Moving the Needle (2): Air Travel as an Example

Sometimes I’ll reread something I’ve written (or replay in my head something I’ve said), and think, Gosh that sounds so extreme! But last night in the middle of the night, I suddenly woke up bolt-upright remembering something really extreme I read recently, that reminded me of why I’m so adamant about minimizing my footprint and encouraging others to do the same. You can see it in the “Further Reading” section at the bottom of this post.

In my previous post “Moving the Needle,” I wrote about how we green-minded people have the power to shift the mainstream norms of consumption toward a norm that’s sustainable. We can’t control what other people do, and most of the time we can’t change them by verbally trying to tell them what to do. However, we can influence people by the example of our own actions.

Like, if I refuse to accept any car rides that are out of someone’s way, it makes an impression on people. It might make some of the people around me stop and think about their own tendency to get in a car and drive somewhere when they could instead walk or bicycle, or even eliminate the trip entirely. At the very least, it shows them that there are people getting through the day another way. Our visible actions (or non-actions) can stick with people more than we think (as I have sometimes found out long after the fact), and can motivate them to reflect on things they hadn’t given a second thought to.

Today I read an article about a woman who was feeling deprived because travel restrictions had kept her from taking her daughter to visit her parents, the daughter’s grandparents. The granddaughter, age 3, had “only” gotten to see the grandparents three times. I should mention that the mother, her husband, and the kids live in the USA; the parents live in a Middle Eastern country. So, about 7,000 miles and a 14-hour flight away.

The mother wants her parents’ help with the kids. Perfectly natural! Raising kids is a huge task, and one of the wrong turns I feel we’ve made in USA society is being so individualistic that we end up being too cut off from multiple generations of family.

The child is missing her grandparents. Also perfectly natural.

What’s not natural is that the mother in this article didn’t seem to see a problem with the fact that, during her daughter’s first nine months of life, she and her daughter flew to the Mideast to see the grandparents three separate times. In nine months. (After that, the US government implemented travel restrictions against the country where the grandparents were born and still live.) Why didn’t she see a problem with taking three trips of that magnitude in nine months? Because air travel has become so commonplace and (relatively) inexpensive. The Mom isn’t wealthy or anything; she works in academia.

The mother laments being cut off from her parents. That’s natural.

She says getting to see your parents isn’t privilege. Well, actually, if you choose to live halfway around the world from your parents, getting to see them is privilege.

I forget where I first read it, but there’s a phrase “love miles.” It’s the miles we log traveling to see family and friends who live far away. And what allows them to be far away from us, or we from them, is cheap air travel, plus probably at some point someone took the bait of a geographically distant job opportunity. Nothing wrong with that, but there are consequences of it that we’ve been in denial about. Fragmented families and social isolation, for example. And a big fat carbon footprint.

Anyway! The reason I bring this up in the context of “moving the needle” is that as I was reading this article, my blood was boiling and I had the fleeting urge to write a social-media post about how obnoxious and spoiled this woman was. I did not do that. I even had the fleeting urge to tell the woman herself what a planet-trashing spoiled brat she was. I did not do that (and wouldn’t have even if I’d had a way to contact her).

Not only would either of those actions be unkind and unnecessary; they also would be very unlikely to motivate this person or anyone else to want to think about the carbon footprint of their travel. (Besides all that, I don’t know this person’s circumstances other than what was mentioned in the article, and I really have no business judging her.)

What I will do, is continue to pursue low-footprint alternatives of travel. And low-footprint alternatives to travel. And I’ll share my choices in a matter-of-fact way, when the topic of transportation comes up on Zero-Waste and permaculture groups. Or when friends ask me about vacation plans, or ask me if I’m attending this or that event that’s not either online, or outdoors in walking/cycling distance. I’ll also continue to praise the organizers of conferences, webinars, and meetings for having their events online. Even small communications of this kind help set new reference points; encourage people to reexamine norms that have become very solidified.

Further Reading:

Sometimes I’ll reread something I’ve written (or replay in my head something I’ve said), and think, Gosh that sounds so mean and so extreme! But last night in the middle of the night, I suddenly woke up bolt-upright remembering something horrifying I read recently, that reminded me of why I’m so adamant about shifting the cultural norms around travel and other high-footprint human activities. The following is an excerpt from a piece by Bill McKibben, in his email newsletter “Climate Forward” (New Yorker Magazine). It’s titled “Way Too Soon To Hack the Sky”:

Sometime in the next two weeks, an independent advisory committee is expected to issue a recommendation on a request from a team of Harvard scientists to fly a balloon from Kiruna, in Sweden’s Lapland region. The team would test a flight platform that might someday be used to inject a sample of aerosols into the stratosphere. Though this initial request is only for a test of a flight platform, a successful run would likely mean more tests, with aerosols of calcium carbonate and sulfates. These particles could hack the planet’s climate, by reflecting some of the sun’s light back out to space before it can reach the ground. It’s an ominous moment in the planet’s history—and one we should back away from for now.

This so-called solar geoengineering is the ultimate, break-the-glass response to the climate crisis. It’s been in the air, so to speak, for a long time (I wrote about it in 1989, in “The End of Nature”), but the fullest account yet comes in my colleague Elizabeth Kolbert’s marvellous new book, “Under a White Sky.” The title acknowledges the fact that this atmospheric hack could change the blue dome above our heads to a milky gray—which should give you some sense of the scale of the intervention. The argument in its favor is that humanity has done so little to address the climate crisis, despite thirty years of scientific warning, that we might have no choice but to follow our injection of CO2 with an injection of sulfate aerosols. Think of it as Narcan, on a global scale. “Geoengineering is not something to do lightly,” Harvard’s Daniel Schrag told Kolbert.

Indeed. So, in light of this development, does fretting about a wretched excess of air travel (and about destruction of old-growth forests, and about the wealthy world’s other deadly habits) sound so extreme?

On a final note, something I always try to remember to mention when talking about air travel. If you need to travel by air, you can purchase carbon offsets to help mitigate the footprint of your trip. (You can purchase offsets for travel by train, bus, car as well.) According to my research (including information from deep-green professionals who have to fly at times), the best type of offsets to buy is the Gold Standard. They only add a few dollars to the price of your trip. If you can afford long-distance travel you can afford to buy carbon offsets.