Flying (part 3)

This is the third post in which I push around some thoughts about what we are to make of the sustainability of flying.

previous posts:

Flying (part 1) – some people don’t fly, some don’t fly much.
Flying (part 2) – ‘flying less’ is impossible (we’re told).

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?

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Will it genuinely make people miserable if they fly less?

It can be surprisingly difficult to envisage the world being any different from the way it is now. What tends to happen, when invited to imagine a change in the world, such as less flying1 is that one imagines things exactly as they are now, except for oneself 2. So when some naive enviro says “flying as currently practised is unsustainable”, you wince because you tend to see yourself with reduced mobility, while in other respects the world is the same as it is now. How am I going to visit my brother in Australia? I’m not bloody spending my precious fortnight’s holiday camping in Wales! And what about my job3 ?

But this is misleading because changes never occur in isolation; they trigger other changes, they evoke responses, they get adapted to. The world would have become different in all sorts of other ways – many of them unpredictable – and in a different world some of our thoughts and feelings would be different. The brother might not have emigrated if he’d known what a big goodbye it really was, holidays in the UK would have become the norm4, flying for important work still exists but it’s not routine and expected.

In this supposedly unbearable world with less flying we’d all be in it together, and that would lower the baseline because of hedonic adaptation: the principle that on the whole you get used to things, both pleasant and unpleasant, and after a while they don’t have the same effect5. This is an important and common psychological mechanism but it doesn’t apply to everything and the exceptions are important. Some aspects of a world-with-less-flying might even be better. Flying might already be causing negatives that we will never get used to. I am fond of this quote from Daniel Nettle’s Happiness. 6

“As I write, the British Government is planning a major expansion of airports all over the country. However, hedonics predicts that people will soon adapt to the availability of cheap regional flights in Europe and find them just as tiresome as the longer train journeys they replace. On the other hand, we will never adapt to the increased noise.”

 

The symbolic functions of flying

The question “Does [activity x] really make you happier” is not as easy to answer as you might think. Because, if the answer is “yes”, is it the thing itself which is the source of happiness, or is it the feeling of being normal (because people around you do the same thing and they say it makes them happy, so obviously it must make you happy too)? Or if not “normal” then perhaps some other quality is being signalled?

Flying for business can signal that one is important (the flying-to-Edinburgh example in my previous post – I’m too important to waste time on a train!). Flying for leisure can signal that one is adventurous (although, perhaps, true adventurousness is a rather rare quality and cannot be merely purchased). The most obvious signal is affluence – is it the fact of the holiday being in New Zealand rather than Scotland that is significant? 5

All of this is relative. If flying lost the status of normal and returned to that of exceptional (which is well within the living memory of many people), then the tide, as it were, would drop. Adventurousness, affluence, social normality can all be clearly signalled in other ways, with other purchases and activities. Less flying will not, after the idea becomes common and unremarkable, make most people miserable.

What about the few people who really would be made miserable, who really were adventurous and loved to travel in an adventurous sort of way? Well, it could still be done – good for them. But there would be choices and prioritisations and saving-ups for them to make. The sustainable world is not the having-it-all world.

Will it be difficult to persuade people to fly less?

Not difficult, impossible. All the psychological mechanisms mentioned above serve to keep the current situation in place. Mere verbal persuasion is a weak tool and I see no prospect of there being any top-down actions to limit the amount of flying.

As I’ve stated before, my first reason for “doing green things” is simply to buy myself the right to talk about them – I don’t really expect my actions to make any difference or have any influence. And yet … hmmm ….

Behaviour can change, yet the causality is unclear; we cannot will that change with any certainty (ask anyone interested in public health!). Why do we do what we do? In one very real sense we do things because we choose to do them – nothing that I say is intended as some grand philosophical denial of free will – but where do our choices spring from? One very important factor is the surrounding society: what other people do, what is culturally normal for us. But then, where do other peoples choices come from? Surely ‘culture’ just is the aggregate of individual choices? So if enough people can be persuaded to do something different won’t that change the culture? Yet if everything in the surrounding society say “do this” then only the most exceptional individuals can decide to anything else. Culture and society do change of course, but there’s a bit of a mystery as to how it happens – some interventions work, there are hints from experimental psychology as to what kind of thing might work (blown up into “nudge theory”) but no real certainty – other than the certainty of unintended consequences and unexpected by-products.

There isn’t a natural conclusion to this train of thought so I shall force an unnatural one. It’s possible that our current level of aviation will collapse under its own, limits-to-growth, weight. The problem is, as with many of these things, even though human profligacy is going to be ultimately self-limiting, if no attempt to put the breaks on before that point, an awful lot of damage could be done. Ultimately, this is why doing something is probably going to be better than doing nothing.

