Why I Quit Flying

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September 2006

A couple of weeks after the news of my plane-free journey hit the media in Bristol, Sarah Neales, a postgraduate Sociology student at Bristol University e-mailed me asking if I would participate in an interview for her dissertation on plane dependence. Following is the full text of that interview:

1. How many flights on average did you have per year before you decided to stop flying?

I flew about 2-3 times per year, mainly to see my family in the UK every couple of years, to visit my Dad in Florida and New Mexico, and to conferences on the East Coast. I am responsible for quite a bit of carbon in the atmosphere over the years.

2. What were the last 5 destinations that you flew to?

I’ve had the travel bug bad this year. I flew from Seattle to San Francisco on the way back from a cycle tour of Canada, roundtrip from SF to Central America, SF to London, London to Nice, and my final flight was a roundtrip from SF to Hanoi (I had actually quit flying before this flight, but fell in love with a woman who was travelling to Asia, and decided to follow her global warming be damned. Now I really have given up for good- I swear! On the plane on the way back from Vietnam, I got food poisoning from some salmon and spent most of the flight curled up on the floor of the toilet in agony- not a great experience let me tell you. The only thing that kept me going was repeating over and over…..never again never again never again…..

3. Was there a pivotal moment that spurred the decision to stop flying? If so what was it?

God if it wasn’t that salmon…. I guess I have known for a while what a huge impact that aviation has on climate change, but I never really thought that it was possible, or realistic to give up flying. That changed last year when I met a guy named Ethan, or Blazing Echidna. He started a loosely knit group of people travelling by bicycle and doing volunteer work called the Superheroes. He has totally given up flying and even riding in cars. I haven’t completely done the latter yet, though I avoid it as much as possible. For instance, I have only been in a private car only once since arriving in Bristol in September (not counting 3 or 4 taxi rides). Some friends and I donned capes, assumed superhero identities, and joined the Heroes for a week on Vancouver Island in summer 2005. I learned from Ethan about how he and his girlfriend travel between the States and France every year, sometimes by container ship, sometimes by sailboat. It was inspiring hearing about the adventures that avoiding aviation affords. He referred me to come shipping companies, including the one I travelled with between Montreal and Antwerp. I guess if I had to pin it down, I really decided that I was committed to stop flying on the way back from Nice at the end of 2005 on Easyjet- I just felt physically sick taking part in an industry that is growing so fast with no regard for the environment. It just felt fundamentally wrong to be able to travel so quickly so cheaply. Eventually the costs will catch up with us. We are forcing our children to pay for our excessive consumption.

4. Why in essence have you pledged to stop using air transport?

I have stopped using air transport primarily because I am opposed to the impact that aviation has on the environment, particularly the carbon emissions that are destabilizing our atmosphere. To be honest, it is also a relief to me personally because I always hated flying, got sweaty palms when taking off, etc. I hate airports, and how they force you to walk through shopping malls on the way to your plane. I hate the queues, the food, worrying about terrorism, and the jetlag. Most people seem to hate flying too, but put up with it because it is cheap and quick. Flying has become a huge industry, packaged like a mcdonalds hamburger. It’s all processed and nothing original or pure. It’s quite sad too, aviation used to be so romantic. What an adventure it must have been to fly in a small plane for the first time many years ago. It would be nice if we could treat aviation with respect, and consider flying a real treat to be done once or twice in one’s life, not every weekend down to one’s holiday home in Spain. Just like cars, we seem to be intoxicated by the technology, blind to the fact that our over-indulgence is causing enormous suffering, and even jeopardizing our very ability to continue to inhabit this planet. It is an addiction of the worst order, and we are blinded by this dependent relationship.

5. Have you found the effects of this decision have had a negative impact on your life? Please explain

It has been almost a year since I gave up flying, and in truth I feel that giving up flying has had an entirely positive effect on my life. I had an amazing adventure travelling between San Francisco and Bristol by train and boat, exploring new cultures and communities I would have completely missed if I had flown. I loved the people and the architecture of Montreal for example. I am planning a couple of trips to the continent by Eurostar in the next few months, and I’m looking forward to that. I have not forgone any trips because of my decision. It is likely that I will engage in international travel less frequently, but for longer periods at a time, and with more planning and consideration. That’s just fine with me. I hate one week vacations where you just get used to a culture and make friends and then have to return to your desk job. That’s no life for me.

