Climate crisis necessitates public shaming of air travel

Radical societal changes begin with the disavowing of frivolous flights

Signed by 11,000 scientists and published in the journal BioScience this month, an open letter warns of “untold suffering” if radical changes are not made to society to counteract climate change.

Many of the changes necessary to counter the existential threat of biosphere collapse and potential human extinction brought about by climate change must occur at a societal level. Radical changes in government policy are necessary to begin healing our profoundly sick socioeconomic system.

Though many actions individuals take to live sustainably may be largely symbolic — cancelled out in their positive effect by corporate rapaciousness — certain actions are so inherently wasteful and destructive that refraining from them is a moral imperative.

The abandonment of air travel for pleasure is perhaps chief among these actions. Few actions do so much damage for so negligible a benefit. Few actions so perfectly encapsulate wanton ecological vandalization — with global repercussions — for private pleasure.

Air travel and associated industries generate two per cent of all global carbon emissions. A single long-haul flight — from Winnipeg to any of the eminently Instagram-able cities of Western Europe for instance — pumps more carbon into the atmosphere than the average human in one of the many poor countries produces in a year.

If undertaken for certain purposes — religious pilgrimage, rare visits to distant kin, research and diplomacy — and properly offset, air travel can contribute to the health and stability of our global civilization. The shrinking of distance has bound our species more tightly together through knowledge of our shared humanity, an achievement to be jealously guarded. 

Your personal experience of a foreign place is not contributing to this. The expansion of your personal life experiences is not worth the damage done, if you fly to achieve it. Everyone thinks they are the “good” tourist, but tourism as an industry is damaging not only ecologically, but culturally. Overtourism is destroying local cultures for no reason other than the selfish conceit that we have a right to see with our own eyes anything that catches our fantasy.

There is an old term, “homoousion,” meaning “of the same substance.” It refers to the core reality of two apparently disparate forms. Sweating hordes in Hawaiian shirts and backpackers who only buy fair trade are equally guilty of a deep selfishness if for their pleasure they blithely add more carbon to the atmosphere. Good intentions do not efface the damage done.

We must recognize that travel for personal pleasure — the foreign dream vacation, the spring break getaway, everything we grew up feeling entitled to — is one specific example of a wasteful, impossible lifestyle. Although still presently available to us, it is a moral imperative to live our lives without it.

Accepting that air travel is an ecologically costly luxury, and changing our leisure habits to reflect this, is a necessary step on the path to a sustainable society. Those who engage in frivolous air travel should be shamed — their selfish actions are killing the planet, and the rest of us with it.

The concept of shaming someone — perhaps someone you love — for actions undertaken in search of happiness and fulfilment is not a particularly pleasant one, especially in a society so averse to confrontation as ours. Being confrontational, shaming is perhaps radical, but it is radical change that we need.

It is a cop-out to blame the executives of fossil fuel companies, world leaders and hedge fund managers for inaction. Few of us know any such people. We can have no effect on them, and it is easy to maintain anger at an unknown abstraction. But we all have people in our lives — friends, family, colleagues — who like to fly to warm places in the winter.

We should work to impress on them the true costs of these actions, and to live our lives in a way that does not normalize such reckless and wasteful behavior.

We should ourselves restrict air travel to truly necessary cases. Sustainable lifestyles must be normalized.

To not call out wasteful luxury for what it is, and make it anathema in polite society, is to doom not only the biosphere, but our own sense of moral clarity.