I have friends who enthusiastically advocate distance travel in all forms. They relish their frequent flyer status. They blog enticing tales of exotic encounters. They center whole blogs around adventure and travel.
They are good people. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. I certainly don’t want to be judgmental. But, I also can’t deny what appear to be the facts.
My curiosity about the impact of flying was sparked by a comment on my post Minimalism vs. Moderation. The post encouraged readers to take the Ecological Footprint Quiz. After taking the quiz, Pavel Nosikov observed:
“A roundtrip intercontinental flight (15,000 km = 10,000 miles) a year is already unsustainable. If you try your very best and won’t commute at all except that flight you would gain 1.08 earths [of consumption]. We all should stop travelling?”
That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?
Is There a Moral Imperative to Fly Less?
Tammy Stroebel from Rowdy Kittens once wrote an article called A Moral Imperative to Drive Less. She said,
“In the wake of the gulf oil spill (and a world economic crisis), Americans love affair with cars must end. We have a “moral imperative” to start driving less.”
Is there a moral imperative to fly less – or not at all – in the face of climate change?
Cliff Stainsby thinks there is. He equates flying for pleasure (you might want to sit down before reading this) to murder. About flying by jet on vacation he says,
“The facts clearly reveal that such flying is an immoral act. It is completely under individual control. The per-passenger emissions are immense compared to those of large, affected populations, for example those in Africa and Pakistan. Per passenger emissions are immense, also, compared to per capita sustainable greenhouse gas emission targets. And, clearly, neither those suffering today nor future generations, who are likely to suffer much more, have consented to or encouraged this suffering.
Flying for a vacation is particularly egregious, a reprehensible self-indulgence by the well off at the expense of the impoverished and future generations; and those who fly on vacation contribute directly to the death and destruction of other people. In other words, if you fly by jet you kill.
Jet flying for an unnecessary indulgence, for one’s own pleasure, for a vacation, showing complete disregard for the people whose lives are ended or devastated as a result, is tantamount to murder.
Murder is a harsh word. But harsh words are apt; climate change kills in a very harsh manner, and presages a very harsh future for billions of people.”
Flying: the Most Ecologically Costly Act of Individual Consumption
So what’s the ecological impact of a single flight? Treehugger tells us:
“One transatlantic flight for a family of four creates more CO2 than that family generates domestically in an entire year.”
In reference to a round trip flight between New York and Los Angeles on a typical commercial jet, Joseph Nevins says:
“As a result, that roundtrip flight’s “climatic forcing” is really 1,917 kilos, or almost two tons, of emissions—more than nine times the annual emissions of an average denizen of Haiti (as per U.S. Department of Energy figures).”
He also points out:
“And, no doubt, many of us have adopted new habits—trying to use public transportation, buying local foods, rejecting bottled water. But the “savings” from such practices are wiped out by a habit that many of us not only refuse to kick, but also increasingly embrace: flying, the single most ecologically costly act of individual consumption.”
Reflection: Can We Afford to Fly?
The truth is, we’re incredibly interconnected. The choices I make have a far ranging effect. While our choices may sometimes seem insignificant, when they are added to the same choices made by others, the impact can be profound and earth-altering – for better or for worse.
Often, we make poor choices because we operate on automatic. We unwittingly harm others because we aren’t pausing to consciously consider the impact of our choices.
The reflection this week is two-fold. First, please consider the fragility and interdependence of the environment as inspired by the following quote.
Secondly, please consider the question of whether we can afford to fly given what appears to be a significant environmental impact. You might consider how this pertains to your own circumstances and choices.
“Modern science speaks to us of an extraordinary range of interrelations. Ecologist know that a tree burning in the Amazon rain forest alters in some way the air breathed by a citizen of Paris, and that the trembling of a butterfly’s wing in Yucatán affects the life of a fern in the Hebrides.
– from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
Joseph Nevins concludes his article on kicking the air travel habit by saying,
“Climate science tells us that we need a 90 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades to keep within a safe upper limit of atmospheric carbon. In light of the great changes such a reduction demands, what is unrealistic and foolhardy is the notion that we can continue flying with abandon.”
This is not the news we want to hear. After all, air travel is on a steady increase. Someone is getting on those airplanes. Are they thinking about the environment when they do? Are they thinking of future generations?
Are There Unique Benefits to Be Gained from Travel?
Often, it is argued that there are unique benefits to be gained from travel. The world becomes smaller and there’s a greater feeling of interconnectedness. Travel can also contribute greatly to personal evolution. However, only 2-3% of the population engages in international travel in any given year. So those benefits accrue to only a few, many of whom are already quite privileged.
Certainly, there are unique benefits to be gained from travel. But can they be justified in light of the potentially life-damaging effects of climate change?
Although I’ve only flown once in the last four years, prior to that I was a frequent flyer myself. I also ended up on an island in the middle of the Pacific without considering the ecological impact of that decision.
So, I don’t expect anyone else to be perfect. We’re all in this together – learning and making new choices, step-by-step. But, I believe time is of the essence. The natural disasters that are occurring with greater frequency around the world are warning signs in my own paradigm. So I hope you will take this information to heart and considering whether it might make sense to alter your own choices when it comes to air travel.
What are your thoughts about personal air travel and its impact on the environment? Have you altered your travel for environmental considerations? Do you think personal air travel can be justified?
Images courtesy of Public Domain Pictures
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