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Our fear of not flying... please don't take my wings away from me

Flying is the single most CO2-emitting and oil-guzzling act of our civilisation, by a long way. Surely as Transitioners it should be top of the list of personal behaviour changes we make and encourage others to follow. But it isn’t so simple. Flying is a complex issue – we are the first civilisation to defy gravity, to give ourselves wings, to see the whole world, to move farther and faster than our ancestors may ever have thought possible. And naturally, most people want to hang on to that, even though there is a huge disconnect between carefully measuring the distance our vegetables travel, switching cars for bicycles, and yet continuing to fly. As the wonderful ‘Flying’ song by Seize the Day says: “I’ll recycle, I’ll ride my bicycle… but please don’t take my wings away from me’. 

Sunny CornwallI gave up flying four years ago while working on an anti-aviation campaign. The campaign was focused on taxing airlines and stopping a third runway at Heathrow rather than on personal behaviour, but flying felt hypocritical and giving up was easy.

I knew from research done for the campaign I was working on that around half of the people in the UK don’t actually fly (the poorest half), most of those who do fly do so only once a year, and that the wealthiest ten per cent and business travel were responsible for the bulk of flights. I also knew that realistically flying was an area where personal behaviour change by a minority of well-meaning individuals wasn’t going to make a huge difference. But I chose to stop, and embraced the lifestyle change.

The next few summers we took one ‘staycation’ a year in the UK, usually camping, saw the stunning coastlines of Cornwall, Dorset and Devon, and I grappled with the problem of getting a small child and a load of camping gear across the country using only public transport. We paddled in rock pools, made sandcastles, ate chips, wandered around ruined castles, and took down tents in the rain. Then once a year, booked months in advance to get the least expensive tickets, and still generally more than I could afford, we took joyous train journeys across the channel, away from our rainy island.

Ferry to IbizaI loved leaving behind a stressful start to the holiday in an airport, being blasted with needless air conditioning on the flight, being ill afterwards – my body not coping with moving far too fast across time and space. In contrast, our next two summers began with a leisurely train to Paris, spending the morning in the children’s science museum, getting lost for hours in Parc de la Villette, an early dinner, then tucking my son into bed on the train, reading and watching small French stations pass by as the sun sank low, arriving in early morning Rome for breakfast, then breaking the journey home to visit a friend in Florence. And last summer, as I’ve written about before we made a wonderful journey by train and boat to permaculture communities in Ibiza and Barcelona.

At work too it was straightforward. My current workplace has a no-flying-to-anywhere-within-a-24-hour-train-journey policy. This is great for the climate but those of us working in international teams do struggle with the amount of time we spend getting to meetings, the cost of this, and the impact on our personal lives. We use technology too (Skype, Clearsea, Google Hangouts), but phone and video conferencing is no real substitute for the camaraderie of meeting face-to face, and the constant beep of the Skype messenger can drive you crazy.

Westcountry storytelling festivalThen this year I was invited to a family wedding and fiftieth birthday party in Italy. It meant so much to me to go and I knew I wouldn’t be able to unless I flew. As Seize the Day put it in ‘Flying’ ‘he doesn’t have the money and he doesn’t have the time, when it’s cheaper to fly than to park at the airport’. So after a huge battle with my conscience I traded in my unblemished carbon footprint for a no-frills airline ticket, and re-joined the world of wings. Attending the beautiful wedding on a beach at sunset, seeing my son playing with all of his cousins, and seeing my nephews and nieces for the first time in a long while, I was glad of my choice.

Later this week my fellow social reporter, Ann Owen, will write more about having family abroad, and it’s this way for a lot of people now. Like it or not, we live in a globalised world and can’t break ties with friends and family overseas. Long distance travel has become an integral part of our culture, one of the most interesting and wonderful parts, and we can’t expect the desire for it to go away anytime soon. And yes we can take trains, but they are still far more expensive than a package holiday and out of reach for many. I think real change will come when the big picture changes – if airlines stop getting subsidized with tax breaks, if rail travel gets cheaper, if business practises change. George Monbiot’s piece on airport expansion last week cites figures which suggest that businesses are at last beginning to use technological alternatives to flying.

Flying has been one of the hardest areas for Transition to have an impact on. A recent discussion on the London list revealed that many groups were struggling to convince anyone to change their holiday behaviour, and flying-themed events were generally poorly attended. This is unsurprising – at its best, Transition is about positive change we can make together, at community level. Holidays are away from our community, the behaviour of individuals. So although I was pleasantly surprised recently when one of our core group members told me her family were taking the train to France this year, after being inspired by my holiday stories, I generally think it’s best not to guilt-trip people and let them make their own choice.