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I haven’t quite finished with this one yet, but I hope I’ve only got one final post on this subject.

Footnotes

1. or driving. Just try suggesting that to someone

2. This line of argument is borrowed from the influential paper Can technology save us? by geographer John Adams. I’ve summarised his arguments here.

3. and I include my job in this instance. I currently work in a university and the UK Higher education sector is pretty much kept afloat by overseas students, all flying back and forth several times a year, plus the year-round marketing trips.

4. “We were constantly amazed at the number of Brits we met in far-flung outposts of the world who had not been to Scotland. … it is a little strange to hear your fellow countrymen waxing lyrical about the magnificent mountains of New Zealand when they’ve never even seen the Cairngorms” Ed Gillespie (the thinktank founder, mentioned in part 1, who did a world trip sans airflights).

5. Coincidentally, while writing this, a nice Oliver Burkeman article appeared on this very topic

6. Nettle, Daniel (2005) Happiness. OUP. This short, well-written book suffered the misfortune to come out at the same time as Richard Layard’s book of the same name. Unfortunately as Layard was an economist, (bow down, bow down, economics is a science doncha know) his book rather eclipsed the more quiet and thoughtful work of psychologist Nettle. Worth nabbing if spotted in a secondhand bookshop.

Framing and the Euro debate

I’m interested in communication, rhetoric and debate.

I’m trying to keep away from the depressing euro referendum gubblebleugh, but as I still haven’t broken my today habit and still watch the daily politics once or twice a week, I still keep hearing it. Last Monday, I caught the tail end of Eddie Izzard being interviewed on the today programme. (Still available here – he’s 1 hour 40 mins in) He was talking about running multi-marathons, but right at the end he managed to toss in a quick comment about the EU referendum.

He’s in favour of staying in (he’s well known for his view on this), which he characterised in an off-the-cuff way as “the people for leaving are for running and hiding – we’re British, we stay and fight!”. I thought this was rather splendid because it is first “stay” comment I’ve heard which works on the general rather than the particular level.

All the discussion about the EU is pretty handwavy (it could hardly be otherwise because there are so many unknowables), but there is still a distinction to be made between assertions about actual things (trade, markets, economy, place in the world, environment) and appeals to generalised emotions. So far, it has only been the “leaves” who have come out with the more emotional calls. There are the trumpet-blasts about “freedom” and “democracy”. And “sovereignty”. That one causes me to start shouting at iPlayer when some MP I haven’t heard of gets interviewed. What the hell is “sovereignty” to me? And what, really, is it to you, you backbench nonentity? Puffing up your chest to make up for your own humiliation as lobby-fodder? Fancying yourself as having any real power? Bleah!

Anyway, (cough). My point here is about framing. The implied metaphor for leaving the EU is of a person or group of people walking away from another person or group of people. So far, the “leaves” have framed this as “we should walk away because … you’re cramping our style … we’re just too big for you …”. Izzard’s comment reframed this as “we should stay because … we‘re big enough for anything … we’re not delicate and weak, so why walk away?”

The “stays” really should get moving with the general emotional arguments because I suspect that is where most of the action is going to be, the ground on which many people are going to be motivated, swayed and persuaded – so don’t try to be too “logical” or “sensible”, and don’t let them get away with all that blah about “freedom”.

The other nice thing about Izzard’s remark was that it was jokey – and in a quite subtle way – which did not detract from there being a real point in there. By contrast, and with the right approach, the “freedom and democracy” shtick could be made to look both pompous and naive.

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Seeing as I’ve brought the subject up, I suppose I’d better state my position on the referendum. I shall be voting to “stay” and this is why. In the long term (thirty years plus), and quite possibly in the medium term (ten years plus), the EU will not survive – that is just not the way the world is going. However, in the short term, the EU will still be here. If we leave, an awful lot of environmental damage can be done in those next ten years, as things get chucked on the bonfire to “create growth”.

From the Green perspective, the EU is a very mixed bag, but on balance, things would have been a lot worse if we had not been in (there’s some chapter and verse on Jonathon Porritt’s blog, and many other places,  if you’re interested). If we leave, there will be precious few checks on the government desire to rip the place up and return us to a state of spoiled grubbiness – redefined as “vigorous and entrepreneurial” – and anything that stands in the way will be sneered at as “red tape” and “a burden on business” (and a labour government will be almost as bad, whatever they say).

Flying (part 2)

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”.

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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.

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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 1they 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?

Footnotes

1. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/458413/how-people-travel-air.pdf

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?”