Walking back to happiness

This is a guest post by Tom Bennion of stopflying.org, the first in a series in which he explores why he believes giving up flying is not only possible, but essential.

I am a 46 year old lawyer, running a small practice specialising in environment law. I also teach. I am married, with three small children. Eighteen months ago, I decided to give up flying. Here’s why.
I believe that the idea of voluntary drastic reductions in personal air travel is a fault line issue in the climate change debate. By this I mean that when I suggest to friends who are concerned about climate change that they limit their air travel to essential trips only, because that is easily the greatest source of personal carbon emissions, I am invariably met with arguments that would not look out of place on Anthony Watts’ blog or at www.lomborg.com. These include:
  • globally, flying accounts for only a few percent of emissions, so why bother
  • per kilometre, emissions are about the same as a family car
  • offsets are possible
  • biofuels are coming
  • I am taking other (invariably much less effective) measures such as changing lightbulbs
  • I am (now) very worried about the impact on tourism of x country if I do not fly
  • you are making me feel guilty – stop it
  • you want to take us back to the middle ages – stop it
  • China and coal are the big problems. What we do as individuals doesnt really count.
The arguments are all deeply flawed. I will provide my thoughts to those matters in a subsequent post. In this post I want to focus on what I think are the underlying reasons for these responses.
Flying is far and away the highest source of personal emissions. Yet they are some of the most easily reduced emissions. Flying to a holiday in Fiji or Europe, at 30,000 feet while sipping drinks, comes well down in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Consider the impact of the Icelandic volcano earlier this year. The closure of Europe’s airspace badly affected some businesses, but in the main it stranded a lot of holiday makers.
It stands to reason then, that this would be the first place concerned individuals would cut their emissions. Cutting out all non-essential flights is a no-brainer. But generally, they don’t. A number of commentators have pointed this out. George Marshall has written about climate scientists taking high carbon holidays.
To give a personal example. A colleague who does important work in the climate area and tells me “we are stuffed”, just returned from what he happily told me was a ‘high carbon’ holiday. Why this odd disjunction between thinking and action when to comes to flying?
I believe that the central problem is the fact that flying is bound up with our current identity – the feeling of freedom to go and be anywhere on the globe at short notice. That knowledge shapes how we view the world and our place in it. And it is tough changing your world view in such a dramatic way. In deciding to strictly limit flying, you have to radically alter your view of the future. There is some personal hardship. But the main impact is psychological. You have to change how you see yourself, and your future, and the future you might have imagined for your children.
That is why it is embarrassing to tell people you no longer fly because of concern about climate change. And that is also why the people you tell often get embarrassed. Some feel personally affronted, viewing it as a challenge to their world view (as compared to, for example, the mild response you get when you tell someone you are vegetarian). In the face of that sort of social pressure, science and logic don’t stand a chance.
My reasons for stopping flying have been two-fold:
  • finally appreciating at a gut level that the future will be quite difficult for my children;
  • finding out that CO2 emissions are persistent in the atmosphere and warm over an extraordinarily long time (around 1000 years) — so every emission saved today counts.
I also realised that there are worse things than social embarrassment. And that fear of embarrassment and upsetting others would be a silly reason for refraining from taking action for my children and seeing the planet warm by 4 degrees. I liken it to the reaction any parent would have if they saw an unsafe pedestrian crossing near their child’s school. You don’t wait for others to act, and you don’t keep quiet about the danger.
Making this change means you start to look at very practical schemes for reducing emissions. Top of my wish list is a revived overnight sleeper train service between Auckland and Wellington. Easily achieved, it would allow business trips to be made within workday timeframes not too different from flying (currently I use the overnight bus — but you have to be good at cat-napping).
There are unexpected benefits, dinner with my elderly parents in Hamilton while I wait for the 10pm bus, better quality meetings with clients – since there is no rush to catch that 3pm flight to Wellington.
Why couldn’t I have my brother, who lives in Dublin, sitting virtually on my sofa, enjoying a live test match?
Making this change also means that you ask for technologies that go beyond crude retrofitting of existing systems. It seems to me that we could do a lot more in the area of videoconferencing, perhaps with some holograms thrown in. Gaming technology is moving in this direction. Why couldn’t I have my brother, who lives in Dublin, sitting virtually on my sofa, enjoying a live test match? And if I really need to travel to Dublin, is the Chinese idea of a 2-3 days journey by fast train (powered by renewable energy) the way to go? When you start those discussions, transporting large numbers of people around the world at 30,000 feet in jet aircraft burning kerosene starts to look like old technology.
One argument often made to me is that this idea puts people offside. It scares them. It splits the climate change message. I reject that. People are canny. If climate scientists, politicians and the like don’t appear to be taking a relatively easy and fairly obvious measure to reduce emissions, people figure that there is no reason why they should act. People want to know, are those shouting loudest about climate change putting any real skin in the game?
George Marshall puts it well:
Imagine that we focus our efforts on generating a socially held belief. What would change in the way we present climate science?
Well, for one thing we would become far more concerned about the communicators and their perceived trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is an elusive and complex bundle of qualities: authority and expertise are among them. But so too are less tangible qualities: honesty, confidence, charm, humour, outspokenness. The tiny network of maverick self-promoting skeptics play this game well – which is one of the reasons why they exercise such disproportionate influence over public opinion.
I have been surprised how many of my peers and even strangers who have heard about my initiative want to know more. “You really think its that serious?”, is a common question. My intention is that people, on their next flight, at the back of their minds, will remember that some people they know aren’t flying anymore because of climate change. The seeds for change are planted.
My intuition is that, because this is a fault line issue, it really wouldn’t take more than a few high profile institutions (climate institutes at universities?) and individuals (academics, politicians, film/pop stars) to declare that their flying days are over, and we would have a whole new debate about urgency, and what the government needs to do about reducing emissions.
The last reason why I think it makes good sense to have a stop flying movement is because our government suspects that we all want to talk climate change, but will vote them out if they institute the CO2 reduction measures which are now urgently required. But people who have stopped flying are sending the message “we have the understanding, independence and resilience to deal with this. What shall we do next?”
Tom Bennion