One suggestion for how we could ‘Transitionise’ our attempts at behaviour change might be a community transport pledge with options – e.g. to switch one flight for a UK or train holiday, to take one longer flying holiday rather than several weekend ones etc. Another suggestion which emerged from the London list was to publish our stories of great trips we’ve taken in the UK.

So, as Seize the Day ask ‘what will we do?’ and can we slow our lives down and re-localise enough that we can give up flying without feeling like we’ve lost our wings and wider connection with the world?

Images: 1. Sunny Cornwall 2010; Ferry to Ibiza 2011; At the Westcountry Storytelling Festival 2012 (SA)

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Charlotte Du Cann's picture

not flying

Great post Sara. A shame you had to break your pledge though! Seems like having a family can be a big impediment to living a low-carbon life. When we ran the first "Elephant in the Room" topic week on our Norwich blog a couple of years ago, most people in our Transition Circles had given up flying. I wrote about leaving places I had once loved behind in a piece called:

also inspired by the Seize the Day song!

This week was originally suggested by founding social reporter, Adrienne Campbell who wrote about the disconnect between Transition and flying in her blog 100 Monkeys:

Looking forward to reading everyone's posts this week!

Sara Ayech's picture

Thanks fot the links

It was great to read your piece on the Norwich blog and Adrienne's. I didn't find it hard at first but now I'm starting to realise there are so many places I have never been. I hadn't read the discussion on flying between Rob and Naresh on the Transition Culture blog before and it's very interesting. It made the important point that an individual giving up doesn't make a huge difference, it's more not wanting to be a part of it. Similar to not wanting to eat meat I guess.

Looking forward to Richard's piece tomorrow on why we still need to campaign against airport expansion.

Caroline Jackson's picture

Giving up flying

Like you Sara, I gave up flying about 5 years ago.  In our church housegroup we watched "God is Green"  the C4 documentary by Mark Dowd in which the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, was challenged to give up flying for a year. It wasn't so much the bishop's pledge as the way Mark Dowd then followed suit which made me sit up and think, Ok, me too.   I broke my rule over a wedding too this year, my niece's - went to Calcutta.  Amazing.  Every moment was more than wonderful because this time, unlike all the previous trips,  I knew I would never return, never have the flying experience again.

Caroline Jackson's picture

Giving up flying

Like you Sara, I gave up flying about 5 years ago.  In our church housegroup we watched "God is Green"  the C4 documentary by Mark Dowd in which the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, was challenged to give up flying for a year. It wasn't so much the bishop's pledge as the way Mark Dowd then followed suit which made me sit up and think, Ok, me too.   I broke my rule over a wedding too this year, my niece's - went to Calcutta.  Amazing.  Every moment was more than wonderful because this time, unlike all the previous trips,  I knew I would never return, never have the flying experience again.

Jo Homan's picture

giving it up

Having cut right down on flying (I've just worked out I've had 11 flying holidays in my life) I fully embraced land travel last year, after a big family gathering in America. My final flight was unenjoyable enough for me to not miss it: the kids slumped sideways across the seats, me trying to sleep on the floor where it was noisy, hard and cold! Although the views of clouds from above are amazing, I dislike the overall experience of flying and always prefer travelling by train. It feels like such an adventure and I love the foldy out beds etc. My family doesn't really understand why I won't be flying but seem to accept it. There's talk of the next gathering being in mainland Europe - in our ancestral home of Italy. However, the Americans will all be flying over :( 

Mandy Meikle's picture

Carbon rationing

Great post, Sara and as I've just commented on Teen's post ( I won't repeat myself but I do agree that the way to change people's behaviour begins with getting them to think about their carbon use - not to feel guilty about it. The negative feelings of guilt can make people switch off from a topic altogether. So I like the idea of a reduction pledge, a committment to ration one's carbon - save carbon as well as money before you fly!

Marcus Draper's picture

I think its wonderful to hear

I think its wonderful to hear stories of people moving on from flying. I decided not to fly 3 years ago after a holiday in Turkey. I tried not to go but the holiday was a family gift and I ended up bowing to the pressure. Someone said to me once, that if you are given money then the donor has a certain control over you. This was certainly true at the time. Conversely, the best bit about that holiday was flying, not in an aeroplane mind you, it was paragliding off the side of a mountain. Now that's flying!!

The decision not to fly isn't one support by my wife though. Its difficult when one half has more eco-sense than the other. I like no-fly stories because they can be used to show good times are possible without aeroplanes. Thanks Sara.



Alex Loh's picture

Another important issue is

Another important issue is multicultural extended families. Many of my relatives are in Malaysia. I have not been there since 1994 due to work committments but other relatives do travel back and forth, and my mother is thinking of (understandably) returning to her ancestral country in retirement, and will obviously expect me to visit!

