Flying (part 4)

Recap:

This blog doesn’t have a theme, other than maybe “things that are on my mind, that I’ve thought about and that I want to say but don’t have any other venue for saying”.

One of those things is the environment. I start from one of the standard green viewpoints, which is that the evidence shows that we’re in the environmental soup and I am interested in the question of “what should any individual do about this?”. To demonstrate good faith, and as a starting point for discussion, I’ve given a list of my own, not terribly exotic or unusual , “green behaviours”.

One of those behaviours concerns transport, a fascinating and difficult area. Even though my real area of interest is land-based personal transport (which I’ve written a bit about elsewhere), here I seem to have got temporarily stuck writing about flying and travel – because one of my own “green behaviours” is that I haven’t flown for nearly twenty years. A few people would find this laudable, many more would find it astonishing, and others would take it as some sort of personal challenge. Anyway I’ve pulled at the thread and it has turned out to be longer than expected. This, I hope is the final post in this sub-theme. So far:

Part 1 – some people don’t fly, some don’t fly much

Part 2 – ‘flying less’ is impossible (we’re told)

Part 3 – would a world with ‘less flying’ really be so terrible?

I shall finish this theme by returning to something from part 2, where I listed some justifications for flying, including:

“I would never have become an environmentalist if I hadn’t travelled to the amazon/the himalyas/the rift valley/somewhere difficult and expensive to travel to”

This argument has a tendency to make me see red and I’ll start this post by explaining why.

***

Here is a recent example of the sort of thing I mean. It’s from December last year in the comments section of John Michael Greer’s Blog.

Out of all the technologies our society has access to, cheap and fast travel is the one that I think is the most valuable. This may seem counter-intuitive, but without that cheap travel, I probably wouldn’t care about the environment at all. …

At this point I stopped reading and fired off a harrumphing reply that started by pouring scorn on the idea that cheap travel is more valuable than, say, antibiotics and anaesthesia. One of the characteristics of internet communication is that it tends to produce this kind of blurting and although I don’t regret replying, I do regret (ahem) replying before I read the rest of the post (ahem).

The post quoted pressed my button and jolted me into replying before reading because I’d come across these sentiments before, in which the writer declares indignantly that they were inspired to protect the environment solely because of the natural wonders they viewed on another continent to which they had flown on holiday – how dare anyone suggest that there could be any sort of problem with their vacation habits?

This argument gets my goat because I find myself taking it as a status move. Only the very best for them! A peasant such as myself can be inspired by their garden, the trees in the street, a day trip to the coast, but their superior sensitivities will only respond to the mighty Amazon, the Himalaya, the Arctic. Surely my own commitment as an environmentalist cannot be as good, or real, as theirs because mine comes from humdrum sources? After all, I’ve only seen Madagascar on a BBC documentary, surely my feelings must be of an inferior quality?

(In fact, it turned out that this particular writer was talking about relatively infrequent travel within the North American continent – and the rest of his comment, when I calmed down and read it, was nuanced, thoughtful and I had no problem with it apart from considering the opening hyperbolic. An apology is in order and duly offered to the commenter. But the point still stands that other people do make this argument about flying, often with great indignation. I had previously come across a couple of other egregious examples from blog comments, and one in particular was almost foaming at the mouth. Inevitably when I tried to locate this particular example, I couldn’t find it, so I’m afraid this example will have to stand in for them. )

Ok then. Making a firm effort to get over myself and stop taking things personally (in other words, to stop behaving like the people I’m complaining about), I have three comments about this justification-for-flying.

The first is to ask whether it really is true that some people only care about the environment because they flew a large distance to see it – they think that was the cause-and-effect, but causality in human affairs can be a very opaque thing. In any case it’s a counterfactual, so we can’t really know for sure; how can we ever know what we would or would not have done if circumstances had been different? Let me posit an alternative suggestion.

It’s certainly possible that all (or most) of us have a latent love for the natural world that is just waiting for a trigger. It it hadn’t been triggered by Mount Kilimanjaro something else would have touched it off, perhaps something closer to home. That is an important point. “The environment”, “nature” isn’t some external thing you visit. It surrounds us, it’s what we swim in, we grew out of it and remain part of it. If the non-human parts of your local area are so impoverished that you cannot respond to them, then that is an argument for the key importance of the local, for making towns and cities more pleasant, for taking care over rural development. It is not an argument that everyone should have the facility for travelling increasing distances for a dose of officially certified awe to make up for the crappiness of where they live. (The importance of the local is one of the reasons I’m so exercised about the private car and so manically pro- walking, cycling, bus-ing and rail-ing; one of the major factors which makes so many places so unpleasant is motor traffic).

My second comment is to note the intensity of the indignation that can sometimes be aroused. Instead of just going “Pah! This guy’s an idiot. No need for me to take any notice of what they say”, they take the trouble to post a long comment defending their behaviour to a complete stranger who has no power over them whatsoever. And they sound hurt. Perhaps they feel their identity is bound up with being the sort of person who travels a lot, who is “adventurous”?

My third point returns to the question I touched on in my earlier posts in this sequence. I’m not talking about no flying, I’m talking about less, which raises the questions of tradeoffs – what is worth flying for? To repeat what I said in a previous post, “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 would it be even possible for everyone to match the ambitions of, say, this chap:

A very large part of the reason I’m an environmentalist is because I want to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and experience every single climate in the world on one mountain. Or because I want to visit Patagonia one day. Or the rainforest. Or the Darjeeling tea plantations. And I want those places to exist for other fellow travelers.

I also would love to visit all these places. Who would not? But what would be the impact if everyone who would “love to” did in fact visit? If everyone who had a fancy to visit such places did so, would they be worth visiting? Would they become less desirable, because less “distant”, less exotic? More concretely, would they actually become tourist-battered, less authentic, more developed? Would the genuine benefits of visiting diminish? Certain types of destination might actually be destroyed if over-visited. Wilderness is no longer wilderness if too many people go there. It is tempting to see oneself as one of the special people who deserves to visit the special places, who can truly appreciate them. We all like to think we are travellers rather than tourists, but that cannot be true of everyone. Therefore I am reluctantly prepared to accept that there are many wonderful things on our planet that I can never experience directly no matter how much they excite my imagination. You might say that such “reluctant acceptance” is simply unbearable, I would say that (for me) it is a necessary part of the acceptance of planetary limits.

There is a compensation though. Which is that at this point in history we have a substitute which was not available until the twentieth century: photography, cinema and television. It is only because of over-familiarity that we forget how amazing this is. For example, the work of the BBC’s Natural hisotry unit seems to me a very worthy use of flying, the lifetime work of David Attenborough offsets its environmental impact many times over. No, it’s not the same as a live experience, seeing with your own eyes, and it carries no bragging rights, but it is enormously better than nothing. (I would also argue that, in certain cases, a televisual ‘holiday’ is better than the trip that one could expect to make oneself, but that’s for another post).

I’m finally rumbling to a close on this topic. In a one-sentence summary of these four posts about flying: “if a sustainable world is going to involve less flying then I don’t think it would really be as bad as you might imagine”. Thankfully I can now move on to something else.

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