Flight Shame

Stephen Henighan

Without air travel, family networks might have dissolved long ago.

In 213 I published a short book about climate change. Among my promotional events for the book was a visit to a graduate seminar at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. My book was emotional and impressionistic; the students knew far more than I did about climate science. At one point, I made an offhand remark about the unsustainable carbon cost of flying. Rather than the nods of agreement I had expected, my comment was met with silence. “I hope we can keep flying,” one student said, “even if we have to give up other things.”

The reaction my comment elicited in 213 might be different today. A movement is building against flying. In North America, this trend is strongest in university circles. In particular, the carbon cost of academic conferences, where hundreds of professors and graduate students fly to a single destination to spend four or five days networking, gossiping, flirting and presenting their research, has come under fire. In May 219, Science magazine reported on the “small but growing minority of academics who are cutting back on their air travel because of climate change.” Most academics who limit their flying are well known in their fields and have secure careers; it is far more damaging, in professional terms, for a young person who is trying to break into academic life to skip a conference. Even so, the carbon cost of academics addicted to airports is coming under scrutiny. A 218 study by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions found that in 215–16 the emissions attributable to flights taken by academics and administrators at the University of British Columbia was “equivalent to 63%–73% of the total annual emissions from the operation of the UBC campus.” Flying significantly enlarged the university’s carbon footprint.

In Europe a grassroots movement against short-haul flights has altered travel patterns, swelling demand for long-distance train tickets. Some French parliamentarians have even called for laws to ban flights where the same journey can be made by train. Known in Sweden, where it originated, as flygskam, or “flight shame,” the anti-flying movement takes credit for a 5% drop in passenger numbers at Swedish airports between the summers of 218 and 219. Flygskam’s most salient representative is the young climate activist Greta Thunberg. In August 219, refusing to fly to New York to speak at the United Nations, Thunberg spent two weeks making the transatlantic crossing by yacht.

Industry observers report that only 18% of the world’s population has set foot in a plane. According to the Sierra Club, flying accounts for 2% of global greenhouse emissions. This relatively sanguine assessment contrasts with the brutal evaluation of the carbon cost of flying made by British science writer George Monbiot in his book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning (26). Commenting on the expansion of air travel, Monbiot writes, “Unless something is done to stop this growth, aviation will overwhelm all the cuts we manage to make elsewhere.” Monbiot believes that by 25 flying could account for 5% of global emissions. His conclusion is that flying is one of the things we must give up. Yet to a North American reader, his presentation of the role of flying in our lives, and the possible alternatives, fails to address geographical and social realities. “No one in Europe ever thought of shopping in New York or visiting friends in Australia before planes allowed them to do so,” Monbiot writes. Just as we once imagined this possibility, he suggests, we can now cease to imagine it.

The alternatives Monbiot assesses—rail, ferries—may be viable within the confined spaces of Europe, or, at a stretch, in the case of rail, to carry passengers from Europe to Africa or Asia; but the Americas, like Australia, are separated from the world’s central land mass by oceans. Even within Europe, flygskam’s potency varies with geography. Forbes magazine reports that, unlike their Swedish neighbours, Norwegians remain avid flyers. Norway’s rugged coastline, where regional centres lie at the heads of long fjords, makes travel by land or sea between different areas of the country a process that can take many hours, or even days. In this context, the decision to fly is more than the indulgence of a shopaholic; it is a matter of national integration.

National integration is complemented by international ties. As the world’s population concentrates in ever larger and more multicultural cities, family networks are transnational. The Chinese and Vietnamese refer to diasporic families as “astronaut families”; similar traditions of long plane trips to keep family networks intact are prominent in South Asian, Caribbean, Latin American and European cultures. The first plane trip of which I have a memory, taken at the age of nine, was for the purpose of visiting my grandmother in England, and spending three weeks being introduced to countless British relatives. Recently, I travelled by plane to Mexico City so that my daughter could meet her grandfather. Most of my plane travel isn’t justifiable in terms of family unity, but without air travel, my family networks would have dissolved long ago.

Monbiot’s analysis doesn’t consider immigration and multiculturalism. Aside from a passing reference to “love miles,” he overlooks the fact that it is much harder to persuade someone not to see their mother for the rest of their life than it is to wean them from New York shopping jaunts. Recent political events have made the paradoxes that surround flygskam more acute. The ethnic nationalist movements that have taken power in some countries, and threaten to do so in others, are not only hostile to multicultural urban spaces; they also tend to be led by climate-change deniers. Those who wish to reduce air traffic must depend for support on precisely the people for whom air travel is a pillar of family unity: downtown liberals, many of whom come from transnational families. This tension is likely to limit the spread of flight shame. Can we, as the students suggested, give up other indulgences—cars, for example, which become increasingly inefficient as cities get bigger—in order to keep flying? The carbon calculations remain uncertain, even as the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to flying continue to grow.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.


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