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I might be compelled to fly sometime, and it makes me very uncomfortable.

On why I don’t fly, and why I might have to compromise my own principles.


Above the clouds, from one of the last times he flew, in 2009.

I’ve not taken a flight in well over a decade. In 2009 I had a family holiday in Kenya, and a university trip to Italy. Between them, the two trips totted up no less than eight flights in total (!), and that was more than I could bear — I knew very well the disproportionate carbon cost that meant I personally accounted for, and it seemed selfish and lavish. So I decided I never want to fly again, and so far I’ve done just that.

At that point, I was 22, and by then I had travelled to Kenya, Egypt, the US, Italy, Spain, France, and Bulgaria (the latter three, two or three times each). With the exception of a couple of the trips to France (made over land and sea), these had all involved flying. So with a flight each way that’s on average about a flight per year throughout my life.

By middle-class western standards that feels not an exceptional amount of flying, maybe even a fair bit less than a lot of people that take one or two foreign holidays every year. I know many of my friends and family wouldn’t think twice about flying back and forth as casually as taking a bus somewhere. But to me that’s quite a disturbing reality.

On a global scale it’s an enormous number of flights for one person to gobble up for personal satisfaction; when each one of those flights would be just about doubling my own contribution to climate change in a year; when each one of those flights represents the same amount of carbon as multiple entire families is less extravagant parts of the world. If everyone in the world flew even as much as my younger self, we’d be facing a whole lot more global warming a whole lot sooner. It’s simply not sustainable for flying to be treated as normal and acceptable .

Don’t forget the only reason flying only accounts for a few percent of global warming emissions right now, is because the vast majority of people in the world have never flown anywhere, as flying in a luxury of the rich (by rich I of course mean people like average income westerners). Which is why for me it feels doubly important as one of those relatively rich people on a global scale, that I set and live by a good example, and don’t contribute to the growth of an industry, where flying is not treated as a normal everyday thing.


 

Until quite recently I didn’t go abroad at all for many years. But when I have done so, not flying has been both a challenge, and a rewarding experience. I’ve travelled to Ireland by train and boat, and then much more ambitiously went on a month-long holiday all over Europe by train, visiting fourteen countries in four weeks (and transiting through another on top!). Traveling by train is a total joy and I would recommend it to anyone — Perhaps something to discuss at greater length another time.

I am of course lucky that I live in Europe (the UK), and the train connections to multiple countries are superb. But dreaming of going further afield things get a lot more complicated. It’s definitely possible, with enough time and money, to go anywhere on the planet without setting foot on a plane. But circumstances might mean I won’t always have those resources when I might be called upon to go afar.

I’m worried because a few years ago I met my partner, who happens to be from the Philippines. She’s not been home since we met, and of course wants to visit at some point. I too would like to see where she’s from, experience her culture, and meet people who matter to her. And I can imagine that the urgent needs to see someone at short notice, or attend to some personal situation, might mean I am called upon to journey to the Philippines in a timeframe where both I wouldn’t have a hope of saving enough money to make the journey over land, nor be able to create the time out of working life to take such an extravagant trip.

I’ve looked for sure, and the potential routes would be a magnificent adventure. It’s certainly not an easy one whatever way you go though, as the Philippines is of course an island (or rather islands), so you ultimately have to get to somewhere to take a boat — That could be weeks on the sea, going most of the way that way, or taking trains right across Europe and Asia to make a shorter sea trip at the end. There don’t seem to be many straight passenger boat services for such long international journeys, so it would probably mean taking a passenger bunk on a freight ship.

It would take weeks just to get there however you did it. For that time commitment, one would obviously then want to spend many more weeks seeing that side of the world while you were there. The cost would be enormous. It’s a frustrating reality that to take a trip like that would be something that would take many years of saving to allow for the trip itself, and taking half a year out of employment to make the time to take it.

So if I feel I need to go with my wife to the Philippines any time in near future, I’m probably going to have to accept it will be by flying.


 

The trouble is I’m an annoyingly principled and stubborn person. When I decide I want to do something, or not-do something, I really stick to it. I don’t drink, or smoke, or take drugs, I don’t drive, I recycle to a fanatical degree of sorting, I’m vegan, I’m still stubbornly hyper anti-social out of covid caution. Some of these things I do simply because I want to, some because I believe strongly in doing things for the greater good. But whatever the reason I start to do something, I really stick at it.

So breaking my decision not to fly, even for one exceptional journey, is going to feel like such a failure, because I never back down on my principles. I don’t wan’t to fly. I think flying is horrifically selfish and destructive. I look to the sky and see planes and lament how willingly and casually we’re destroying our world.

I know in the grand scheme of things my taking a couple of flights (there and back) in a decade isn’t really going to make that much different. I know if everyone in the world flew that infrequently, flying would be much less of a climate issue. But it still seems hard to let myself take even that brief rational break from my principles, because that’s not what I do.

I write this I suppose because I know I need to convince myself, maybe at some point force myself, to do something I find hard, uncomfortable, and compromising. Something that will make me feel like a hypocrite, even if I know most people I know wouldn’t bat an eyelid at my doing it, and would fully understand the reason why I would make an exception.

I hope one day the world will be full of hypersonic intercontinental trains and ultra-low emission airships. I want very much to visit the world, and my friends all over the globe, and for it not be a burdensome and fanciful as if I were living out Around the World in Eighty Days. Until that day, I will continue to not fly, and enjoy magnificent trips by train and boat. But maybe, just maybe, once in a decade or two, I might just have to permit myself to bend my own rules if I feel the time has come that I really need to.