I am not proud of flying (but I am not ashamed of it either) – Part 2

I wake up.

I have a slight headache, probably caused by dehydration and the changes in cabin pressure. I check my watch. 3:16 am. I must have slept for three hours, and now I know I won’t fall asleep again. Inside the plane everything is dark, and you can only see the glow of a few screens scattered around, and the shadows of my airborne companions, hidden behind piles of blankets, pillows, eye masks and earplugs. Everything is quiet, except for the numbing roar of the giant engines outside, in their process of devouring dozens of tons of fuel. I look to my side and see that the Venezuelans are sleeping like logs. Gosh, I do envy people with the power of sleeping on a plane. I turn on my laptop and continue writing.

This entry is the second part of what I started last week: I am not proud of flying (but I am not ashamed of it either) – Part 1

I calculated that tonight, this flight between London and Bogota will emit 160 tons of CO2, the same amount of emissions that 100 average Colombians produce in a year. This contribution to the already high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is another step forward to the cliff that represents the climate crisis. However what bothers me is not this particular flight, but the stream of flights that I already see in my future, and whose emissions will most likely dwarf the ones of all my previous air travels up to this date.

My life is split between two cities. My career is intimately linked to London, the place where I work and where I have been growing professionally for almost a decade. But my family and friends live in Bogota. A few years ago, I realised that I could not just ditch one place in favour of the other and that in my life, I needed to balance my presence in both cities. Last year, I was compelled to spend more time in Colombia, and I have increased my trips there significantly. I expect that for the rest of my life, every year I will make a handful of journeys like my current one, each one scarring the environment a little bit more.

I am certainly not the only one with a split life. Almost all the European expats that I know in London regularly go back home, whether it is Madrid, Vienna, or Stockholm. The only thing making my circumstances unusual is that for me, going home involves spending five times more time in a plane, which requires careful planning, as I can’t just hop on the next flight for a weekend in Colombia.

For me, flying is not a lifestyle, but it is life itself. I don’t fly for the sake of it, but because it is the only bridge there is between the people I love with the career I love. If I could, I would change in a heartbeat those endless hours at the airports, and then in the pressurised cabins. It is not glamorous, it is not enjoyable, and on top of that, I know that I am messing with the environment. But flying is not optional, and I know that I won’t be able to stop.

I feel a tap in my shoulder. It’s the Venezuelan guy. “Amigo, excuse me, could you please let me through?

How to lose friends and alienate people

After hours of darkness, the cabin starts to brighten, with delicate lights coming out of the ceiling. A few passengers wake up, but most are still sleeping. Outside, it is still pitch-black. I go to the back of the plane, looking for a glass of water and run into the brunette flight attendant, who is sorting out some boxes. While I’m on my second glass, the short, bald man that had the big suitcase comes in, asking for a gin and tonic. “Isn’t it a bit weird to order a drink at this time?” – I ask her after he leaves. “Yeah, some people get very nervous up here and need to have a drink all the time” – she says while shrugging her shoulders. Well, who am I to judge? I go back to my seat and get back to my own business.

Scientists and environmentalists have warned about the dangers of untamed emissions, but it was only recently that some activists decided to advocate shaming airline travellers, in the hope that the social pressure would deter them from flying. The activists of the flygskam movement want me to feel ashamed of being up here, strapped to this tiny chair, cruising over the Atlantic at 800 kilometres per hour. Their strategy is not working on me.

Shaming is an awful mode of social intervention. It denigrates both the perpetrator and the target; it does not induce people to behave in the “right” way, and it backfires badly, as it pushes people to take counterproductive actions when they feel that they have been ostracised. Deb Lemire, president of the Association for Size Diversity and Health, summarises it better: “If shaming worked, there would be no fat people”.

Shame and guilt are at the centre of an emotional cycle known as the “what-the-hell effect”, coined by Janet Polivy from the University of Toronto, in which a person oscillates between stages of excess behaviours, remorse, and then more excesses. It was documented first when studying the habits of people trying to lose weight, and the reaction they had when they broke the diet. After having a bite of that chocolate cake that they were not supposed to eat, people felt intense guilt and shame. But instead of stopping eating right then, which would be the rational thing to do, they would give up all hope, and look for comfort precisely by eating more cake.

The what-the-hell-effect permeates through all sorts of behaviours in which we want to excerpt some form of control, from drinking, to smoking, to not going over the monthly budget. Anyone who has had one of those binge-watching sessions of Netflix series probably knows that feeling: “Yeah, I’ve been a disgusting couch-potato the whole morning… but what the hell, I better finish the whole season now!” Someone genuinely concerned about the environment, but ashamed for not living a perfect green life may easily feel total despair, turning him into a cynic: “I’m already emitting tons of CO2 in this transatlantic flight, what is the point of recycling?

Behaviour can spread in a group through what is known as social proofing, the phenomenon in which people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect good conduct, approved by the tribe. But such contagion comes from positive reinforcement, not from oppression. It has been shown that making people feel excluded or disrespected, because they fail to accomplish something, makes them lose the will to change. On the other hand, public social reward boosts their confidence for what they are doing and encourages them to keep going even in the face of difficulty. As psychologists, neurologists and marketing researchers have found, it is pride, not guilt, the feeling that holds the key for changing behaviours. Activists should look to inspire people to become proud environmentalists, informed about the challenges and opportunities that are ahead of us for saving the planet, and optimistic about our small contribution to the problem.