[Helen Shapiro]

42 thoughts on “Walking back to happiness”

  1. Tom, this needed to be said. Incidentally I have been asked to give a talk in Wellington this weekend, and was offered to have my flight paid for. I offered to talk only if it was done remotely via phone link, and this was accepted. With improved communications technologies, there is no longer any reason to fly to conferences, teleconferencing amongst other options is certainly more environmentally friendly and should become the way of the future. Sure you don’t get to meet people in person, but so what. Some of the most meaningful contacts I have ever made have been via email. BTW I wonder if holograms will make a comeback.

  2. I guess for New Zealanders this is a really tough one.
    We are an island nation and the majority of people here have family ties to the rest of the world.
    Living in Europe you can sample a wide range of cultures and can maintain personal contacts in dozens of countries using a great train network.
    Giving up flying for New Zealanders means to break these ties for good.
    Hard choices!

    1. … just to add some more thoughts to this:
      I think the following technological steps are possible given time:
      1) Generation of large amounts of affordable electric power through a combination of advanced wind + solar and 4th generation nuclear technology. Thorium reactors do not suffer a peak fuel problem on a horizon of millennia and therefore will need to be looked at carefully.
      2) With abundant electric energy we can generate our own liquid fuels such as synthetic Carbohydrate fuels or NH3 fuels which in turn can power aircraft CO2 neutral. The late Mat Simmons had turned his attention to large scale wind to fuels technologies before his death.

      These technologies are possible and I would not yet put aviation down for the count quite yet….

  3. New Zealand is certainly isolated by distance from the rest of the world and this is going to get worse due to climate change and the impending shortage of oil. If flying is very expensive or none existent we will have to go by sea. So how are we going to power our ships if oil is expensive and coal is unacceptable? Nuclear powered high speed catamarans would do the business and get us to Australia in three days.
    That’s a moral problem for New Zealanders to ponder.

    1. Modern video conferencing works very well …try Cesco.

      The time to drive a car to Auckland from Wellington has reduced
      from 14 hours to 8 hours, while there has been no investment in
      improving the rail corridor. Investment in rail (electric) will be an investment in the future, and the time could also be reduced
      to 8 hours at a fraction of the cost of those new express ways.

      Shipping can also be more efficient, selecting routes to optimise the use of wind, and using waste wood for fuel. Innovative technologies, like kite flying in upper jet streams at 10,000 metres, have now been designed and tested for cargo ships..

      Please also LIKE my campaign Facebook page by
      going to http://bit.ly/8XXPFe

      1. I just loved that kite flying idea when I first saw it – New Scientist? And this idea is doubly relevant – reduce fuel consumption while still using FF, enhance effectiveness of replacement technologies.

          1. On the subject of kites, I think Peter Lynn of Ashburton was working with a Californian startup (funded partly by Google) to generated electricity from high altitude kites.

            It’s certainly an interesting idea: the high altitude winds are much more reliable. I don’t know if this project went anywhere though.

