The troubles of travelling by air
Photo courtesy of Karen Arnold
by Sarah-Marie Thomas
I am a 22-year-old student and at the moment, like so many of my peers, I am slowly but steadily developing an ecological conscience - thank you social media, thank you David Attenborough, thank you Greta.
On the journey of living a more eco-friendly life, I have been able to adopt many lifestyle choices quite easily. I never really liked meat anyway - I gave it up from one day to the next, and I love experimenting with vegan recipes. I don’t remember the last time I bought a coffee-to-go, or when I went into a fast-fashion clothing store. I get my veggies plastic-free, and I showed up to the global climate strike. You might think I’m praising myself, but to be quite honest, I’m not really a coffee-drinker anyway, and what drew me to charity-shopping in the first place were the low prices and the fun of it, not the ecological aspect. We only ever go as far as it doesn’t really hurt, don’t we? And I know my personal pain limit very well.
Until about a year ago, my ecological conscience started at home and ended at the airport. Once I had realised travelling doesn’t have to be expensive, if you only know how to use Skyscanner the right way, I felt like the world was at my feet, waiting for me to explore every single corner of it. One part of my brain was specifically dedicated to all the travel destinations on my bucket list, only one click away. My mum calls me a globetrotter, not without a hint of pride in her voice.
In other words, I love travelling - and I am very much aware that this is the most generic, basic and predictable thing to say in this world, especially in my generation. I dare you to find me one millennial that doesn’t love travelling - it’s our universal hobby, it’s everybody’s passion. It’s in our Instagram feeds and tinder bios, it’s part of our identity as global, adventurous, open-minded citizens.
We all know what’s problematic about this, but here are some facts anyway. The environmental cost of air travel is unbelievably high. A Guardian analysis has recently found that ‘a long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than the average person in dozens of countries around the world produces in a whole year’. And it’s not just about CO2 emissions - many other aviation emissions have additional warming effects on the climate, such as producing nitrogen oxides and water vapour.
Climate change expert Stefan Gössling says that ‘on an individual level, there is no other human activity that emits as much over such a short period of time as aviation, because it is so energy-intensive’. Cancelling only a single transatlantic flight has a more positive impact on our environment than not eating meat for a full year.
When these arguments and calculations are brought up, it usually triggers the following defensive reaction: Why are we targeting, if not blaming, the individual? Isn’t it up to the politicians to make changes? The big corporations? I fully agree that we are in desperate need of system change, managed by democracy. But as of now, politics is moving slowly, and politicians are ignoring the urgency of the situation. It is up to us, as citizens, to exemplify the change we want to see in the world. Why wait for politicians to wake up if there are things we can do now that will have a considerable positive impact on our climate? We cannot ignore politicians’ responsibility, but simultaneously, we shouldn’t use this as an excuse to leave our individual behaviour unquestioned.
Having all this in the back of my mind, I found myself starting to become uncomfortable with the idea of flying. This doesn’t mean I stopped - I just avoided posting Instagram stories from the airport. The Swedes have their own word for it: flight shame (‘flygskam’). But why was airplane travel that one thing that I just couldn’t let go of?
I have come to the conclusion that a big part of it is social pressure. Not the kind of pressure you get when you’re on a night out and you don’t want to drink. The pressure to travel, and to travel far, is a lot more subtle. Here’s the thing: I know there exist many, many places in Scotland, my home country Germany and the whole of Europe that are very much worth visiting and easily accessible by coach or train, and whenever I have the option to use another means of transportation than the airplane, I take it. But for some reason, I have it ingrained in my mind that I will not have lived my life to the fullest if
I have not been to exotic, far-away places. Somewhere between my friend’s social media posts about their safaris in Africa and travel agency ads selling ‘the time of my life’ in Australia, I learned that to make the most of my young life, I have to travel often and as far as possible. When have people become obsessed with counting ‘their countries’, ticking them off their lists or scratching them free on the world map over their bed? It seems like the worst thing to happen is to be on one’s deathbed without ever having hiked Machu Picchu, or seen the Niagara Falls. Been to Italy this summer? Cool. Been to Indonesia? A lot cooler.
I have decided not to buy into this commercial fear of missing out any longer. Does this mean I’ll never step on a plane again? No. If there ever was an emergency at home, or if I had family living far away, I’d willingly step on a plane to get to where I need and want to be. And maybe, every couple of years, I will go and explore a country outside of Europe. But for now, I have made it my new project to discover those travel destinations that are right at my fingertips, in Europe. Because yes, we have the world at our feet. But we should try to stop stomping on it.