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’.
I 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.
I 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.
Then 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)