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21 Aug 2006

Meditations on Deciding Never to Fly Again…

nofly1That’s it, decision made. Don’t know why it took so long really, but finally we have agreed that we won’t fly any more. I have one flight booked already for October that I am committed to, but beyond that, it is either our van, travelling by train with the Man at Seat 61, or staying at home. The reasons are legion, and I’m sure you know most of them already. For me though, what was interesting was the process by which we actually finally decided, despite talking about it and knowing all the reasoning for years.

MII often hear people say “people won’t change until it is too late”, or “people don’t change until they have to”, both statements I have always instinctively disagreed with but haven’t quite known why. One of the insights I gleaned from Miller and Rollnick’s book Motivational Interviewing is that this is nonsense, if it were true there would be no recovered addicts anywhere, they would all have died. What is argued in the book is that people change when they can no longer support the discrepency between their core values and what they are doing. What MI does so skillfully is to enable people to become aware of that discrepency.

I have written previously about Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners series, which is a great example of developing that kind of discrepency. When he says “this is the first generation that will die before its parents”, he shows that peoples’ core value that their kids should be healthy and live longer than them is wildly out of step with the reality of what is happening. You reach a point where you can no longer support a particular behaviour. So it was with flying.

noflyIts not that we’re serial flyers, but perhaps once a year we have flown to places, so what was it that finally developed the required degree of discrepency? Well, it was an article in, of all places, the Telegraph, that did it. I did contact the paper to ask permission to reprint it but didn’t hear anything back. I feel it is such a good piece, and it might even have the effect on you that it had on me, that I am going to be slightly naughty and reprint it in full without permission, with a combination of apologies to the author and great thanks to him too. I read it on my holiday, passed it on to Emma, and that was it, decision made. So you’ll find the article in full below. The original can be found here.

Seems it’s not just me moving away from air travel and stressful hours in airports. The headline in the Independent on Saturday was “The Great British Holiday Boom” and was all about the fact that due to rising air prices, airport delays and last week’s somewhat dubious ‘security alert’ at Heathrow, people in the UK are deciding to holiday in the UK. Finding accommodation in Cornwall is, apparently, tough going. Fantastic, say I.

One of the things that struck me was that despite that fact that the UK is one of the world’s most popular tourist resorts, I hardly know it at all. I don’t think I have ever even been to Dorset, or the Norfolk Broads, my geography of north of Birmingham is sketchy, and I have never been to the North East at all. The British grumble about how bad the weather is, how cold it is all winter, how rainy and so on, and then as soon as it gets to the summer we all jet off overseas! Looks like all this is starting to change, and not a day too soon.

I’d be intrigued to hear your thoughts on all this, what you feel might tip you towards such a decision, or if you have already made it, how do you find it?

Why we must give up flying
The Bishop of London argued this week that we have a moral obligation to be environmentally friendly and that jetting away for a holiday is a sin. The geographer and journalist Nicholas Crane, who chose nearly 10 years ago never to fly again, explains his decision.

noflyA man of courage has spoken. The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, has categorised flying as “a symptom of sin”. The pressure on non-essential flying has been building for months. It just needed a public figure to take a stand against it.

Climate change has already changed my life for the better. In 1988, I went to a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society given by a scientist called Dr Michael Rycroft. He presented data revealing that man made chemicals had opened a hole in the atmosphere’s protective layer of ozone. The hole above the South Pole had actually been discovered in 1985 by three British Antarctic Survey scientists. Sheep were reportedly going blind in Patagonia, and if the ozone shield could not be repaired, humans too would suffer from increased ultraviolet penetration.

After the lecture, I walked across Hyde Park in the dark, numb with shock. I knew that the atmosphere was thin, but Mother Earth’s filtration and recycling systems had always seemed capable of neutralising or absorbing pollutants. The implications of an unstable, perforated atmosphere were frightening.

Then came “global warming”. Nothing, but nothing since the last Ice Age has posed a bigger threat to mankind. Some scientists think that we may have 10 years to make a sharp reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions. Other s think it is already too late, and that mankind will be lucky to last until the end of the century.

