[a slightly edited version, posted 7. May 2022]
Ordinary life where I live creates an ecological footprint that is not good. As readers probably agree, it contributes to many difficulties, including hunger, destruction and wars. As soon as I stop to think about it, it’s clear that my own consumption, for instance, has helped lead to a general erosion of the conditions for civil life. Drawing on the robust research of groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the Stockholm Resilience Centre, I can easily link planetary crises to the everyday habits responsible for my ecological footprint.
One rarely stops to think, though, about things that appear so ordinary or normal. Even more difficult to question something that seems universal and, maybe, universally desired, like life in Helsinki, where I live. Arguably however, like life in many other wealthy cities, it is in fact WEIRD, rather unusual in human history and experience. How we live and how we think about how we live, also predisposes us to take a narrow view of human possibility. It has led to the belief, for instance, that society revolves not around human (let alone more-than-human) needs so much as consumer needs. Such thinking appears to be particularly common among those who are used to Wealth, Education, Industrialism, Riches and Democracy (hence the acronym WEIRD), which is aso a group that tongue-in-cheek I could call ‘my people’.
But the goods and lifestyles that so easily appear global or normal, and that my people take for granted are increasingly under threat. That multiple major crises are affecting life around the globe is surely apparent even to the most ill-informed or incurious.
On the other hand, there is also more room to consider alternative ways to live, and even to make personal choices based on such considerations. Some people for instance took the flourishing of COVID-19 (the virus, that is) as an opportunity to take stock of which activities could profitably be discontinued after the lockdowns, and those that could beneficially be developed further (to paraphrase one such thinker, Bruno Latour).
Though some hark back to the bad old ways, others want to make good use of the crisis.
Below I reflect on this from a personal point of view, mentioning a few I would prefer very much to cease doing, and some justifications for them.
Firstly, I do not want to travel by airplane. At least, I want to keep my flying to a minimum, perhaps allowing myself a carbon budget for one or two years at a time.
For one, as an adjunct professor of environmental policy at Aalto University, teaching highly engaged but also worried students about unsustainability and what might be done about it, I could not do so in good faith. Yet it has become expected of academics and fun-loving people wealthy people to travel long distances and to do so with increasing frequency. The adverse consequences of this expectation to fly are huge, not just for the planet and its inhabitants generally, but also for the academics pressured to travel cheaply and frequently particularly in the early part of their career, as Hannah Knox writes.
The cost of flying to the climate is high (perhaps between 4% and 8% of total emmissions currently and projected/hoped to grow). Flying is also corrosive of social and ecological fabric, consuming large areas of land and human resources for airports and low-paid and unsatisfying jobs. In practice, both high-end tourism and luxury aviation, from so-called ‘VIP’ treatment at airports to private jets, endorse and celebrate social values of inequality (being served by endlessly smiling staff!) and rather old-fashioned materialist aspirations. In recognition of these multiple problems, many climate scientists and energy-politics experts have for years reduced or even refused to fly, as also explained by Hannah Knox.
Long-distance travel is also intimately linked to the emergence of pandemics. For instance COVID-19 is one of many adverse outcomes of the complex developments in land-use and mobility patterns to which both academic and leisure flying have contributed. We can expect more pandemics for the same reasons. Important scientific research on how increased travel and new infectious diseases are connected, goes back decades. Here’s a recent paper on biodiversity loss and SARS-CoV that even the relatively uninitiated can grasp.
Even the war in Ukraine is connected to aviation. Or rather, it is connected to the multiple crises that have evolved globally as ordinary life has been made so fundamentally and complicatedly bound up with extracting non-renewable resources. Like too many other wars that have destroyed lives and places, this war is partly about European dependency on fossil fuels.
If a lot of violently extracted energy courses through the surroundings and the lives of most of us, people are increasingly resisting this state of affairs. As the growth of forms of activism across many sectors of society, business and academia included, there is also dissatisfaction with the world’s best brains concentrating on ways to make it possible for such energy-intensive lives to continue. Supporting arguments for less energy dependent lives, there is growing evidence coming from sustainability scientists that technical innovations alone can not lead to stabilizing the climate. Cultural and structural transformations are also necessary. There is also willingness to change, not least because it is clear that for the comforts, securities and other benefits of the WEIRD life to continue, pretty much everything must change. And this needs to happen well before 2050!
Meanwhile, the weird lifestyles and cultural (including economic) preferences of my people are predominantly treated as the only possible alternatives, with economic growth viewed as the key index of a society’s success. Energy consumption is talked about as something that needed to ‘recover’ after the pandemic. It did, energy-related CO2 emissions rebounded in 2021 to unprecedeted levels.
One lesson is that stabilising the climate won’t happen with technical gadgetry. Low-carbon or no-carbon developments may be preferable to the mainstream’s resource-hungry construction, but regenerating and reusing are even better. The slow life is good too. However it is achieved, moving quickly towards ways of life that don’t produce carbon emmissions in the first place, is important for rich and poor alike.
Climate stability can thus only be achieved through reductions in energy use. Like my people in general I can reduce driving, buy less stuff that will soon be thrown away, eat food that is local, seasonal and tasty rather than global, carbon-intensive and bland, and so on.
But to help everyone to do similar things that support environmental and human health, regulation is a must. Which brings me to something else I would like: to stop those who are trying to stop the regulating! Much of the appalling slowness of international action on emissions known to be harmful is still driven by special interests and lobbying. The evidence by now is staggering (see here, for instance).
Let me return to my own relationship to aviation. I want to drastically reduce my flying because I can control it. It turns out, though, that not wanting to fly can put us in awkward situations. Swedish flight shame notwithstanding, it’s still considered peculiar to want to avoid flying. It is more common for us to indulge the fantasy that an individual’s decisions on flying, or on energy use, are a drop in the ocean. So why not go on as before?
There are many answers. The great thing is that the conversation has started.
So, at the top of this post you can see an image from some travels of mine last month. Did I fly there from Helsinki? Yes, I did. From Southern England I then travelled by train and car slowly and wonderfully through to Edinburgh. It was great to see how much earlier the spring arrives there compared to us here in Finland. And it was a joy to meet so many old friends. My flights also emmitted about 600kg worth of carbon. That’s more than enough for one person for one year.
I don’t want my environmental footprint to be high, by any standard. But beyond noting that, I don’t need to calculate it.
Instead I can focus on cultural shifts around aviation. These will gradually have impact how flying is valued and thus on its material impacts.
For myself, when it comes to talking about flying, I feel in a better position today than just a year ago to confidently and politely say, “no thank you”.