I’ve written before about the intersection of climate change and individual actions, where I concluded that totally absolving individuals of any responsibility for the climate crisis allows the individuals who can – and need to – make large-scale changes to avoid feeling the pressure to do so. Given that our governments and corporations are all controlled and staffed by people, it is true that individuals making changes is the only way we’re getting out of this mess. I stand by what I said in that blog post.
However, I recently read a New York Times article about the ethics of flying for leisure travel. I read a fair number of the 800+ comments as well. In reading one man’s conclusions about the ethics of flying (which amounted to yes, each flight you take has a small but real impact on the planet, but he is going to keep flying anyway because… he loves to travel) and a number of varied responses to his views, it is clear that the role of normal individuals, whose impacts will likely amount to reducing their consumption in statistically insignificant ways, is decidedly less straightforward.
While I appreciated the general discussion (much of what I post on this site is designed to explore the tough questions around travel and politics), I felt that the conversation was lacking so much self-awareness and empathy when people tried to relate to one another.
In response to one man agreeing with the sentiment but also saying that his son and grandson now live across the country and no amount of melting ice could keep them apart, another commenter said: “Have you heard of FaceTime? I use it with my 90-year-old aunt in England and she uses it with her grand-nieces and nephews here in Canada. It works well.”
I mean, at the point where someone can’t understand why someone else wants to spend time in person with their child and grandchild, we have a problem.
While I’m planning to write a blog exploring the relationship between flying and climate change in more detail, it is worth stating that, as far as we know, commercial flying only accounts for around 2% of anthropogenic carbon emissions, a fact that the original author leaves out (though there may be other associated environmental effects too). He also levies these questions at leisure travel with no thought to business travel, which makes up 12% of commercial flights. But this isn’t the blog to dive into the minutia of flying.
I’d bet good money that everyone who commented on that NYT article does something discretionary that, if they stopped, would decrease their carbon footprint. That might be driving a car, having kids, eating meat, eating dairy, using air conditioning, travelling, buying lots of clothes or even owning pets, as the carbon footprint of American pets each year is equivalent to the emissions from thirteen million cars.
Just because taking a plane ride is not your preferred method of warming the planet does not mean that we can’t all empathise with the choices others make. I don’t mean supporting everyone’s carbon-heavy habits with no examination (hopefully this whole blog is testament to my desire to examine everything) but rather being able to have real conversations with people who have differing consumer preferences without lobbying guilt and shame in the first sentence. For people who don’t want kids, it is obviously easy to avoid procreation and the enormous carbon footprint that comes with bringing a whole new person onto our busy planet. But anyone who wants to have children knows that the desire to have a family is often far from rational and tends to be unrelated to a desire to harm or protect the Earth.
That’s what gets me most about the whole debate. It seems like many people approach this issue with the assumption that people are intending to screw the environment. People don’t travel because they love the thought of the ice melting. People don’t have kids because the thought of a drowning world full of wildfires sounds like a good time. If we want to have thoughtful, nuanced conversations about the choices we make at a pivotal moment for our species, it is so limited and unhelpful to assume that the intention behind certain decisions is about causing damage, rather than looking for happiness.
People travel and have kids and adopt dogs because it brings them joy. The fact that joyful acts – or at the very least, acts of convenience that do improve day-to-day life – are now part of the towering web of mass environmental destruction makes it harder, not simpler, to know what to do.
Travel is something that, even if we can’t quite pinpoint why, people want to do. We see that when, as soon as a group of people becomes wealthier, they start to travel more. Right now, the middle class in Asia is expanding rapidly, and travel habits are shifting accordingly. Flying may damage the environment, and that is relevant, but people don’t travel to hurt the planet, or even to fly – we travel because we have a deep drive to explore and see new things. We travel because we are deeply curious. We travel because seeing the world feels glorious.
Our worsening climate crisis has made a lot of reasonable desires wholly unreasonable. It should not be too scandalous to say that you want to see the world, have a big family, own a pet or drive a car. These are not outrageous aims – or at least, I don’t think so. We should have sympathy for our fellow humans that such standard life items have become fraught with guilt and try to find our way to a cleaner, greener Earth with compassion and realism.
These are important issues. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to change our world, and soon. But if we approach these conversations from the position that anyone who struggles with making their life more inconvenient, more expensive or less joyful in order to prevent further climate change is morally bankrupt, then we won’t get anywhere. If you truly don’t see any sacrifices in never having children, eating meat, driving a car, wearing affordable clothes or leaving the country again, then more power to you. But I live in a world that was designed to offer options and I’m too weak to resist the lure of such amazing choices. I know this is a discussion for the privileged, and that most people will never have the options available to me on any given day – and for that I am endlessly grateful. But if I never took another flight, I would never see half my family again. I would feel bereft of an experience I so deeply want if I never had any children. Maybe these are the questions we need to be asking ourselves – but we will serve everyone, and ourselves, better if we can admit that there are no easy answers and show each other compassion in the process.