6. Do you feel as though you are making a sacrifice?

I feel like I was sacrificing a part of myself to the greedy and polluting airline industry every time I got on an airplane. I feel totally liberated from that now, and I feel free to criticize the dangerous plans for airport expansion in the UK, without a hint of hypocrisy. I know that my life will be different than it was, but I’m excited about future travels and adventures by rail and sea.

7. If so, do you believe the contribution you are making is worth the sacrifice? Please explain

I think that one should live ones life with the philosophy that if everyone did what you are doing, would it be a good world to live in? If 6 billion people drove cars and flew to their holiday homes 6 times a year, there’s no question that the world would cease being a hospitable place to live.

The truth is that the world’s poor are making the real sacrifice in not “benefiting” from fossil fuel dependence, yet they are forced to live with the worst of the consequences. The only way that the world’s rich can get away with their indulgent lifestyles is to seize all the “environmental space” of the planet for themselves which is just exactly what continues to happen every day. It’s totally outrageous and it makes me very angry.

8. Have you been to as many destinations since you stopped flying as you did previously?

Yes, I have not curtailed any travel because of my decision to quit flying

9. Do you believe that not flying has hindered or enhanced your travelling experiences? Please explain

Most certainly enhanced. I learned blues guitar, made many friends, learned new languages, all while travelling on trains and ships.

10. Do you feel that your decision not to fly has limited your life experiences? Ie you may have to visit family less often, it may limit your work opportunities

Yes I may visit family less often, but the visits I do have with family will be for a longer duration, and hopefully more quality time together. I may have to forego certain jobs that require flying, or ownership of a car, but I really don’t want those jobs anyway. I think that it should be illegal to require flying or car ownership as a condition of hiring. If ‘making a living’ means I have to partake in the destruction of our atmosphere, then I’d rather forage for berries, live in a tent and hunt deer, to be honest. Luckily there are many jobs out there that don’t require flying or driving and share a sensible outlook on personal environmental responsibility. I’d like to find a job that will keep food on the table while also allowing me to make a contribution to a sustainable society. I’ve managed that for the past ten years, working for renewable energy firms, trail advocates, and most recently the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

11. Having pledged not to fly, how do you feel? You talked of the liberation resulting from your decision…please explain

I feel liberated by my decision to quit flying certainly. It’s been a lot like the feeling I had when I sold my car in 1999. I feel confident in my ability to live a successful well rounded life without planes. It’s 100% the right decision for me as a sustainable transport advocate and cycle instructor to travel responsibly. Driving and flying are like alcohol- taken in moderation and with respect, it can be really fun and sociable. Nothing better for example than renting a car for a road trip with friends every once in a while. That’s what the car was made for, not daily commuting. Taken to excess, driving and flying are highly destructive. As a society, we are like alcoholics vomiting in the gutter, abusing our girlfriends, getting fired from our job. We drive two blocks to the grocery store when our legs will get use there just fine. We take short flights to France when there are good rail services available. This is addictive behaviour in the extreme, and our scientists, just like a doctor, tell us we must change our ways or risk the consequences. We shouldn’t so much feel angry toward our culture of consumption, but compassion for our well-being. We are sick and we need treatment. I will do whatever I can to help people see through the lies, but if I fail, then I guess at least it is some consolation that I made a concerted effort to reduce my emissions and encourage others to reduce theirs. That’s all anyone can do to address the threat of climate chaos, after all.

12. Some people argue that the ability to fly to exotic places enhances ones status. Do you believe that your decision not to fly has caused people to think differently of you? If so, in what way?

We are trained from an early age by the media that successful adults own a car and fly frequently. These are manufactured insidious messages whose only purpose is to increase profits for auto, petrol, and airline companies. Some people might think of me as having a lower status because I don’t drive a 4×4 or fly to Barbados for the weekend. But honestly, I don’t really care. That stuff is such bullshit. I mean I remember when I bought my first car- I didn’t have a real need for it. I just had this notion that adults drive cars to work- therefore I needed a car. I really had no need for the car- it just was a huge money drain that made me less fit and more stressed.

I think if someone is informed about current events, and has a halfway decent moral compass, they will see my efforts in light of concern for the impact we are having on the planet, full stop.

13. Before you made the pledge not to fly, were you well informed about the environmental effects? To what extent?

Yes I knew that one roundtrip across the Atlantic was equivalent to driving a car all year- this really shocked me. Since I quit flying, I have also learned more about why aviation fuel has more of a warming effect than fuel that is burned on the ground. Basically, carbon traps more heat in the upper troposphere than it does near the ground. It’s called radiative forcing, and of course the airline industry hides it from its carbon calculations to make them look less significant than they actually are.

