Flying is one of the worst things you can do for the environment — so why do so many well-intentioned folks do it?

by on November 18, 2010 · 12 comments

in Culture, Energy, Environment, Health

airplaneBy Joseph Nevins / AlterNet / Originally published Nov. 1, 2010

Flying is the single most ecologically costly act of individual consumption. Can we kick the habit, or at least cut back?

You’re in a hurry, and for good reason. You — or people you identify with — have to catch a flight to somewhere like Cochabamba, Detroit, London, Montreal, or Washington, D.C. You’re off to participate in a mass mobilization, a social forum or a meeting, to protest, to exchange ideas, to investigate, to bear witness or demonstrate your solidarity. These gatherings are a manifestation of, and contributor to, exciting and important efforts of social and environmental justice activists, advocates, analysts and organizers struggling to build a better world.

Given the political and intellectual energy these get-togethers embody and help to spur on, the allure to participate by flying “there” is undeniable. They provide valuable opportunities for networking, debate, discussion, protest, and organization- or movement-building. They also speak powerfully to the willingness and ability of many to expend significant resources to advance weighty causes.

Such long-distance engagement also illustrates the scale of the challenges humanity faces. Indeed, the institutions and individuals who give rise to our most pressing problems typically exercise great mobility and exert their power in a manner that shows little regard for territorial limits. Accordingly, those of us who want to contest what they do often must labor across long distances to enable and strengthen relationships with others. And a common way we from the relatively wealthy parts and sectors of the planet do so is by flying.

The trouble with this is that flying is the single most ecologically costly act of individual consumption, one that requires the exploitation of large amounts of environmental and human resources. In a world of deep inequality, it thus also speaks to privilege — most notably what we might call ecological privilege — and its ugly flipside, disadvantage.

The exercise of this privilege flows from highly differentiated access to the world’s resource base and helps to intensify the planet’s degradation, contributing in the process to all sorts of unevenly distributed social ills. As numerous studies demonstrate, for example, climate change — to which flying contributes significantly — disproportionately harms people of color and low-income populations. Air travel is therefore inextricably part of the making of global inequities along axes such as those of race and empire.

That our decisions to fly have profound implications for the welfare of people and places across the globe illustrates how the movements of people are, among other things, “products and producers of power” — as geographer Tim Cresswell asserts. Those with more power consequently have greater mobility than those with less, while their mobility, in and of itself, helps to enhance their advantage over the less fortunate.

For those of us from the planet’s more privileged portions, acknowledgment of these ties should give serious pause before embracing the air travel that has become standard operating procedure among all too many. It should also compel us to engage political work in a manner commensurate with the ever-more-evident reality of a fragile and threatened biosphere. This requires a radical reduction in activism-related flying.

Do You Really Need to Go to That Meeting?

Because flying allows relatively quick travel over great distance, it facilitates far more resource consumption than other transport modes. Undoubtedly, many airborne voyagers would forgo trips is they had to use slower, more time-intensive, surface-level travel.

Moreover, the climate-destabilizing effects of air travel — per passenger mile — dwarfs that of other modes because of the enhanced climatic “forcing” it brings about: due to the height at which planes fly combined with the mixture of gases and particles they emit, conventional air travel detrimentally impacts global climate approximately 2.7 times more than that of its carbon emissions alone, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Yet it is striking how little one hears about this from those involved in environmental and social justice work. To many, the link between the problems they decry and try to remedy and their own consumption is seemingly invisible. Take, for instance, a Jan. 7, 2010 article by Orville Schell of the Asia Institute, where he works on, among other matters, climate change. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Schell laments the Himalaya’s melting glaciers. They are, he writes, “wasting away on an overheated planet, and no one knows what to do about it.” Meanwhile, he mentions that he has “roamed the world from San Francisco to Copenhagen to Beijing to Dubai” over “the past few months” — presumably by airplane.

Such a disconnect is hardly exceptional: a few years ago, a friend who works on climate issues for a progressive international NGO informed me that he and his colleagues had never discussed the ecological costs of flying in relation to their participation in meetings in distant locales.

Critical scrutiny of these costs did emerge somewhat in the context of the Dec. 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. The gathering reportedly generated 46,200 metric tons of carbon dioxide (an estimated 2,000-plus tons of which was due to President Barack Obama’s two Air Force One jets alone), the vast majority of which came from the flights of the delegates, officials, journalists, activists, and observers in attendance. (This is roughly equal to the annual emissions output of 660,000 Ethiopians or, given the profoundly different levels of consumption across the planet, 2,300 Americans — according to U.S. government data.)

But the voicing of concerns about such matters was isolated and, in places like the United States, almost non-existent — at least as indicated by media coverage.