My own culpability in this man made mess is considerable. For the best part of 20 years, I worked as a travel writer, and although nearly all the books I wrote were based on journeys by bicycle or on foot, I often flew to my chosen country. From the earliest days of the global-warming issue, flying has been implicated as a significant contributor to atmospheric overload. I took flights to South America, to Africa, to the Caribbean. I once flew to Australia for just a week. The articles I wrote tended to fizz with enthusiasm for the places I had been investigating. I don’t know how many readers booked flights after reading these articles. A s I type these words, it’s impossible not to be wracked with guilt.

glcierIn 1995, I realised that I would have to stop flying. Even then, you had to hide your head in a very deep sandpit to avoid the warnings about global warming. Being a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society made them even harder to dodge. Not only were there lectures on CO2 emissions and climate change, but conversations in the bar and tea- room invariably swerved towards the geographical apocalypse. But in giving up long-haul travel, I had two problems. How could I continue to make a living? And how would I deal with travel denial?

In 1996, I tentatively began seeking commissions that I could undertake by train. I cycled two new bike routes, hiked along the coast of Devon and took Eurostar to central France then walked an ancient drove road across the bleak limestone plateau on the edge of the Cévennes.

In the spring of 1997, I took my last flight as a travel writer. It was to visit one of the few remaining wolf habitats in Europe, up in the mountain wilderness of Portugal’s Trás os Montes. While there, I was shown a recently discovered and exquisite set of petrogylphs. They revealed a lost land, teeming with game. The carvings had been made between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago, before the ice sheets bore down from the north and the Big Chill took out the habitats of northern Iberia.

Two months later, I took a train to Berwick-upon-Tweed, and began walking from the Scottish border to the English Channel. This became a book called Two Degrees West, and led to a stream of articles about England.

My conversion to “green journalism” was less alarming than I had anticipated. My career didn’t grind to a halt. I reacquainted myself with Britain and found a land of many wonders. Newspapers and magazines wanted to buy stories on the Welsh National Cycle Route, on fossil-hunting in Dorset and on camping in the Hebrides. I still miss the wider world. There are places that I will never see. Patagonia, Antarctica, Alaska and the Kunlun Shan will remain off limits – unless I sail, cycle and walk there.

But how big a personal price is this, really? A long time ago, I rode a bicycle through Bangladesh. On dirt roads between paddy fields, my cousin and I pedalled alongside throngs of laughing children. We ate curries in shacks while entire villages turned out to admire our bikes. Much of Bangladesh will be flooded by the end of the century, if not before. Millions of Bangladeshis will become homeless. How can I look a Bangladeshi in the eye and claim a right to fly?

Two years ago, I tried hard to get a television series and a book commissioned on climate change. I was told Britain’s viewing and reading population would not be interested in global warming: climate change was too “confrontational”. Instead, I threw myself into projects concerned with British landscapes.

Map Man and Coast, on BBC2, showed how our archipelago has changed through time. These exposed isles have always enjoyed (and suffered) dynamic topographies. Coastlines have changed dramatically over the past 10,000 years, and are likely to change again – catastrophically in some places – over the next 100 years. The series I am working on now, Great British Journeys, looks at eight great travellers who “discovered” Britain. The books they left behind are snapshots of landscapes in the throes of dramatic change. The series may not be “confrontational”, but it will, I hope, reveal how dynamic and fragile our habitats are.

glacierGiving up aircraft entirely is a tough call. There will always be compassionate and professional reasons for flying. And of course it’s all very well for me to give up air tourism after winging around the world for a couple of decades. Why shouldn’t the next generation have the same fun? Well, I have no answer to that. There isn’t any option but to give up all non-essential flying. The latest prognoses are so terrifying: at current rates of CO2 emissions, mankind’s difficulties could well start in the next few decades.

The crisis is immediate and needs an instant response. I don’t feel guilty that my children – 11, 10 and six – have never flown, and I don’t believe that I am retarding their engagement with the world. They are curious about aircraft, but know from what they learn at primary school that they cannot live their parents’ lives. It is they who deliver the teatime seminars on the need to recycle plastics and papers, and on the effects of carbon dioxide.

