Carry on flying: why activists should take to the skies

Protesting against air travel might displace attention away from the actions required to reduce carbon emissions at the necessary scale.

Jem Bendell
30 May 2016

Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original image cropped by Gralo. Public Domain.

I’m writing this at 35,000 feet above the Bay of Bengal, on my way to lecture in Malaysia at HELP University on Innovation Leadership. Just before take-off, I received some emails from subscribers to my newsletter, questioning my international speaking schedule: “You’re a Professor of Sustainability Leadership, so how can you justify all that flying?” was the gist. “You should lead by example” and encourage everyone to fly much less.

My travel this year means that my carbon footprint will be approximately double that of the average person in Britain, which is around 14 tonnes of CO2 or its equivalent per annum. Like many readers of Transformation I believe that we should seek to align our daily lives with our political views and values. So is it hypocritical of environmentalists to fly?

Not necessarily: in fact I’ve come to see critiques of flying as sometimes misguided and even counter-productive. That's because not flying isn’t an effective way for me to combat the causes of environmental degradation and climate change. Here are three reasons why.

Beyond the ideology of 'one by one'

The assumption of most current environmental advocacy is that the best way to reduce carbon emissions is through changes in our personal behaviour. But significant reductions can only come about through political activity that transforms the economic systems that drive up pollution. The limited impact of voluntary action by individuals is highlighted by household electricity consumption in the UK, for example, which has been targeted by government, charities and business. These emissions account for about seven percent of the UK total.

Comprehensive measures to reduce electricity consumption could bring these emissions down by 30 percent per household. But despite strong efforts over two decades, only a small percentage of people have achieved this target, and research shows that about half of them spent the money they saved on products or activities that had similar or even bigger carbon footprints. So the net impact on UK carbon emissions is probably less than one percent. That’s why we need more emphasis on policy frameworks that reward investments in renewable energy, more efficient electrical appliances, and taxes that increase the costs of producing energy from fossil fuels like coal.

My argument isn’t that there’s no point in reducing personal carbon emissions, nor that in some unknown way such personal actions wont positively affect a ‘collective field’ as author Charles Eisenstein puts it; it’s that focusing on this approach can distract attention from exploring other solutions that really matter. And that takes me to reason number two: it’s not how much carbon you use but what you do with it that counts.

So what do you do with your carbon?

At the heart of the claim that it’s hypocritical to fly is the idea that everyone should have the same carbon footprint, but that makes no sense. What about ambulance drivers, or firemen, or members of the armed forces?

If flying is acceptable for them, then why not for activists? My own work focuses on promoting more effective leadership on sustainable development, including the systemic drivers of climate change like misplaced investments and destructive monetary systems. The travel I do is crucial for that work.

Hypothetically, I might even spend a year on a jumbo jet if it would help to secure a global agreement on carbon taxes that could be connected to trade treaties and enforced by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), since that could shift personal consumption patterns dramatically. If phased in while other taxes on income are reduced, a carbon tax would dramatically raise the price of air travel and thus have an overall impact on emissions in that sector. 

The need to think as citizens not consumers  

Third, the effects of green critiques of flying may actually be insidious, because they frame environmentalism only in terms of restraints. Think of ubiquitous messages to turn off lights, separate your rubbish, and avoid eggs from factory farms. These are all good things, but the dominant theme is very clear: everyone should discipline themselves for the greater good.

The most sophisticated expressions of this view applied at a societal level are found in books on the ‘steady-state’ economy like Enough is Enough, but such arguments aren’t so useful in helping us to get there. That’s because their underlying message is about limits, rather than achieving greater personal expression or new collective freedoms. It’s these more positive and liberating messages that are missing from mainstream environmentalism, and that’s important because they are what’s required to trigger transformation.

To renounce worldly goods and experiences is an interesting spiritual path for some, but throughout human history it has been adopted by very few. Mass political movements nearly always mobilise around securing greater freedoms for more people. So what might a freedom-based environmental activism look like in practice?

Through my own work on contemporary capitalism I’ve come to see that people are restrained from harmonious living with each other and the environment as a result of the economic systems they inhabit. We all experience the fundamental ‘un-freedom’ of having to compete for scarce bank-issued money in order to service our unending debts. Viewing environmentalism as a struggle by citizens for greater freedom from mainstream monetary systems and the delusions they propel holds much more promise than a movement of guilty consumers who quibble over the details of carbon footprints.

The seeds of such a movement are already present in groups like Grassroots Economics, which is creating autonomous local currencies in slums across Africa that help to insulate low-income families from boom-bust financial cycles; in the ‘social’ and ‘solidarity’ economies that are spreading across many countries; and in ‘intentional communities’ that offer the potential for living together without the need for large salaries and inequalities. 

In a recent lecture I describe activities like these as forms of “freedom with” rather than “freedom from,” responding to the reality that we must work together if we are to liberate ourselves from exploitative systems. But this aspect of freedom through collective action is often marginalised in public discussions because individualist notions of freedom as self-expression are so dominant in liberal societies.

To be effective, these seeds of environmental freedom have to grow dramatically. And that may require more flying, not less, so that people can learn from, support and connect with each other. Even participants in the Global Ecovillage Network recognize the value of such exchanges, with some members meeting in an international conference every year.

Just as those driving to protest a new runway at Heathrow Airport don't turn back because of the carbon that’s involved in their journeys, most people understand that they are public beings, citizens engaged in change and not just responsible consumers. Reviving our self-identity as active citizens is a key challenge of the times. 

Authenticity is not always obvious

On the face of it, criticising those who fly is an obvious target for those concerned with climate change. But protests against flying per se can displace attention away from actions that could transform societies and reduce carbon emissions at the necessary scale. They may reinforce assumptions that changing personal consumption habits is a more important goal than working together as politically active citizens for fundamental changes in our political and economic systems.

Does this mean that we should not seek to reduce carbon emissions in our own personal lives? No—so long as we’re aware of the things that would have most impact, like having fewer children in the West or choosing a job that doesn’t promote relentless consumption. Carbon reduction initiatives from employers are also welcome, including those from travel. But even the best of these actions shouldn’t be allowed to distract attention away from the broader and deeper shifts that are required for systemic, long-term change.

I was triggered to reflect on these issues by private criticism, but their implications should be a matter for public debate on the ethics of flying that explores both the intention of the flyer and the outcome of the flight. It should also explore the ethics of a growing discourse against flying among activists, in particular the consequences of those critiques. As the New Internationalist once wrote “What would happen to a world in which the only people who travelled by plane were those most committed to its rapacious exploitation?”

In my case, the conclusions that I've reached on whether or not to fly create more self-scrutiny, not less. Is my theory of change good enough? Am I making a tangible impact? If my doubts on these questions increase, then an authentic response will be to slow down, stop flying and allow a new approach to emerge in my life. 

But for now, deluded or not, I'll fly. If you’re creating alternative economic models or self-sufficient communities, then please fly when you need to. And if you’re challenging exploitative corporate and banking power that stretches across international borders? Carry on flying.


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