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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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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.

 
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