There are lot of British Asian families for whom travel isn't done on a whim (its expensive, and involves crossing borders, checkpoints and being judged and scrutinised at every point) but its an important part of our family values..


sharonede's picture

Love Travel, Hate Waste :)

With genuine respect for others and their decisions and commitments around the issue of carbon and travel, I’d like to offer a view on behalf of people who can’t reasonably travel beyond their own country without flying.

I’m Australian, I’ve worked in the green/environmental movement for twenty years, and I see travel as one of life's great pleasures, one of the great consciousness-builders and barrier-breaker-downers. Given my mob live on an island, there's not really much other choice for us unless we are never to leave our country. Travel will once again be the domain only of the super-privileged who get more than four weeks' leave a year to be able to afford the time to go somewhere by boat. Even to get to somewhere across my own country, which still lacks a super fast train system, would take days just in one direction.

In 2011 I applied for a fellowship with the intent of studying communications approaches in the UK and basically got told 'you're from Australia, don't come - don't fly'. It infuriated me.

And as Sara points out, it’s a small percentage of people who are doing the bulk of the flying. The rest of us rarely have the time or the money, and now there’s a pile of guilt when we do. It irks all the more to hear it from people who already got to do all their travelling before it became a carbon sin.

How about we put the brakes on some of our jetsetters (footballers, models, pop stars etc) before we go into a state of self-denial? 

I’d also like to point out that while we get all uptight about some things (flying), probably because it’s more visible, a report that came out a few years back showed that the global IT industry had an equivalent C02 impact to the aviation industry.

Are we all also willing to switch off, shut down, disconnect? I’m betting no – I’m not :)

There are many other things we could stop doing that are wasteful first before giving up travel for pleasure and connecting with family and friends.

Here are five examples of massively wasteful uses of fossil fuels that we could/should be abandoning if we want to adopt a carbon reductionist* approach: 

5. Flying prawns from Scotland to Thailand to be shelled and shipping them back again because the labour is cheaper

4. Building more freeways and sprawl as peak oil looms = dispersing places dependent on fossil-fuel transport systems = resource traps 

…or an even greater nonsense, building new cities that NO ONE lives in:

3. Allowing boomerang trade - examples: 5,000 tonnes of toilet paper exported from the UK to Germany, but then the UK imports over 4,000 tonnes back again from Germany; 22,000 tonnes of potatoes imported from Egypt to UK and then the UK exports 27,000 tonnes back to Egypt

2. Burning squillions of litres of fossil fuel invading countries to gain control of fossil fuel sources


1. Wasting food - agriculture is the biggest part of our collective Ecological Footprint ( and food waste has massive amounts of embedded energy (and water and nutrient) in it. 

by that I don’t mean reducing carbon – I mean ranking activities according to carbon impact. Travel has benefits for the carbon cost, wasteful consumption and trade do not.

I say travel - but travel mindfully/not too often, and fly only when there is no other way.

But eschew carbon reductionism and guilt, because unless we cut the abhorrent waste our society produces (everything from food to boomerang trade) which is a far greater carbon impact, we'll be denying ourselves of wonderful experiences.

I don’t live near the things that are second nature to you; the cities and towns full of the history I studied at school and daydreamed about. I can’t get to Notre Dame, The Pantheon, the Loire Valley, Westminster Abbey, or all the other places I crave visiting, by train or bike.

Travel, including to other countries by plane, offers the most wonderful adventures and experiences. I'd rather call halt on those frequent-flying shrimps before giving it up.

Let’s hope someone is inventing a super-turbo-fast submarine type thing powered by the energy of the ocean as we speak… 

This is a duplicate of my comment left on Ann Owen's piece, and is an amended version of a forthcoming post on my blog.

Mandy Meikle's picture


Hi Sharonede - I've also wondered what the EROEI figures for oil wars are! Totally agree with your five examples of massively wasteful uses of fossil fuels and would add less obvious things like bottled water (plastic, transport etc.) and disposable 'things'. There's a line from an Ani diFranco song which says,

"What a waste of thumbs that are opposable

to make machines that are disposable"

And excellent point re global IT's energy use. If you find figures, please let me know as I've often wondered but didn't think it compared to aviation!

There's a deeper problem here than who flies where. None of us want to feel responsible for the state of the world and individually, none of us are. But collectively...well, that's why I think the next breakthrough will be psychological, not technological.

kevcosta's picture

"Shipping" vs. Flying

OK all you brilliant and experienced (and inspiring) world travelers, tell me one thing:  How can I travel by ship with my vehicle, relief supplies, and my trusty companion & specially-trained rescue dog from ANYwhere in the Southern U.S. to Costa Rica to help recent earthquake victims ?

kevcosta's picture

"Shipping" vs. Flying

OK all you brilliant and experienced (and inspiring) world travelers, tell me one thing:  How can I travel by ship with my vehicle, relief supplies, and my trusty companion & specially-trained rescue dog from ANYwhere in the Southern U.S. to Costa Rica to help recent earthquake victims ?