            1. I tweeted this story last week:
              Cheaper-than-Coal Power from a Tethered Kite http://bit.ly/aScAoJ – could get over wind turbines NIMBY problems?
              There are a number of groups working on kites as power generators.

        1. It’s a romantic idea, but the practicalities of spending weeks at sea will rule out travel for all but the monied few, with pleny of time on their hands

          The reality for us in the IT industry is that we are using some pretty good collaboration software – Skype, IM, desktop sharing etc.

          This stuff is getting so mainstream now that I find us using it even when we are all physically located in the same office.

          National and international boundaries are only limited by timezones, in practice.

  4. Personally I didn’t like the authors tone. But that’s style more than anything else.

    The article is fine and has a decidedly northern hemisphere view, ie. high density living with many travelling options. As for technology, Vidoeconferencing is fine, but it’s good to ‘press the flesh’ once in a while.

    I just reflect on my own situation, I work in Wellington but still retain a home in Auckland where my family are. What am I supposed to do? Not work?

    Kind regards


  5. I think you are making a really good point Tom. Ultimately there may well be positives to surface travel, like slowing down and actually appreciating the journey. To those that say how can we get from here to there without flying I would say that mankind managed to build those places long before the advent of aviation.

    1. “Slowing down” is something I think directly relevant to the issue. We use fossil fuels to speed up our travel, not to make travel possible. It’s perfectly possible to envisage a world where international travel and trade is conducted by a mixture of sailing ships and hi-tec zeppelin-style airships. It might take a bit more than 24 hours to get to London from NZ, but it could be an enjoyable voyage… 😉

      1. Gareth,

        I have been wondering about the idea of Zeppelins, but I understand that helium is fast running out. See for example:
        I think sailing might be the better option, and people just need to get used to the idea of not needing to rush to a destination. Having sailed to South America and to Europe, the voyage was much more enjoyable than being stuck in a loud tin can at 30000 feet with no room to move.

  6. Now that we have fast communications, the need for faster overseas travel is less. Over land, trains can take care of most travel. Super fast trains in high population countries are obviously the best option. For some of those journeys up and down the coasts of Oz or US, once you’ve added in the fuss, time and effort of taxis at either end, you wonder how much time is really saved by that fast air trip. A quick train with computer and communication facilities would often be a much better bargain.

    1. Before I moved to NZ in the mid-90s, I was an enthusiastic user of the channel tunnel for journeys to Paris (where I had an important client). Total journey time was much less than by air. It was so convenient that I once missed a train because I’d forgotten my passport…

      And here’s something very interesting: China is planning a high speed train link with Europe. Two days from Beijing to London, possibly via India and the Middle East, and they’ll pay for it — in exchange for natural resources. A lesson there too, perhaps.

    2. Again, that’s very nice for countries other than NZ.

      A few months ago my son and his girlfriend visited me in Wellington. I couldn’t get them on a plane back to auckland on the friday. So i booked them on the train instead. They left at something like 7.25 am. I got back to the house quicker than they did after catching the 18:40 flight from Wellington.

      So until someone comes up with realistic alternative travelling options, you’re flying kites.

  7. There are a lot of things we have done in the past which we will not be able to do in the future. Somebody said that the next twenty years will not be the same as the last twenty years. I predict that flying will be very expensive and we will not be burning coal to make electricity for two.

  8. Three kids? There’s nothing you can do to more greatly enlarge your carbon footprint and, in fact, your negative environmental impact in every way than to bear a child in the United States.

  9. Having a child commits the Earth (that is, society extracting resources from the Earth) to a lifetime of providing food, clothing, water, etc. for that child. And that child will have children.

  10. I’ve run some quick numbers at my blog site, the URL for the post is at: http://hamiltonianfunction.blogspot.com/2010/10/am-i-malthusian_04.html.

    As it turns out, having a child in New Zealand and intensively travelling by air are of very similar impact with respect to the conversion of energy by the burning of fossil fuels. To the extent that my claim was that “nothing is as harmful,” I will modify it to “under ordinary circumstances and given that children will have children, bringing a child into the world is at least as harmful from a CO2 footprint as exceptionally intensive use of airline travel.”

  11. I dont see that my choice of having children is at all relevant to a discussion about reducing carbon emissions by forgoing completely discretionary high end energy uses such as flying.

    I think it is frankly a little bizarre and shows misplaced values.

    You can look through all the UN documents, covenants on human rights etc, constitutions of the world, and religious systems, and you wont find any support for the idea that flying, or driving a car, or having cheap electricity, or access to cheap plastic goods made in China, have a higher value than human life and reproductive freedom.

