” and I replied brightly “oh yes, so I could” but I realised as I was saying it, that no actually, I couldn’t. Because in the six or seven years since I’d last flown, I’d acquired a whole bunch of environmental awarenesses. Basically, my conscience wouldn’t let me fly. I didn’t say anything though.

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There are two important psychological points buried in the above anecdote. The first is that my decision was not “I will not fly anymore” because I was already not-flying. My decision was “I will not start flying, even though I can now afford it” and that is a much easier decision to make. ‘Loss-aversion‘ is a very well established principle of human behaviour: broadly, it’s harder to give something up than to acquire it in the first place, hence not-starting is easier than stopping. This has implications for green behaviour that go well beyond aviation and is something we really need to take into account.

The second psychological point relates to my reluctance to speak up. Why couldn’t I have just said, in a cheerful and non-accusatory tone of voice: “well, a mini-break to europe certainly looks a tempting idea, but unfortunately I worry a bit about carbon emissions …”? Alas, I couldn’t think of such a polite thing to say on the spur of the moment. Why was that difficult, I wonder? Perhaps because writing about pro-environmental behaviour is quite a different proposition from talking to a physically present person. I felt challenged or threatened on quite a deep level – they’ll think I’m a crank, they’ll jeer at me, they’ll look at me oddly from now on, they’ll think I’ve fallen for some silly nonsense, they’ll think that I feel superior to them, it’s somehow against the rules to mention this … as I keep on saying, we are such deeply, deeply, social beasts.

It has taken me many years to work out the principles of responding in a way which does not appear rude and hence which has any chance of being truly heard. There are plenty of other instances, even apart from flying, where I have failed to say something and I used to think I was a bad person for not doing so. Well maybe I am … but on the other hand, my failure to deliver an unsolicited environmental sermon in response to the friendly remarks of an innocent work colleague might merely indicate that my social awareness is intact and switched on. So a task for me is to find a way to talk about this on casual basis that does not come over as aggressive or preachy and hence which leaves space for the other person to re-jig their world a little.

But isn’t it interesting how we don’t talk about flying and other environmental issues on an everyday basis? Sure there’s plenty of stuff in the media; everyone knows that some people believe there is a serious problem. Yet the day-to-day social silence around flying is astonishing – we just do it, it’s just assumed – no normal person takes the train to Edinburgh from London do they? (I was once asked in a temp job to check flight times for this and so – of course – I presented my boss with train times, to her – of course – blank incomprehension. Silly me. Why did I imagine that UNICEF would know anything about joined-up thinking? Even Greenpeace can’t always manage it).

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I argued in my previous post that the major reason for changing one’s own behaviour is that acting in a way that is noticeably different from the surrounding culture functions both as a form of communication (why am I doing this odd thing?) and a sort of pilot study (could everyone do this?) and together these make change easier for others. My own “not-flying behaviour” is too low key to have any effect at all really, but there are better examples.

Such as the gal in Wales who went overland to her mate’s wedding in Australia. Then there was the thinktank founder who went round the world sans aeroplane. Or the postgrad student who took a ship from his home in San Francisco to university in the UK. I would suggest that these adventures should be regarded as a variety of performance art – with the advantage of drawing a wider audience than anything which is explicitly labelled as “art”. (Btw, I’m certainly not dissing art-art, far from it).

There are also less flamboyant examples, such as Kevin Anderson and Mayer Hillman. Anderson in particular does not mince his words and although I think that I personally, in my own circumstances, will communicate most effectively by being low-key, non-confrontational and cool, there really is an important place for hot words and accusations – from the right people, in the right media, to the appropriate audience. That also goes for people who communicate in an even more direct way. Apart from anything else, such people give heart to the more mild-mannered such as myself, because, as I have hinted, I find that even a modest environmental consciousness can make me feel a bit stuck out on a limb.

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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.