Ironically, an organization critical of efforts to regulate carbon emissions, “Americans for Prosperity,” raised the issue. Trying to discredit U.S. student activists who had disrupted one of the Tea Party-allied group’s climate-change-skeptic sessions in Copenhagen, it posted a video on YouTube titled “Eco Hypocrites Fly in Jets Across Atlantic to Attack AFP.”

Given Americans for Prosperity’s climate-change-denial politics and the fact that its representatives had also flown to Denmark, it is difficult to take seriously its accusation of hypocrisy. That said, it forces the question of how one justifies an oversized ecological footprint — as Grist, the online environmental magazine put it in relation to flying to Copenhagen — “to help save the planet.”

What is striking about the Grist piece (May 17, 2009) is that it merely mentions ships as a low-impact alternative to flights, but only after saying that flying “is pretty much the only option” for non-European attendees. More importantly, it didn’t even raise the option of not going to Copenhagen — and pursuing other courses of action to advance a climate justice agenda in relation to the conference. To give one example, how about organizing in one’s hometown during the gathering and pressuring elected officials from the area to actively support a strong international agreement?

This is not to say that no one should have gone to Copenhagen — or to call for the end of all gatherings that involve long-distance travel. Nor is to say that no one should ever fly. For some, attending meetings in far-flung locales is absolutely necessary. But for many their attendance is not vital to the cause’s advancement. Moreover, some who would normally fly can get there by other means. And, of course, perhaps the in-person gathering need not take place, and would-be participants can figure out other ways to communicate and collaborate, and to further their political agenda.

In other words, there are alternatives to what has become the default option. But for great numbers of us, consideration of such alternatives doesn’t happen — in large part because flying is so easy and inexpensive, at least in the financial sense.

When Green Living Is Not So Green

Not having to seriously consider alternatives to the dominant ways of doing things is one of the beauties of privilege — for those who have it at any rate. According to a 2008 study by researchers at Britain’s Exeter University, supporters of “green living” — those who try to live lightly by, for example, rejecting bottled war, biking or walking whenever possible, recycling and composting — are the most likely to engage in long-distance flying. These relatively wealthy folks are also as resistant to changing their high-flying practices as those skeptical of climate change science.

This demonstrates how privilege is structured into the social order in such a way that it is invisible to many, or comes to be seen (at least by its defenders) as the natural or acceptable order of things. There are important questions that privileged people simply don’t ask or don’t have to answer. Here’s one: how do you justify the appropriation of an unsustainable and socially unjust share of the biosphere’s resources in a manner that concentrates benefits among a minority, and detriments in those associated with a disadvantaged majority?

In posing such a question, I am mindful of Derrick Jensen’s warning (Orion, July/August 2009) against thinking that taking shorter showers will change the world. Those working for ecological sustainability and justice, Jensen argues, must not retreat into a comfortable focus on individual consumption and avoid the very necessary and hard struggle against powerful structures and institutions that drive much of the destruction of the biosphere.

At the same time, we should also avoid the trap of making a simple distinction between the individual and the collective, agency and structure. The work-related flights of social and environmental justice advocates add up in significant ways. A roundtrip flight between New York City and Los Angeles on a typical commercial jet yields an estimated 715 kilos of CO2 per economy class passenger, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. This results in what is effectively, in terms of climatic forcing, 1,917 kilos, or almost two tons, of emissions.

Opinion varies as to what is a sustainable level of carbon emissions per capita were the “right to pollute” allocated equitably among the world’s human inhabitants. What they all suggest is that flying and a sustainable lifestyle are at fundamental odds.

The London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) posits two metric tons per person at present as the cut-off. But if we project into the future and assume a need to cut global emissions by a whopping 90 percent vis-à-vis 1990 levels in the next few decades to keep within a safe upper limit of atmospheric carbon, the IIED asserts we must achieve 0.45 tons per capita. Either way, that New York-L.A. flight at best effectively equals the allowable annual emissions of an average resident of the planet or exceeds it manifold.

Such numbers have led analyst and activist George Monbiot to conclude in his book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, that “most of the aeroplanes flying today be grounded.” In addition to meaning the end of distant holiday travel “unless you are prepared to take a long time getting there” (e.g. by bus, train or ship), it also means “most painfully,” he says in reference to himself, the end of airborne travel to “political meetings in Porto Alegre.”

Air Travel’s Ecological Footprint

Part of the problem associated with challenging ecological privilege is that, like all systems of structural violence, the myriad costs and injuries associated with it are rarely visible to the beneficiaries in any sort of immediate, tangible, easily accessed way. Of course, there are rare occasions when the costs of the typically out-of-view extraction and production of the carbon-based fuels that drive modern transportation become horrifically visible: when we see, for instance, images of oil-soaked pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico, or view and listen to video of inhabitants of the Niger Delta’s ravaged villages who have the misfortune of sitting atop lucrative oil deposits.