Among the people I know well, the “non-adaptors” to climate change are well-informed adults. I am absolutely mystified by this. It is no longer possible to claim that there is no connection between human activity and climate change. Or that climate change should be welcomed because it will bring vineyards to Clydeside. Or that aircraft emissions are good for the planet because they add a reflective heat-shield of pollutants to the atmosphere.

“Eco-tourism”, if it involves flights, is no way round the issue, either. A “green holiday” in Costa Rica won’t remove several hours of jumbo emissions from the atmosphere. Nor will “offsetting” the emissions – by contributing to the cost of planting new trees that will in time soak up CO2 – at a conscience-salving website really make your journey “carbon neutral”. Better not to fly and plant the trees anyway.

noflyThe Bishop of London has raised the stakes and made air travel a matter of conscience. While the financial price has fallen, the environmental cost has risen. It is no longer a question of “where to?” and “how much?” but of “why fly?” It is a moral question that we need to ask ourselves each time our fingers hover over the “confirm booking” tab on an airline website.

There are other options. Britain and Europe offer a lifetime’s worth of travel, all of which can be done by land and sea. Why go to New Zealand if you haven’t seen the sun set over the Hebrides?

In the sense of the Old Testament Hebrew term for sin, ht, meaning to “miss a goal or way”, the bishop is also making a secondary point. For every holiday flight abroad we take, we are missing the chance to explore and enjoy our own magnificent archipelago.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.

24 Comments

Gareth_Doutch
21 Aug 8:20am

I got back from camping in Wales last week. This is after moving away and living in England for the last 10 years. I’m ashamed to say that much of that small country I have never seen despite growing up there.
I got to see the Welsh highlands in glorious daylight (as opposed to mist or night whenever I have previously been through), beautiful Tenby, and made a much belated visit to the CAT centre. Loved every minute!

Paul
21 Aug 5:02pm

Please bare a thought for us who live and work in Cornwall. That boom in tourism is starting to overload our county. The second homes are killing the villages and the new A30 Goss Moor bypass to be opened next year will remove the last obstical to weekending here for the masses.
P.S. Devon’s nice with Totnes featuring well on the green front.

PSJ
22 Aug 8:21am

I’ve given up flying too, large part because I hate flying, but also because of the reasons you state.
(1) Doing a little bit more to reduce climate change
(2) Getting used to not flying anyhow (Peak Oil will make sure it is too expensive within a decade or so)
(3) We are fortunate to live in a beautiful country, and we also have Europe just across the seas – who needs to fly far and wide?

As for future generations, as mentioned earlier, I don’t think they’re going to have the option to be such casual flyers. We weren’t casual flyers 30 years ago, and we won’t be casual flyers 30 years in the future.

Nicholas Harvey
22 Aug 5:43pm

I flew far too much last year, suffered huge amounts of eco-guilt, so decided not to fly at all this year. Not sure if I’m brave enough to say ‘never again’ but I have holidayed at home this summer and discovered some wonderful parts of West Cork I’d never seen before, travelling by…car! Oops! After 35 years of cycling and public transport I’ve had to buy a car to commute to my Permaculture course! Such strange ironies.

So is the next step to stop buying food that has been imported by plane? I’m sure most of the visitors to this site make efforts to buy seasonal, local and organic as much as possible. But what about things like tea and coffee when you live in northern Europe?

There aren’t any simple solutions to these problems, but these pages and comments are always chock full of useful shared experiences and great ideas.

Drew Green
22 Aug 11:34pm

It’s not about ecology, although that is important to thinking people. It’s all about control.

A mobile populace is a dangerous populace. “They” actually don’t WANT us to fly. If you can’t move freely, you are controlled and less of a threat.

Welcome to the new millenium.

NRB
23 Aug 1:26am

What makes you think that a car or van is more ecologically sound than a jet? Far more people drive than fly. The damage from the gasoline engine is horrendous whether it is 5000 feet up or just outside your door.
If walk, or use a bicycle, or take the train if the distance is long or the weather is severe you are entitled to say you’re doing your part to solve the problem. The car or van just adds to it.

Hans Noeldner
23 Aug 2:10am

This is a very inspiring piece. I believe that for most of us, our experience of the world via travel is either a mile wide and an inch deep, or an inch wide and a mile deep. Our footprint on Earth is much lighter when we choose the latter.