Those who think that they can nudge millions of people to become more environmentally conscious, by shaming them from a higher moral ground, are just indulging in their own desires for bullying others. I am very sceptical of their true motives, as they seem to be more preoccupied about pushing their personal lifestyle on others as if it was the only way of living, rather than guiding them to look for alternatives on how to manage their carbon footprint – alternatives that are effective and crucial in the race to reduce the CO2 emissions. They probably get some weird feeling of satisfaction by shaming others, and I doubt they would stop doing it, even on the face of evidence showing how counterproductive their actions are.

Two flight attendants push a rattling trolley down the aisle. It carries a pile of red plastic trays, various boxes of juices and sodas, a kettle, and a large bottle of water. “Do you want eggs or cereal?” – one of them asks me. “Just coffee, please, lots of coffee”.

When flying is not optional

We are in Colombian airspace now. It is still night. I look through the window and see bright patches of yellow lights scattered in the middle of the blackness. Inside the cabin, everybody is in their seats already, in silence, just waiting for the journey to be over. Some have their eyes closed; others are still staring at their screens. We all look exhausted. In two weeks I will have to do this all over again when I go back to London. But then I think about my parents, who I will see in an hour or so. I smile. I open the laptop one last time, determined to finish this entry before we land.

Climate change is a global crisis; there is no doubt about it. We – the humans of the industrial age – need to step up to this challenge; there is no alternative. Individual actions matter, both from an ethical and a practical point of view, and though there is some confusion on exactly what to do, the usual suspects will probably guide you in the right direction: switch to a hybrid or electric car; use public transport when possible; buy food that is locally sourced; reduce your meat consumption; don’t waste food or clothes; switch to green energy providers; make your home energy-efficient; switch to low-energy LED lights; turn off the lights when you are not using them; recycle.

Some of these actions are easy to do and don’t change one iota of your day-to-day life. A friend who is well informed about suppliers of renewable energy recommended me the best one in the UK (Bulb Energy), and it took me 3 minutes to make the change. Others, like recycling, require a bit of discipline to make them a habit. And some others, like cutting the number of times you eat meat, ask you to be more creative to find alternatives.

However, avoiding planes to reduce your emissions is an entirely different beast. The thing about flying is that there are no alternatives, at least for the flights of 1,500 kilometres or more, which are the ones responsible for 80% of emissions from the aviation industry. It stands among all the other green actions as the one that requires you to reconfigure your life completely. (Another effort to save the planet, promoted by some lunatics, and definitely more intrusive than not flying, is not having kids. Some researchers have calculated that each kid that you bring into the world increases your CO2 footprint by 60 tons per year. But I will leave it to you to comment about that brilliant idea.)

Not only expats like me, longing for their families and friends, are the ones who have compelling reasons to fly. The army of frequent flyers includes most notably the people whose work depend on showing up in another city every so often: The consultant who lives in London, but who needs to fly to Copenhagen almost every week; the LATAM regional manager, who lives in North Carolina but needs to travel every month to Sao Paolo and Lima; the APAC director of operations, living in Shanghai, but sprinting between Seoul, Hong Kong and Mumbai. I am sure my dear friends in the anti-establishement movement are desparate to wipe out all these jobs (specially mine!), but until that glorious day comes, when they attain global domination, it is reasonable to expect that many people will still be involved in activities that require ridiculous levels of travelling.

And then, there are the globetrotters, those souls that cruise the oceans and the mountains to enrich their lives and the lives of others, by learning about foreign cultures and tearing down the imaginary walls that separate us. Travelling is life itself for them, and flying is not optional. Some enthusiasts of shaming others would try to draw a line between those trips that should have the concession for flying and those that are just an unnecessary luxury. Volunteering in Africa might get a hall pass; going on holidays somewhere sunny surely not (it is just the empty pleasure of the petit bourgeoisie). But, who should be in charge of making the distinction?

You may not be able to stop flying, but there is something you can do to address your impact on the environment: offsetting. This idea consists of supporting projects all over the world that help to reduce the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. For example, you can donate to a tree-planting project the amount of money necessary to neutralise your share of CO2 emission for taking a long flight.

In the next few decades, offsetting will be a crucial weapon in our struggle with the climate crisis. Some fundamentalists have raised bogus arguments about offsetting, but the fact is that it works, it is backed by science, and we need more of it, not less. You can find a lot of information about offsetting on the Internet, but I will share my own views and tips about it in my next entry.

To summarise:

  • If you fly: offset. Why do you fly is nobody’s business, and surely you have good reasons to do it. But really, make sure of offsetting.
  • If you decide to make the sacrifice of not flying: congratulations, you are a hard-core green warrior! Just make sure of bragging a bit about it, as it will reinforce your commitment with the environment and help to create the necessary social proofing that others will try to replicate.
  • If you are shaming others because you think that will help the environmental cause: stop. It has been proved that it is a failed strategy, which most likely will backfire in unexpected ways. And it also makes you look like a jerk.

The captain makes an announcement. We start descending.

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