Mandy Meikle's picture

"Shipping" vs. Flying - carbon rationalisation

You probably can't, kevcosta, at least not quickly. It's interesting how many reasons for having to fly are given in these comments but not many seem to agree with the idea of carbon rationing. Maybe it's carbon rationalisation we need? If you want to fly (let's face it, barring medical emergencies, no one really needs to fly) then fly but ask yourself why you are doing it. Who's to say whether visiting your mother is more or less important than helping earthquake victims? Only you can reduce your carbon emissions, whether by reducing or eliminating flying, or eating locally-grown food, using the car less, whatever. It's your choice and so long as you're happy with that choice, there's little point feeling guilty or defensive.

The real problem is that fossil fuels have brought us all conveniences and pleasures we don't want to give up. Significant behavioural change will come only when the options are no longer available; initially, for most people, due to unaffordability. If people want to do something and they can afford it, they usually do it. Never forget that those of us who choose frugality for the sake of the environment are not the norm!

Dave Green's picture

re flying

I don't believe in being absolutist about anything.  The problem with flying is how much of it goes on  and that it's been growing, putting pressure on the climate and airport capacity.  So I try to fly as little as possible.  I've been by train to Poland, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Italy in the last year (a mix of work and pleasure), it's possible and in many ways more enjoyable than flying, though unfortunately more expensive.  However i flew to Budapest for a conference that I thought was worth attending but there just wasn't time to get their any other way (I was busy fighting an incinerator public inquiry at the time). I've always wanted to go to Crete and when I get the time and money I will probably fly there but I will stay as long as I can once I'm there because I won't be returning for a long time if ever.  If my family lived outside of eurpoe i would fly to see them (occassionally).

The problem it seems to me is that some people just fly routinely, without even thinking of alternatives, or for ridculously short breaks that could have been taken in the UK.  we need first to get people to think of alternatives and to cut back on the amount they fly.  Eventually not flying will become the norm again (as it was only 40 years ago) and flying will be saved for very special occassions for which hopefully an alternative fuel will be available. 

Sapoty Brook's picture

Sustainable Flight

I am an Australian independent scientist/engineer/innovator. All my life I have been thinking about sustainable flight. A few years ago I broke through to a new concept of flight that is entirely sustainable and potentially fast. Since then I have been exploring the concept both theoretically and experimentally. As a professional innovator I need to eventually be financially rewarded for my efforts, and consequently have patented the key ideas in a few countries. The patents have been accepted.

I am now at a stage where I am ready to engage in more substantial prototyping. I am seeking a sincerely green investor who has significant financial resources and a willingness to support research and development of a revolutionary form of sustainable airborne flight propulsion. If you, the reader, knows such an investor please refer this post to him/her.

Please don't email me if you are merely interested in the concept, or just to express verbal support or scepticism, because that will waste my time in pursuing this urgent necessity. I only want to hear from potential investors:

Kim Hill's picture

individual behaviour change doesn't help

Individual behaviour change helps no-one.  We’re all in this together.  Climate change affects everyone in the world, we don’t each have our own climate that we can influence, and make our own individual lives sustainable without being influenced by the larger culture and structures that we live in.  Capitalism teaches us to act as an individual, and behaviour change activism takes this to extremes.  This is not what transition is about at all.  We need to act as communities to stop the industrial system that is tearing communities (both human and natural) apart.  Acting as an individual is to pretend this whole system doesn’t exist, or will just disappear automatically, without anyone making any effort to change it.

The UK chief scientist says that less than 100 years from now, the planet will be uninhabitable to humans and mammals, save maybe in Antarctica.  The only way I can see to avert this catastrophe is to stop all burning of all fossil fuels immediately.  In this context, doesn’t one person’s choice of taking a train holiday, and telling others about it, seem a not-very-useful response?

Also in the current economic system, if a few people decide not to fly, airlines will lower their prices, so will need to make more flights to make the same profit.  So you’re contributing to more flights and more emissions.  Individual actions that ignore the larger issues only make things worse.

I feel that I have a responsibility to the natural world to let it live.  Only by acting collectively with humans who have the power to act on this do I have a chance of making this happen.  Let’s stop aiming for sustainability (which is only sustaining the structures that are destroying life), and work together to tear these structures down.  It’s not difficult, but it takes a willingness to see the big picture, and to take collective action.  Deep Green Resistance is a sister movement to Transition, working on dismantling the system that we want to transition away from.  Please learn about and support this movement.

See here and here for more about the impacts of individual actions.