    Whether skeptic/denier or warmist, the very argument demonstrates a low valuing of human life (and an accompanying notion of control over people’s bodies) that I find alarming.

  12. It’s not surprising that you feel that way Tom, given that you have had three children but given up flying. My point is not to equate going on holiday in an airplane with having a child. And where did I suggest that you (or anyone) not have children or that I would favor policies that exert “control over people’s bodies?”

    It’s only the attitude that the choices you’ve made are fine whereas the choices others make are not. I hugely value human life and would like to have confidence that it will continue. But the numbers are what they are and right now, the number of people is right around 7 billion. And the child of a westerner such as yourself (or myself) will have a hugely disproportionate effect on the environment regardless of how it’s justified. Self-poisoning of a species is an easily demonstrated and well-documented phenomenon.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t have or shouldn’t have had children. I’m saying that the choices you’ve made in that regard have had a similar effect as if you’d decided to forgo children and go on 24 flying holidays every year. The CO2 molecule doesn’t have a memory of the cause of its genesis.

  13. Rob

    I do strongly advocate that people focus on their largest discretionary source of emissions, which is non-essential air travel.

    I think that, being non-essential, it is a relatively easy source of emissions to cut in the face of a serious global problem. Critically, it doesnt involve the loss of any basic human rights or needs.

    So I find responses that suggest that one of the first things I should have considered, or considered at the same time, is the foregoing of fundamental reproductive rights a bit odd. If we can achieve the necessary reductions by means that dont affect basic human rights, why would we not logically try all of those first?

    As you will be aware, NZ is in a good position to cut its emissions quite dramatically. That is a further reason why I find it odd that you think basic human rights should be some of the first items on the table when considering how to get to zero emissions.

    If you are suggesting that things are in such a state that basic human rights have to go, and go early, then I must presume that you agree that non-essential flying is definitely out.

  14. Tom,

    I’m obviously fine with your decision. But it’s yours. You’ve decided that three children is a fulfilling number for you and your spouse and that, in light of the clear convergence of CO2 emission, peak oil, and whatever other considerations motivate you, that you’ll forgo non-essential travel by air. Great.

    But others make different choices that are no less valid. Suppose I choose to have two children to replace myself and my wife – it’s hard to make a case that a number beyond that is more than a choice – and, instead of a third child, to engage in the desire to travel, see other lands and cultures in person, etc. Or to engage in a business that necessitates such travel. This is as legitimate a human right as to bear children, in my opinion.

    You and I will have a similar impact (neglecting the fact that the third child I didn’t have also won’t be having children) with respect to resource depletion, CO2 emission, environmental degradation, etc.

    You would contend your third child is a basic human right and falls into a different category than my choice to engage in air travel. I’m claiming that it does not and that, if minimizing negative impacts on the habitability of the Earth for future generations is among your goals, all decisions must be evaluated in that light.

    If you are saying “the sacrifice I’ve chosen to make is to not fly” then good for you. If you’re saying “everyone should follow my example” then I contend that you can’t rightfully claim the high moral ground in this regard.

  15. Rob

    You can see from my logic that I have to respectfully disagree. My contention is that there is no right to discretionary air travel and never has been. The right to bear children in my moral world ranks far above discretionary air travel. Otherwise, I would find myself in the position of suggesting to people intending to have large families that they think about my desire to be able to get to a holiday in Europe within 24 hours.

  16. I would say that western men and women choosing to have “large families” (I’m not sure where you’d place that boundary – I chose my placement in a previous comment) are being dramatically more selfish and destructive than someone who chooses to travel on an occasional holiday on another continent.

    You may be gratified to learn that my wife agrees with you, at least insofar as raising a large family is concerned. Not that we have done so but she believes it’s a much higher moral “right” than anything else. There are other things on which she and I disagree as well.

    All that said, the numbers are clear.

    1. I half agree with both you and Tom. In my view the number of children any individual has is far, far less important than the average number of generations in a family. If we’re seriously interested in smaller populations, the most important thing to do is educate women – I realise that this is not so much an issue in most industrialised countries – to increase the average age of women at first birth. There’s also an effect of reducing number of children as well – that’s how Ireland managed a stable population for many years, long before the availability of reliable contraception.

      I’m always horrified to see those pictures of 6 generation families in women’s magazines – as though it’s some kind of admirable achievement. It’s not. It’s a sign that 5 women in one family had their first child at an average age of 18 (presuming that the oldest woman in the photo is 90). Change that average age to 28 and the same 90 year life expectancy, and you’re down to 4 generations with the youngest in junior primary, 20 years away from her first child.

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