The Conceit of Air Travel - “Surely You Can’t Be Serious?”

"I am serious, and don't call me Shirley." (RIP Leslie Nielsen).

Here's the latest in a series of posts taking on the environmental blind spots and hypocritical behaviour of sustainability advocates like myself (I set my sights on the iPhone and tech boosterism in earlier posts).

Why am I picking on us? Because for reasons I'll explain shortly, the world expects and deserves better behaviour and smaller ecological footprints from environmentalists. It's also the social corner of the world I live in, and as I've come to understand through ongoing research into climate change communication and social change, we can only really meaningfully influence those closest to us, at a community level. This is also the level at which real social demand (political will) for government regulation is generated.

At the end of the day, all of this boils down to a simple moral question: Do you believe all human beings are equal, and deserve an equal share of personal security, hope and opportunity? Most of us would answer "yes," and that means we either reduce our ecological footprints or throw all our morals out the door. In the absence of action, our behaviour says, "We are the exceptional ones, and those most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation are the unlucky ones. And that's okay."

It's not okay. We can and must do better.

So here we go. Sacred cows be damned. It's nothing personal, some of my favourite people in the world fly like there's no tomorrow (but hopefully that will start to change).

Fasten Your Seat Belt

You might think that infectious personality and environmentally-conscious brain of yours is important enough to strap into a 737 and fly it across the continent at just under the speed of sound to attend a few meetings and eat some local greens, all in the name of social change, but it’s not. Not in today’s severely carbon-constrained world, where in the short-term, climate change threatens the most vulnerable, and in the slightly longer-term, the rest of us.

Except in exceptional circumstances, where you’re able to directly trace the carbon saved, from the carbon burned, because your in-person meeting blew some powerful person’s mind and changed the course of history, telecommuting (via Skype or any other video chat) should meet 99.9% of all organizational and personal communication needs. If it doesn’t, you should seriously question the environmental integrity of the people or organizations you’re working with (and flying to).

Some might argue there’s a window of opportunity when it’s okay (or even important) for some “key influencers” to fly around the world spreading environmental messages. Except in exceptional circumstances, I think that’s a selfish conceit. To that argument, I’d answer, it’s precisely because you are a professional social influencer that you need to model the change you want to see in the world. The public expects and deserves a higher standard of sustainable behaviour from those advocating it.

Be the Change When it comes to reducing our carbon footprints by flying less, environmentalists are some of the worst offenders I know. Worse still, some glorify it, making it part of their own self-affirmation. Here are a couple of anonymous examples of environmentalists and social-change types (friends and colleagues of mine) talking about their flying habits on social media:

“On my way to North Carolina in a couple hours....Nvr been! After this trip I will only have to go to Florida to have been to every state in the USA!”


“On the hop in NY - fun couple of days of meetings, making some new and influential friends for our planet.”


Every time you walk down the street with a baggage ticket on your suitcase, every time you “check-in” to your favourite airport online, you’re sending a strong message to friends, family and colleagues that flying is not only okay, but that it’s even desirable.

How can we honestly expect people to take our warnings about climate change seriously when our behaviour suggests it isn’t a big deal? Some environmentalists would prefer to dismiss such questions as ad hominem attacks, or detours that detract from more important targets like big corporations, but the research shows people are paying attention to your behaviour. By "being the change" you put yourself in a much stronger position to ask for serious emission reductions from corporations and government. There needs to be a cultural demand for regulation, and that won't happen if we're all acting like the people in First class.

The Only Way To Fly

When you do fly, as a matter of carefully considered necessity, (and I underline, bold, and italicize that, because really, if we don’t redouble our efforts to actually “be the change,” then our supposed concern about climate change is just bullshit) here are some basic rules to lessen it’s impact:

UPDATE: My buddy Jeffery feels that climate politics and the role of active citizenship and collective action weren't prominent enough in my original post. Well, let's fix that.

  • Be a frequent citizen (and an infrequent flyer) - Lobby your local, provincial and federal politicians for real climate leadership. Vote for (and join) political parties that actually have plans to fight climate change (Prime Minister Harper and his federal Conservatives don't have one). Canada needs to support international climate treaties and put a price on carbon. It also needs to put hard caps on major emission sources like the oil sands. Active citizenship and collective action goes hand-in-hand with personal change and strongly expressed values at the community level.
  • Fly less (a lot less, almost not at all) - Rinse, repeat and ask, “Why can’t I Skype or video chat?” Do I really need to fly to achieve this goal? On balance, will this trip honestly move the world towards sustainability? If you have any intention to monitor your personal carbon budget, you need to know that a single long-haul flight takes-up more than 50% of the annual per capita emissions recommended by climate scientists to stay below dangerous levels of climate change. That basically means flying (if it happens at all) should only occur every few years (and you better be living like a saint in between). One flight puts you and the world, deeper into carbon debt.
  • Don’t glorify it - Flying is a form of conspicuous consumption and it’s one of the most environmentally-destructive forms out there. Flying is a delicious, addictive indulgence, that is completely unsustainable. When you do fly, don’t broadcast it. Social media trip planners that announce your comings and goings send the message to your peers and colleagues that flying (and lots of it) is normal, maybe even desirable. Should each of the approximately 7 billion people on earth aspire to casual flying? What makes you the exception?
  • Offset the shit out of it - While they can be problematic, offsets are better than nothing, but only by a little bit. Every time you fly, you’re endorsing and advertising a carbon-intense lifestyle. Offset a little more for your bad influence on others.
  • Measure and report your personal and organizational carbon footprints - All roads to sustainability point to low carbon social innovation and low levels of personal consumption. In the absence of measuring and reporting, environmental groups become what they most fear. They become a subset of the economy, mini-corporations similar to film studios, telling moral stories that people want to buy and believe in, but that are never substantively lived, least of all by the people telling them ("Do as I say, not as I do"). Set an example for the citizens, corporations and governments you seek to influence, by including your carbon footprint in your annual report.
  • Practice community building on the road - When you do find yourself in foreign lands, get involved with the local community. Consider local activism and citizenship as another form of offsetting. If you see yourself (and your reason for flying) as a source of social innovation diffusion, bringing only light (in the form of information) to the darkness (ignorance of local audiences), pack up your suitcase and go home. You forgot to pack two other components of public engagement: affective (emotion/interest and concern) and behavioural (action). Both can only be generated at the community-level, where social capital is created. Local people are the best people to do this, but if you’re in town and can lend a hand to a local cause, you should.

Adopt an Organizational and Personal "No-Fly Policy"

Let’s be more mindful, and apply a stronger set of criteria for determining when flying is truly necessary (for work or personal pursuits). For long trips, take alternative transportation like buses and trains, even if it takes longer - a lot longer. There was a time when trips across the country were a momentous occasion, requiring immense resources, careful planning, intention and fortitude. Surely the people you would otherwise fly to meet, deserve similar preparation and attention. If the reason you're flying isn't worth the sheer resources, planning and commitment of a Lewis and Clark expedition, then don’t fly. That’s what Skype is for.

Think about implementing a "no fly" policy in your organization and within your household. Have that conversation. Explain that you're trying to keep track of and reduce your carbon footprint. When we start to measure these things with intention, behaviour change comes a lot more naturally.

Fly less and start measuring your carbon footprint today. Practice political citizenship like you mean it. Support political parties who believe that it's important to fight climate change. Prove to the world that you surely are serious.