14. Are you environmentally friendly in other aspects of your life? If so, how?

Yes, increasingly so. I gave up owning a car in 1999. I ride my bicycle most places, sometimes in conjunction with public transport. My housemates and I are committed to turning lights off when we leave the room, recycling, reusing plastic bags, jars and containers, putting on a sweater rather than relying on the heat all the time in the winter etc. We have replaced almost all the lights in the house with low energy compact fluorescent and LED bulbs that use a tenth of the energy of regular bulbs. We try to shop at food stores with bulk bins to reduce packaging. I shop at thrift and second hand stores for things I need. I am always conscious of food miles, and try to avoid any foods that have been flown to the UK. We just signed up for a box scheme from Leigh Court Farm, a grower here in Bristol. Every week, I go and pick up the veggies on my bike, filling up my panniers with local organic tastiness. People say, oh you guys are so green. But really, it just makes sense. We save money, we reduce our carbon footprint, and our quality of life is really improved.

But of course we’re not perfect. I admit to sometimes taking showers that are longer than necessary, and sometimes buy dried mangoes from places like Mexico and Kenya. I guess we all have to have our vices.

Also I think the term “green” is overused in the UK. We need another term to identify environmental villains, maybe “brown.” Green should be the norm. If you are not “green” then you either ill-informed or suicidal.

15. What are your views on the society we live in today where flying has become ordinary and mundane?

Well I’ve probably already covered this, but again I think there is a real psychological illness. People are flying so far away because there is a gaping hole in their soul. They are searching for something meaningful in their lives, and they certainly aren’t going to find it on a package holiday. We need to reconnect with our local environment, rather than spending our money and energy far away. There is so much to see and do close to home. As a society, there is just no way we can continue to travel so indiscriminately and expect the planet to continue to provide our basic needs as it has for thousands of years. At some point, we need to decide what is more important: driving that flashy 4×4 around the UK, and flying to Malaga for the weekend, or living on a planet that we can rely upon to keep us alive. That’s not just crazy hippies from San Francisco talking- that is the international scientific consensus are say. We need to heed their warnings. As Al Gore says, we have to hear the voices of future generations now. I’m sure if they could they would ask us how we could have continued the burning when we knew the truth about the effects.

16. Would you say you lead a high or low consumption lifestyle? Do you feel dictated by material needs and desires? Did this have an impact on your decision to sacrifice flying from your lifestyle?

I lead a low consumption lifestyle for a westerner. I probably lead a high consumption lifestyle however in comparison with the average person living on this planet. Sometimes I feel the urge to go and spend money and buy things when I’m down or feeling depressed, but increasingly I realize that this doesn’t help the underlying problem. I try to spend time with friends and go out for a walk or a cycle ride instead of “retail therapy.”

Exercise produces higher levels of endorphins which improve mood. I think that’s why there is so much depression in western society. People have been deprived of their basic right to exercise because of car dependence and growing traffic. Human beings were meant to get around under our own power. That has been taken, packaged, and re-sold to us by the auto and oil industries. Taking something that has always been free and repackaging it to make a profit is a key characteristic of capitalism. Look at bottled water, exercise gyms, cars, tumble dryers. Who needs it?

16. How do you believe we can get people to reduce the amount they fly?

I think that the scientific realities of climate change, presented in a compelling and convincing manner, can have a powerful effect. When people suddenly get it- that we are tinkering with the basic life support systems of our planet, and that there’s nowhere else to go if we destroy this one, I have faith that people will make the right decision. The government can impose limits on airport expansion and taxes on aviation, but ultimately it is the individual who is responsible. We vote for our government, and we make travel decisions. If the government we elect fails to respect local democratic opposition to airport expansion (as they are doing with the Stansted expansion) then it is within our rights to use direct, non-violent action to stop them. I signed a pledge saying as much at http://www.airportpledge.co.uk

Morality can change so quickly. Simple, mundane acts that we take for granted now, like taking the kids to school in the car, or vacationing in Hawaii, can appear in the rearview mirror like crimes against humanity. If one of us had lived in Hitler’s Germany in the late 1930’s, we would have gone along with the atrocities, because that was the norm- it’s what was acceptable- what everyone was doing. Killing Jews- no big deal- they are vermin and scheming, conniving liars that are getting in the way of the glorious Third Reich. It’s just like Hannah Arendt wrote in her book “On the Banality of Evil,” the worst kinds of evil are invisible to those carrying it out. Our fossil fuel habit is like that- it is mundane and habit driven. But collectively, our impact on the planet is, and will become to a much greater extent, evil. I don’t see any other way of interpreting the science.

