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Flying Is One of the Worst Things You Can Do for the Environment -- So Why Do So Many Well-Intentioned Folks Do It?

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

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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.”

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