That said, I am profoundly thankful for the rich experience that gifted travel writers share with thousands and sometimes millions of readers.

Jason Bradford
23 Aug 5:45pm

My wife and I made this decision too. One of the arguments against it is always, “But that’s not fair, everyone else is doing it.”

Sounds childish doesn’t it?

It isn’t fair. So what, get over it. Do it because its the right thing to do. People tend not to like being the only ones making a sacrifice, but if we leaders willing to change then it there is the chance for others to follow. Then it isn’t individual sacrifice, it is collective will and a movement. This process feeds upon itself when a critical mass is born.

Then again, while I have given up some things, I am discovering others. The hours and days we used to spend elsewhere are used to discover what is closer to home and so far that hasn’t led to a decline in the quality of our lives.

Stephen Watson
24 Aug 9:51am

Hi Rob,

I reached this point with my car in 2002 – I could no longer square driving to work with the knowledge I had of climate change, so the car went.

In 2003, I visited my brother in Sydney for the first time and vowed after return that I would never fly again. I hadn’t flown for some time anyway but the actual mechanics of going to Heathrow, seeing the planes and being part of the entire process rammed home what’s actually going on. That was the last time I flew.

It was always a luxury and not a right and that’s something to remember. Visit http://www.seat61.com and find out how to travel without planes and to redicover what the man reminds us used to be called a “journey” before planes removed that part from the equation.

Two years ago I travelled on the West Highland line in Scotland and it was so staggeringly beautiful that I cried several times on that trip. We have such natural beauty and wonder on our own doorstep so let’s explore it eh?

Ugo Bardi
24 Aug 9:51pm

Hello Rob, that’s a curious coincidence that I stumbled into your comment on giving up flying just two hours after I had told to my wife, “You know, I think we should take a resolution to stop flying”. I had been thinking to that for a while.

My wife says she would still like to travel by plane sometimes, so I am not sure I can stick to this idea. But I can say that in my last business trip, last month, I insisted with my colleagues to go by train to Germany, instead of using the plane as we would have normally done. It worked, why not?

I remember hearing Jean Laherrere, the oil geologist, telling me something like, “Planes? They are an albatross that flew for a while, it is already over, almost”. Probably it is true, no matter what resolutions we may take, it will be over soon.

Ugo

heather witham
25 Aug 10:31am

I did sign a pledge earlier this year: http://www.flightpledge.org.uk/ and the Gold certificate is hanging in the office. It has the caveat of flying only for family or personal emergencies. I’m relieved about that because I’m an American living permanently in the UK but my mother (I am an only child) and father live in the U.S. My pledge was just for the coming year and I may “need” to fly to the U.S. next year to give my mother some emotional support. I haven’t flown for 3 years — or seen her for that long — and I’m feeling like a bad daughter. It’s very tough when you’re split across oceans like this. If I do decide to go next year, I will have to make it extremely productive and make it a goodbye tour to everyone I would not visit during an emergency and also make sure I can do some work networking too. (I work in sustainability, so that’s helpful…) And I already decided I would take the shortest flight possible (Bristol to NYC) and then take the train around the rest of the US. Very expensive but it should be a great experience and will help ease my eco-guilt over the one flight.

Doom-A-Holic
28 Aug 3:54am

What about all the peak oil conferences? If people don’t fly to them then what is going to happen?

Mat in Noosa
30 Aug 12:24pm

I guess the peak oil conferences are going to be old hat anyway ?

Flight in its essence is not irreconcileable, birds fly etc. its non renewable resource use and population growth that will become more and more impossible. Otherwise what the future holds is only limited by the integrity of our collective willpower and imagination. Our vision of the future community, local, national and global is the starting point for what might happen, ie a vision of no flight lends itself to that outcome. I like to hope that my children will experience airtravel (Australia is very big), and international travel. Without this hope and action any chance of that is reduced. Lobby for renewables and support of truly sustainable technology development instead of war, politics, suppression, fear etc.

» About Flying
5 Sep 2:42pm

[...] *click* One more good article by Rob Hopkins. Bugger I just flew up and down to Greece, increasing my footprint considerably in spite of all my efforts to use as little energy as possible… [...]