I don’t think that most people are evil. I think human beings are inherently good. But unfortunately, there seems to be this massive denial, propped up and perpetuated by the multinational corporations and the media, that we can just continue consuming without limits. It is this struggle for human rights,liveable communities, and especially a stable climate, over capitalism and the rights of corporations– this will be the central struggle of the 21st century….

8 responses to “Why I Quit Flying

  1. Pingback: Why I Quit Flying and Why You Should Too « On the Level: Car Free Blog

  2. Yeah! Josh, this is great stuff, really inspiring. I challenge anyone to read this and not feel moved to re-double their efforts to reduce climate change.

  3. Thanks for these thought provoking articles. Planning a plane-free honeymoon to Paris and the South of France next year!

  4. Hey Josh, thanks for the inspiring choice. I met a German activist who had given up flying for environmental reasons when I was doing some bike work in Europe about 10 years ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Years ago a friend told me that if flights were distributed equitably and sustainably throughout the planet, we’d all get one per lifetime (I haven’t checked the facts.)

    My band tours by bike with help from time to time from Amtrak and buses. We’ve been planning a European tour for awhile and haven’t yet reconciled how we’re going to get there.

    I’m wondering if you’ve done any research into the comparative impacts of ships and planes, or did you just assume since the ships are already going anyway and you’re ostensibly no increasing demand for their cargo services by signing on as a passenger that your impact is pretty nil as, in essence, a free rider?

    Did you research sailing options?

    I’d be interested in thoughts/resources.

    paz,

    kipchoge

  5. onthelevelblog

    Hey Kipchoge,

    Honour to have you commenting on my blog as I’m a big fan of your music- love the song How Much- we played it out loud on a critical mass here in bristol a while back! I think I met you at a gig you did in front of the ferry building in SF a while back. To answer your question, yes I did look into the carbon impacts of ships vs. planes, and the short answer is that all long distance travel is energy intensive, unless of course you can find a sailboat, but that depends a lot on luck and connections within the sailing world. Trains are FAR more energy efficient than planes however- over 10x by some estimates. There is a good analysis done by my ex-girlfriend Louise Rouse, on her blog at http://www.louiserouse.com/blog/?p=185 and http://www.louiserouse.com/blog/?p=104

    I think one can easily get lost in the calculations however. The important thing is that an increasing number of us are taking a stand against an industry that has no qualms about putting our future in danger in their relentless pursuit of growth and profit.

    Look me up when you guys come to Europe! Would be great to have you play in Bristol.

    your friend,

    Josh

  6. you are an idiot climate change is not due to carbon in the atmosphere it is due to energy fluctuations from the sun It does not release a set amount of energy in fact all the planets in the solar system are warming in lock step with our own planet as the sun is producing more energy. However it is difficult to get new taxes and new donations to your cause when no one is to blame for the warming. A warmer planet is not a bad thing more land to grow crops we will adapt and eventually the planet will cool and start a new ice age which is worse than a warm planet so find something else to worry about. How about drilling in the bakken oil deposit that is estimated to hold 503 billion barrels of light sweet crude now that would end opecs strangle hold on the u.s. but you environmentalist will file suit after suit to prevent domestic oil production heck you are probably funded by opec! you are domestic enemies raising costs for everything maybe you would prefer to eradicate the entire human population then nobody would care about it. get a life do something productive im going flying in my fuel hungry piston twin so i can see the beauty below.

  7. Well, I wonder what Stan is saying now since the Deepwater Horizon blew? You prick the skin of Gaia, Earth, just too many times and what do expect?

    Yes the sun may be heating things up too, there is some science on that. But we are not helping much. And the $$ raising slam is totally bogus. All sides have organizations that ask for $$. How about those televangelists for starters.

  8. Josh

    Support your stance. Flying is the highest source of personal emissions and yet, in terms of impact on our personal wellbeing – one of the easiest to reduce. Compared for example to car use – much harder to cut that out – particularly if you have kids.

    There is a movement starting in New Zealand – see http://intersect.ning.com/group/flightlessbirds

    I wonder how many others there are around the world?

    Tom

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