But in terms of the consumption of petroleum, the resulting harm is cumulative over time and space, its effects socialized and delayed, while the benefits (getting from point A to B quickly) are individual and immediate. So phenomena such as increased desertification, biodiversity loss, drought, or rising sea levels — and the attendant human and non-human dislocating and destructive consequences — seem distant, and unrelated to “us.” They become what anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes calls “the violence of everyday life,” or what writer Rob Nixon characterizes as “slow violence.”

Raising the issue of air travel’s ecological footprint, and the environmental and social hazards associated with flying, does not make for comfortable discussion. My experience is that some respond defensively, many engage in verbal acrobatics or make jokes as a way of deflecting the conversation, or some simply ignore the matter and change the subject. At the same time, a small but not insignificant number acknowledge the need to greatly reduce that footprint. Yet few actually follow through in terms of the ethical and ecological implications of that acknowledgment.

It seems that too many environmental and social justice advocates think they should be exempt from reducing their aviation-related footprint because their work is important. The continue their airborne ways because they don’t see “realistic” alternatives, and, perhaps, more importantly, because they can.

It is not that the exercise of privilege can’t be put to good use, but such action always and inherently also brings about injury. So the question we have to grapple with individually and collectively is, does the resulting good compensate (at the very least) for the harm, while laying the groundwork for eliminating the system of privilege and disadvantage — what ultimately, from a social and environmental justice perspective, has to be the goal of progressively minded folks?

We Can Do Better

As someone who has engaged in more than my share of activist-related flying over the years — to go to protests and conferences, to participate in national and international meetings of organizations I have been involved in, to lobby government officials, or to give lectures — I appreciate the many positives associated with long-distance travel in furthering a transformative politics. It has allowed me to connect and collaborate with old friends and colleagues on important matters and make new ones, and to learn a great deal — in addition to having a good time and visiting interesting places.

Yet, in looking back, I have to admit that most of it was unnecessary. Given the heavy socio-ecological costs involved, I could and should have pursued far more environmentally sustainable alternatives that would have involved my staying put physically, while still being in position to connect with people afar and advance the struggle. (As Bill McKibben argues in his book Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough Planet, Internet-related communication can and must serve as the substitute “trip” for the jet travel that climate change and falling oil supplies no longer permit.) And if it was so important that I go “there” in person, I should have, and could have in most instances, taken the time to travel slowly and on the Earth’s surface.

Obviously, social and environmental justice advocates are hardly among the principle forces bringing about the planet’s degradation. But what we do matters — for better and for worse. As Monbiot points out, “well-meaning people are as capable of destroying the biosphere as the executives of Exxon.” So, if for no other reasons than the necessity of “walking the walk” and the demands of a biosphere under siege, we need to hold ourselves to a much higher standard in terms of how we conduct ourselves.

By challenging our own ecological privilege and working to find less environmentally destructive methods of connecting with others, we lessen our complicity in racism, imperialism, and other malignant “isms” that disproportionately harm peoples and places on the national and global margins. We also show others — activists, friends, and family members who fly unhesitatingly — that not only is another world possible, but also some of what needs to be done to bring about that world.

Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College. Among his books are Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid, and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on ‘Illegals’ and the Remaking of the U.S. Mexico Boundary.

For the original article, go here.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Old Hermit Dave November 18, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Do you have any idea how hard it would have been for those who planned the new Pearl Harbor and the War on Terror, to make it work without airliners? Even the ignorant masses would not have bought into the story that some Saudi guys took over 4 Greyhound buses and crashed two into the Twin Towers in NYC, one into the Pentagon, and one into a big hole in the ground in PA., trains would not have worked either. Of course high speed rail would be nice, but not if we had to be stripped and body cavity searched before boarding the train. We might try waking up and asking one heck of a lot of serious questions as to just what the heck happened on 9/11/01.


Flush November 19, 2010 at 9:56 am

Yah…we’re so evil for using modern technology and transportation. Heaven forbid we should use those big old evil airplanes for transporting people around who work for a living and actually make (gasp) MONEY! Oh, the evils of it all… How dare those of us living in a modern society would want to go visit friends, a sick relative, or see a family member they haven’t seen in many years. Oh, the audacity! And wait! What are those fiends like doctors thinking who choose to fly to another country, donating their time and talent to those less fortunate around the world? And what about relief supplies? Have the big, bad airplanes been used for flying food to starving people? Wow! You’re so right – we really need to re-think the use of airplanes!


