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.

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