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December 29, 2012


Dave, Why are you specifically referring to frequent flying as being socially unacceptable?
Why not just flying?
Flights which can be described by the flyer as absolutely necessary or extremely important might pass through but otherwise it is just intensive carbon blasting with no moral justification, right?
Jess x

Dear Dave,

I agree, except I do think there's a need to define with slightly more refinement when it might be right or wrong to make a flight - I also think that if we have a framework for making the decision it would be useful as a tool for, overall, reducing CO2 emissions. With only a blunt tool for decision making ("all flying is bad") I'm beginning to fear that the message becomes easy to ignore. Of course we want to stop immediately all CO2 emissions, but in another field of energy use we know that 98% of all transport energy is fossil, and we don't advocate zero-tolerance to cars. Nor de we advocate zero home heating.
So, when might it be useful overall to take a flight? Considering another resource about which we are comfortable making decision - when is it worth spending some of your hard-saved cash? Economists know when to spend money in order to yield more overall. I think that there might be occasions, especially in the next few decades during which flying is, sadly, an integral part of our way of working, when flying might reduce CO2 emissions overall, like spending money can make you richer. I don't yet have a way to define that, but I think it needs consideration.

What to do when your family want to fly though? I have tried really hard not to, but my husband and kids just go places without me, which is gutting. Any advice Dave and lovely friends? Is this the ultimate sacrifice I just have to take? Well not ultimate, but you know what I mean! Next year I have to decide whether to forfeit a family holiday for a wedding in Barbados. Hey ho. Sue xxx

Great comments - thanks everyone.

@Jess I probably hoped my actions would speak louder than my words. Hard to describe the (total) two long-haul (US) flights i've taken in my entire life (both 30 years ago) as "frequent flying" - so i'd hoped it was pretty clear what my ethics are and what I believe - from what I do? - right?

@Daniel - hope i didn't say "all flying is bad" - in fact - i didn't :) Neither do i propose telling anyone - or being told - what is right or wrong - that's personal ethics isn't it? Sure there is always a cost-v-benefit argument - and i'm happy that the big benefit of people like e.g. say, Bill McKibben, Gandhi and M Teresa flying outweighs the cost, but they are special. If *everyone* in the system (re)assures themselves that - in their case - they are doing eco more good than harm - then i think between us we may be doing some double counting in the system, and a bit of passive denial ;)

@Soo - that's the hardest one of all - i don't think any general rules apply - except that i think we have to accept we have no right to expect to have any influence on or over our loved ones lives - that would be violence - we can only seek to live our own lives as best we can. I took a winter flight to Finland last year - a prize - paid for by a company - but i still take total responsibility for it - and i 'broke my own rule' - after >10 years of not flying atall. The three of us burnt 1 Ton of carbon each. Maybe it was a cop out, or maybe it helped show Grace (12yrs) and Jan (wife) how much i love them; maybe Grace will work it all out for herself one day!! It was her first ever flight and her school friends had been mocking her. Other parents simply couldn't understand it and probably think me cruel. She discovered flying wasn't all she dreamt it would be :) But we all had a lovely time and magic memories. We won't do it again.

This piece by Kevin Anderson is rather good, imho
"Slow and Low – the way to go
A systems view of travel emissions – comparing the plane and train to China & back"

I stopped flying for pleasure (that is, holidays) in 1999. But I continued flying at my clients' requests and expense on business. My justification was that if I hadn't done the job, a competitor would have been sitting in my seat. But I eventually stopped flying for good in 2009 and have decided never to fly again; for all the reasons Dave mentions.

Can we non-flyers make a difference? Well it's worth considering the economics. Bear in mind that the entire aviation industry depends for survival on a large number of people making regular flights in order to keep costs low. Without the masses of people flying, the cost of tickets starts rising and, as a consequence, people are then dissuaded flying by the expense. In turn that pushes ticket prices up even further. So all it needs is for a few people to stop -- or even reduce -- their flying and, before we know it, it becomes a virtuous circle where almost everyone become priced out of the market.

Then the best news of all: without the masses of ordinary customers buying tickets and supporting the aviation industry, the costs rise for the super rich and their jets as they begin to have to shoulder the entire cost for the infrastructure needed to fly their executive jets.

So a big difference starts with just a few people making the decision not to to fly. Economics does the rest. You have the power: I urge you to exercise it.