Shaun Chamberlin
20 Sep 5:46pm

I used to fly a lot – I loved the experience (even the airports!) and it was cheap and easy. I even had a girlfriend in Berlin. About four years ago I learnt about the environmental impacts and I haven’t flown since. Everyone I know thought I was mad but I’m glad to say that over the past few years my decision has affected a few other people’s thinking too.

And as a 26 year old living in Greater London (Kingston) I’ve certainly never felt the need (or even the desire) for a car.

Richard Haine
20 Oct 3:17pm

I agree with the comment that flying in itself is not necessarily harmful – we should be looking to the development of airships that could be electrically powered – perhaps using advanced computer technology to harbour wind systems such as the ‘jet stream’ and thereby create a new generation of environmentally friendly air transportation.

Rowan Eisner
20 Jan 12:45am

I decided not to try not flying any more in the late 80s. I still wanted to travel so I crewed on a yacht to Fiji. But then I decided that not damaging the environment was not enough – I needed to work towards improving things. So I changed career and started working in environmental research. But then I needed to fly a lot for my job. And also I live in Australia and all my family is in the UK. I don’t see that it helps if I don’t fly if someone else will instead (eg with the job or my family). I try to go by surface as much as possible and don’t have a car (electric bike). But one international flight from Australia is roughly equivalent to a family’s car use for 4 years.

Matthew
23 Jan 11:12pm

Readed…

The grass is not, in fact, always greener on the other side of the fence. Fences have nothing to do with it. The grass is greenest where it is watered. When crossing over fences, carry water with you and tend the grass wherever you may be…

Tom Atkins
24 Jan 11:31am

The front page of the BBC website today says in big letters “Should I give up flying?” Wow – would never have thought to see that so soon.

However the discussion shows what people really think – it’s certainly an issue that divides people. The poll is currently about 50/50.

Stephen Watson
24 Jan 11:12pm

Sorry, it’s me again. I just though I’d add that Seize The Day have writtten a new song “Flying” which you should be able to listen to at http://www.seizetheday.org It brilliantly encapsulates just the dilemma facing Heather, above.

new zealand tourism
16 Jan 11:31pm

Hmm, you got your reasons, I do understand them, I’d have done the same
but well, I still think that flying is the best way to move :)

tcatherb
17 Jan 9:43pm

i think this is a bigger issue than just flying or not flying. as we all know the last few decades have seen globalisation on a massive scale. Along with that has come the movement of families/friends to different countries all over the world, businesses networking all over the world. in an ideal world (for some that is!), our nearest and dearest would live in the same vicinity, but increasingly they don’t. people are still going to want to see eachother (you wouldn’t catch me on a boat – I have a fear of deep water!). i think this is a difficult one. the adverts of the beautiful tropical beaches don’t help either! and many people i know go away to escape the British winter, not the summer!.

Stephen Watson
18 Jan 1:11pm

People live far away from their nearest and dearest because they expect that they will be able to just pop back and see them for the weekend or a little longer. As fuel becomes more expensive and less available it’s inevitable that visits to overseas friends & family will become less frequent. Ultimately, people will have to really consider that moving far away as they did back in the 30s and 40s and realise that they may not see their family again if they do so. It’s a case of cheap air travel normalising things which 60 years ago would have been considered extreme – including popping over to Stuttgart for the 2pm business sales meeting.

The whole issue is certainly bigger than flying – what we are looking at is nothing less that a reassessment of all the behaviour we’ve come to regard as normal and essential that will be seen from an increasingly different perspective in the decades ahead.

Well, that’s my take anyway.

tcatherb
19 Jan 2:40pm

I agree with you Stephen! It’s just that many people have already moved. I also agree that rising fuel prices will restrict visits to those who have already moved (for the ones who can’t afford it anyway). I am just trying to picture a world that is so completely globalised, becoming localised and the implications this would have – in this case, i’m talking about emotional implications of maybe never being able to see your family/friends again (if they have already moved) if you can’t afford the increasing fuel prices. if its all essentially about money (i know its not, but many will see it that way), the richest (including business) in society will be able to continue to travel this way.