Fear of Flying

     Typically, my postings on the action thread of The Earth Connection are relatively easy, feel-good steps we can take to lessen our impact on the earth.  But the ‘inconvenient truth’ is that the steps that matter most are also the hardest.

     Take air travel, for example.  There was a time when I thought flying was an environmentally better choice than driving.  I saw air travel as a form of ‘public’ transportation.  The planes were going anyway, I figured, so it was better for me to be on one than to also put a car out on the road. 

     But that line of thinking, it turns out, is bogus.  If we Americans were to travel less or to travel by other means, the demand for air travel would fall, and the airlines would fly fewer planes.  That would be a very good thing.  

     A typical round-trip flight between Los Angeles and New York  yields about 715 kilograms of carbon dioxide per economy class passenger, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.  And because of the great height at which commercial airliners fly, the climatic impact is magnified, more than doubling that carbon dioxide emission figure to 1,917 kilograms, or almost two tons of global warming emissions per passenger.  

     To put those figures in perspective, the International Institute for the Environment and Development maintains that if we are to keep within a safe upper limit of atmospheric carbon, emissions must be brought down to 0.45 tons per capita per year.  Thus, that Los Angeles- New York trip accounts for about four years’ worth of a person’s flying ‘allowance.’  Frequent air travel and a sustainable lifestyle are clearly at odds. 

     These are sobering facts.  Like many other middle class Americans, I love to travel.  I don’t even have the ‘excuse’ of traveling to important environmental or business  meetings.  I fly primarily to visit loved ones and to see the world.  Perhaps a little ironically, I am posting this piece from Boston.  And how did I get here from my home in Virginia?  Yes,  I flew.  Flying was justified,  I reasoned, because the train was far more expensive and would have taken much longer.  Like most of us, I am used to getting to my destination quickly.  Such convenience feels natural and normal.  

     That feeling–that  flying is ‘natural and normal’– is part of what is doing in the planet.  Because flying has become fairly convenient and inexpensive, and because the most earth-friendly form of mass transit of all–rail–has been allowed to wither in this country, flying is very often the only way to get  somewhere.   And I, like many others, have not, until very recently, even begun to  question whether my desire to go somewhere that requires me to fly is justified, in light of the damage my flight  will do to the planet.

     That, for me, is the really hard part.  Should my husband and I give up the 25th anniversary trip we are planning to Europe next fall?  I know I won’t give it up.  And so, I am caught in an environmentalist’s bind.  I know I should walk my talk, but doing so would get in the way of getting something I really want.  And if even I, a self-proclaimed defender of the planet, refuse to sacrifice for the planet I love, how can I expect others to do so?

     So, in closing, I urge all of us to at least think about our own travel.  Can we get there by some means other than flying?  Is the trip really that important?  Would it be much of a sacrifice to stay home?  And if we’re traveling for business, can we accomplish our goals with Skype? –April Moore




photo by Greg Bajor

photo by Greg Bajor

4 Responses to “Fear of Flying”

  1. Todd Says:

    Hi April, Yes, it is a terrible dilemma, and we have a right to lament the situation. And to do some creative problem-solving. But I think that as long as the dominant definition of “freedom” in this country is “license to be irresponsible,” we are in trouble.

    Namaste, Todd

    PS: We are driving to Atlanta and back (from DC) in a few weeks rather than flying. Will help a bit.

  2. Joan Brundage Says:

    A tough dilema, April. I love train travel and yet, it is so expensive. I actually prefer it to airplane trave. Tucson needs train service to Phoenix and I think a lot of people would prefer it to the difficult highway drive there. But does it happen? No, despite the dreams of at least one legislator who hopefully, continues to work on this.

  3. Joan Kelly Says:

    Thank you, April. I’ve thought of this for years. I’ve also thought of how much damage we’ve done to planet Earth with wars and space exploration. We’re going into space and throwing panels/nuts/bolts/etc “out”. Boggles my mind. The sad thing is – I just don’t know how we can change the corporate/military mindset.

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