Flush November 19, 2010 at 9:59 am

Oh, and P.S. – what about the ecological footprint of the computer you used to type up your article? My God! All the petroleum products for the plastic alone must have been immense! Oh wait…you used the computer because it makes your life easier…sort of like flying…


Jon November 20, 2010 at 8:33 am

So are you advocating that because plastic and airplanes exist, we should all just bury our heads in the sand and accept that we can never find a way to make these devices more efficient and less harmful to our natural environment? By using sarcasm and basically calling the author and other contributors hypocrites, you are stopping dialogue. Sure, I type on a plastic keyboard, I fly on an airplane, I drive a car, but I also have a strong desire to see those short term convenient vehicles evolve into more long-term sustainable vehicles. We basically invented the train, yet China, Japan and the EU are leaps and bounds ahead of us in developing high-speed rail transport. Why? Because we are addicted to fossil fuels and the major oil co.’s want us to keep coming back for more of our daily fix. We are beginning to seek recovery in the arms of renewable, sustainable technologies like high speed rail, solar, wind, algae, etc., and the oil giants are attempting to discredit those technologies through misinformation and tea party rallies.


Flush November 21, 2010 at 7:14 am

What I object to, Jon is the arrogant position of the environmentalists who use phrases like “addicted to fossil fuel” and the other terms that spin the use of the benefits of modern technology into a negative thing in general. Do you know that “greenhouse gasses” make up about 5% of our total atmosphere. Of that 5%, all of humanity contributes about 3 to 5% to those gasses. That means we contribute 5% of 5% – or about .25% to greenhouse gasses. Our impact on the environment is minuscule. It is simple arrogance to believe that we can somehow destroy this planet that has been around LONG before us and will be around long after we’re gone. Environmentalism is fueled by the “have-nots” vs. the “haves”; they want to push back the benefits that modernization gives us and our high standard of living so that they can promote some false sense of equality. Sorry, but I like the fact that I can turn a knob and drinkable water comes out of a faucet…I can flip a switch at night and can read a book…can jump in my SUV and safely drive my kids across town…can jump in a plane and visit my mother in Colorado….all of these modern conveniences thanks largely to resources gathered from our environment and modern technology. America is the greatest country in the world! And what you straw man as “misinformation and tea party rallies” is what I would call YOU sticking your head in the sand because the facts are that those technologies are expensive and not practical compared to what we already have. That’s not misinformation, it’s simply fact.


Jon November 21, 2010 at 10:34 am

I’m sorry, I stopped reading your response at your first sentence when you called fossil fuels “modern technology.” Plus, I noticed you put some link to a Fox news report as “evidence” of a debate not being over. Ugh…. Good luck with your modern technology buddy.


Flush November 21, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Yah…I know that objective thinking (if it’s true, then what does it matter the source) and thinking in abstract principles is probably difficult for you… Sorry about that.


Flush November 21, 2010 at 7:57 am

Oh and hey! Look what I just found…

Seems the debate is far from over…


Anarchist November 19, 2010 at 10:52 am

Wow flush, ad hominim attacks, red herrings and just plain not addressing the article. It seems to me that the author is mostly making the point that activists who take planes to their protests may be doing more harm than good, and they should pit ecological damage into the equation before going to a rally, meeting ect.
I don’t know why you read it anyway, it said “well-intentioned”
you just be trollin’


Flush November 20, 2010 at 7:23 am

Lol – I love how if you stick the “trollin'” label on someone, you can just discount what they say… Anyway, the bigger principle here is that the environmentalists have a pattern of blaming modern technology in some way for all of our perceived environmental woes, but in reality those blaming modern technology reap the benefits from modern technology as much as anyone else. Not to mention the fact that man-made global warming (er, excuse me, the proper name is now “climate change” because just 40 years ago everyone was panicking over “global cooling”) is a myth.


Frank Gormlie November 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Joseph, thanks for raising this issue, as no one is really discussing this aspect of modern life within the progressive community in San Diego, at least. Now we are aware of the problem.


dave rice November 19, 2010 at 6:20 pm

In an ideal world, we could get by with a drastically reduced level of air travel. Unfortunately, in practice, this would mean the extremely privileged lose nothing and the masses suffer. I’ve heard for years the attacks on Al Gore’s massive carbon footprint from the right, and while the effects of his work through his travels is debatable, the fact that he’s one of the grossest polluters out there, sadly, isn’t.

In the real world, I think we have to work toward a solution that everyone, not just the eco-sensitive, can buy into. For the short run, that probably means relying on more efficient engine technology – which is already being spurred in part by the demand for quieter jet engines. London is already incentivizing the use of superior engine technology by extending the no-fly curfews for jets using the newer engines. Given that San Diego also has an airport in the heart of the city (and 3 planes have drowned out my train of thought as I’ve been typing this in my backyard), maybe we could do something similar?


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