Monday 1 March 2010

The elephant in the room: flying

This is the first in our new series of killer questions – the elephants in the room, those topics that are just too vast and difficult to deal with, so we never talk about them. We’re bringing those elephants out into the open one by one! Do join in the debate and post your views, for or against – or even a definite maybe. What’s important is that we get the issues out into the open.

Our first elephant is flying – is this a complete no-no or are there times when it has to be done?

If we’re serious about carbon reduction, then flying is a big target. Our Transition Circles have made a commitment to cutting our carbon consumption by 50% of the national average, Norfolk's 11% by 2011 and Britain's 80% by 2050. We can turn down the heating, leave the car in the garage, switch to energy saving lightbulbs – all these things make a difference. But it’s a drop in the ocean compared to flying: it’s mega carbon whichever way you look at it.

Right, those are the facts. I knew all of this and still stubbornly took two return flights on holiday last summer. My argument was that I had worked hard; I deserved those holidays and I couldn’t spare the time to travel overland. And it was so much cheaper to fly than to go by train or road. Of course, I kept quiet about the flights and felt rather guilty, but still would have carried right on…. until a fierce email debate broke out behind the scenes in our Transition community.

All the rationale about simply reducing carbon had no effect on me. I was doing my bit in other ways, such as drastically reducing my London commute from 1000 miles a week to almost nothing, so surely a teeny weeny flight to Istanbul and another to central France was not so very bad. Not like crossing the pond or worse, jetting off to some fragile environment like the Galapagos islands.

It was Chris Hull’s thoughtful comment that stopped me in my tracks:

“For me, the major reason why I have changed the habits I have, albeit modestly, and why the climate change battle is worth fighting, is because the poorest people of the world are already being affected by climate change through no fault of their own. There is now not much doubt, for instance, that the droughts ( and therefore famines) in sub-Saharan Africa are due to the seasonal shift (south) of rainbelt over that part of the globe happening less frequently due to climate change.Chris recommended George Monbiot's book 'Heat' if I needed more evidence.

I didn’t need any more evidence. I’d crossed my personal Rubicon. No going back. No more flying. Unless… unless…

I can see situations where flying could be justified. Not for my holidays, where the Man in Seat 61 can sort out my train journeys for me to any of the places I want to go to: anywhere in Italy, in particular; Andalusia; Provence; even North Africa. No problem. Not for my friend K, who has more money than sense and recently flew to Scotland for the day to attend a rugby match. Not for most of the Prince of Wales’ jollies. We won’t even mention all those captains of industry with their private jets.

But what if the flight was connected to work? Say, someone had to attend a conference a long way away where their contribution would make a real difference to society? Or your employer simply wouldn’t accept business travel that didn’t involve flying when the rest of the team was travelling that way and you really had to be there?

Or if there was a family emergency, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see loved ones? It's not always so clear-cut to make the decision not to fly. As it happens, it is clear-cut for me at the moment. I can't see a situation for myself when I would ever need to fly again.

But it’s easy for me to set my own rules. I’m self-employed; my children are grown up. It’s not so easy if you have a young family or others to consider.

What do you think? Is flying permanently off, as far as you are concerned, whatever the circumstances, or do you see situations when it could be justified?

Pic: Dumbo the flying elephant © Disney


  1. Hi Jane,

    Very timely topic for me. I have not flown for 5 years now on environmental grounds and last year went to Wales on holiday to the CAT centre and to visit friends. I was not planning on getting on a plane ever again. I WAS feeling quietly pleased with myself... but then the holiday of a lifetime appeared on the horizon. I have been obsessed by Cuba for a number of years and have the opportunity to go there on a fairtrade holiday (organised by Traidcraft) to visit permaculture projects and fairtrade producers as well as experience the culture, music, dance etc. I have taken the plunge and decided to go, but I hearby solemnly (and publically) swear that this is it for atleast the next 5yrs, hopefully forever. Do I feel less guilty, not really. But at least I am taking that flight in the knowledge that it is a financial and carbon luxury and I will be learning as much as possible whilst there and sharing it with as many people as possible when I return home. Also, I have hopefully highlighted how carefully we should think about flying by driving all of my non-transition friends mad by openly discussing and deliberating over this decision. Traidcraft do not do 'offsetting' of the flight as they recognise that this is not an effective method of mitigating climate change, but they do have an environmental fund that I have been able to contribute to, in addition to the fact that the money for my holiday with be staying in the local economy in Cuba.


  2. Wow! Just checked out that "Man in Seat 61" website. Had heard about it before, but that certainly opens a world of possibilities for holidays and travel. A quick check shows that it's actually £7 cheaper than so-called "budget" airlines Ryanair for a family of four to go from London to Dublin. And that's without the cost of the train to Stansted first. OK, it's about 8 hours travel rather than the 2 on Ryanair, but that's not much to put up with. Plus you may even get a smile out of the stewards / stewardesses! ;-)

    (should have checked my spelling before posting my first comment!)

  3. Been looking at the 'man in seat 61' link - thank you Jane, amazing travel possibilities!