Just a little comment addressed to Sue. I've been ill for over a month (very nasty infection), now very slowly getting better, but taking ages to gather strength, so I've been cancelling one nice thing after the next that I had in my diary. However, I'm not holding out any expectations of what I might be able to do when. In other words, I don't "do" disappointment. It's bad on the system. A few years ago my wife and daughter flew to New Zealand for a month. I stayed at home. No problem. Likewise lovely people and lovely places, but, after feeling a bit empty at first I saw only positive in staying at home and what I chose to do with my time, and it was lovely seeing them back again.

Nice piece Dave. I am an MEP and I travel from Leeds/London to Brussels & Strasbourg by train exclusively. In fact since becoming an MEP I have flown only once in the line of duty (from Osnabruck to London City one way) as the train options just did not work. People are often very surprised when I tell them that I never fly to Brussels or Strasbourg.

However, I am not sure no flying at all is practicable for everyone/every journey, but it should form a significant part of being a greener traveller along with for example not driving journeys when you could easily walk/cycle/take public transport.

Cost can also be an issue with long distance train journeys, which can often be significantly more expensive than the corresponding flights, especially if the destinations have many airlines flying to them. I am lucky enough to be able to afford to pay that difference, but not everyone can.

I would also find it difficult to give up visiting Japan as I studied Japanese at university and have friends there I met as a student. I don't go there very often (once every 2-3 years), but it would be very difficult not to mention expensive to go via land and sea (although it is a life aim of mine to do it once!).

Thanks again for all your kind comments - muchly appreciated :D

What you may not be so aware of is all of the 'flak' that people like me get, whenever we say something simple like this.

From curious 'unsubscribe' messages - to helpful (but patronising) suggestions that "you must have more (personal developmental) work to do Dave - around your emotions around this subject" - our culture and our society's norms kick out strongly and pervasively to defend the status quo - and attack the outrageous suggestion that there could possibly be anything atall wrong with frequent flying! Let along flying. (It was morally ok to keep slaves once wasn't it?)

No - it must be people like me who are wrong/deluded/the problem/unenlightened? :D

That said - I have a peaceful feeling the great tide of popular awareness is yet turning...
We are grounding ourselves... and as JOHN RUSSELL said above (thanks)


Thanks x

BTW - I am not "anti-flying" - neither am i making judgements about people who are still in denial about just how big (in tons) a fly in the ointment their own personal flying habit really is - I am just pro-Earth.

I'm merely suggesting that we humans might helpfully consider cutting back on (by far) the biggest single impact under our own direct (self) control - rather than keeping it in (Jungian) "shadow" (= ignore, suppress or deny.) Numbers not adjectives. Self-leadership. Authenticity etc...

Thanks xx

Dear Dave and All,

There's some good emerging thinking about frameworks for deciding on modes of transport.

This is in line with the Transport Hierarchy I'm trying to get published and adopted: step one being "reduce demand while delivering same or greater value". (Step two - enable modal shift and inter-modal journeys, step 3 make all transport more efficient, step 4 increase capacity only after reducing demand). A bit like the comment above "slow and low, the way to go"!

My knotty example: UN Climate conferences, and how to resolve the dilemma of "long haul flying to reduce climate change". I've argued that the overall benefit probably outweighs the cost - possibly some passive denial and double counting there, justifying the pressure to do work and earn money.
However, I also suggest that big centralised global systems based on assumptions of cheap and abundant energy will always lead to big centralised global solutions based on assumed cheap and abundant energy. Like Einstein said: you can't solve a problem with the thinking that caused the problem, but we still have UNFCCC!
What then could we achieve if we assumed that energy is precious, expensive, constrained, and we set out to design a system that delivers the same outcomes as UNFCCC and the COP process? Would that system still include big centralised global conferences? Probably not. What would it look like? Does UNFCCC even have a mechanism for reinventing its own way of working?
There's also some interesting work with "time travel maps" (http://www.mysociety.org/2007/more-travel-maps/), that could organisers of conferences and governments to locate meetings based on available non-air-transport, rather than to try to go by train to a meeting / conference / parliament whose location is based on the assumption of flying.
We could also work towards change and avoid non-constructive positioning like being "anti-flying" nor to give flak to Dave who deserves better, nor to choose high-cost transport, and maybe we can re-learn how to recognise the difference between needs, rights, and luxuries.

loved your last line Daniel, in particular...

"maybe we can re-learn how to recognise the difference between needs, rights, and luxuries."

"Loaves and Fishes"

the three words that Amory Lovins chose to preface Natural Capitalism book :)

May I please put in a plug for an excellent film by Pamela Nowicka called "Climate Change No Thanks"
available here:
Here is the Facebook page

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