To fly or not to fly

by Richard on May 29, 2011

A guest post by Elizabeth, lifted from a comment on the Open Mike thread.

I’d like to take the opportunity to get some wiser brains than mine thinking on a bit of a dilemma I’m experiencing.

I regard myself as a person of faith, and I regard faith as something you should live in every aspect of your life and as far as my courage will hold that’s what I try to do.

I accept the scientific evidence for climate change, and for human behaviour being at the very least a substantial factor (and crucially one we can control) in causing it. I see the consequences of uncontrolled global warming as being pretty disasterous and particularly so for the poorest and most vulnerable in our world, who are already beginning to suffer, and will continue to suffer more and earlier, the effects of our poor caretaking of the planet. So climate change is an environmental issue and also, from where I’m standing, a social justice issue. As a Christian it also troubles my God-given conscience because we’re currently failing in our reponsibility to creation and to our vulnerable neighbours. And we’re basically doing so because its easy and we can and because the effects are at one step removed from us we can mostly just ignore our responsibility for them.

I’d like to take responsibility. I actually want to. I also think I have a duty to. I’d like government and industry and everyone else to take responsibility too, but the one thing I have direct control over is (some) of my choices. So I try to make better choices. Not always the best choices, I don’t always find the time or energy to even research what the best choices would be, but I do try to do better at least.

So enter flying. It’s about the worst thing one can do climate-wise. I don’t think we’re actually going to stop flying, and I hope ever more efficient (and even one day solar powered) planes will mean that we don’t really have to and can continue to get lots of the good, I mean really great, things we’re getting out of our global mobility, without drowning our poorer cousins and starving half the world to death. But, if we’re being straight with ourselves, the amount of flying we get up to in the developed world isn’t on. I never decided to ban myself entirely, but I decided a few years ago to try and ‘keep it down’. By now I’ve figured that within Europe if I can’t afford the time/money it takes to go overland then I can’t go. If I have to go to a work conference on the continent I’ll cover the time and price differential between the train and the low cost flight out of my leave and my personal funds and I’ll accept that’s what it takes to have a happy boss and a happy conscience. That still leaves long-haul. I’m likely to have to travel at least once to the States and possibly once to Israel to get this PhD finished. Maybe I’ll carbon offset those flights when it comes to it, even though I think offsetting is a nonsense and I slightly resent the idea that I can buy off my own conscience in that way. Probably I’ll square it with myself as something I can’t avoid, though I’ll always aim for the European conferences if I can get away with it.

Then comes the sideball. Since reducing my flying became an issue I’ve basically holidayed at home. It’s fitted my schedule and my friends and my budget and I’ve had fun. Then this year I get an invitation to Japan. I have a friend there teaching. He has a month off and I have the opportunity to do something properly exciting and a bit unexpected and drammatic and break what has been a fairly trapped feeling existence of late (trapped by work and stuff, not the avoidance of flying). To go I have to fly. I checked, the train would just take far too long, and be hugely expensive. If I never took a breather and never got off I could maybe get there, wave at my friend and head straight home utterly broke before I’d completely exhausted the leave I can scrounge for this. So if I go I’d have to fly, and there’s no excuse, nothing to be gained except a good time for me and a friend who’s asked for my company. I think probably the good and right thing to do is say I won’t screw the world just for a giggle. But (almost) everybody else is screwing the world just for a giggle and I resent just a little the idea I should miss out and face everybody looking at me like a gonk for saying I feel it would maybe be wrong to fly because they just don’t get it. Resentment is bad. And Japan would be awesome. Saying the plane is flying regardless is s**t that ignores the economic driver for fewer flights if we fly less for leisure. Carbon offsetting is a nonsense. This friend is a really nice guy and I’d have loads of fun. You shouldn’t ignore your principles just because it gets hard. Probably this holiday will do more for me than a conference in the US (and my research really won’t do anything more for the US at a conference over there than in a journal), but I’ve accepted I’d probably go to the conference . Nobody will understand and ….If I didn’t go and people did get why, it might make them think, which is what the world needs, lots of people thinking, though why would I inflict thinking about stuff on anyone I don’t know becasue now I’m really confused.

So the question is would it actually be wrong to fly? Is there any way of squaring it with my conscience and is bringing God into it relevant or melodrammatic. I fear this is one of those situations where I maybe know the answer and don’t want to accept it, but your thoughts would be welcome nevertheless.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }


Nan Evans Bush 05.29.11 at 9:39 pm

Part of our being in a global culture is having not only the ability but even the responsibility to experience more than the little pockets of what we can conveniently visit by land and sea travel. A one-time trip to Japan seems a justifiable cause for air travel. It’s not as if you’ll be routinely commuting! And think what it will add to the background you bring to the PhD.


malc 05.29.11 at 9:49 pm

I got tickets to the rugby world cup, which this year is in New Zealand… it is safe to say that I fully intend to fly. Mainly because it’s cheaper than booking passage on a boat, and partly because I’d never get the time off of work to go to New Zealand (and back) by boat.

If it makes you feel any better I am planning on taking the train across Australia (well, Melbourne-Sydney) and right across (coast-to-coast) on North America…


Tony Buglass 05.29.11 at 9:59 pm

Perhaps I’m just dense, but I WOULD argue that the plane will fly anyway - because it will. And it’s no good arguing that it will use less fuel without your weight, because if you’re not in the seat, someone else will be.

It’s hard living by firm principles. Personally, I think you’re probably right about the damage caused by flying, but does that mean you shouldn’t fly at all? You have refrained from flying already, so if you’re right, you have made a difference. This is one of those cases where you really have no choice - either you fly, or the trip doesn’t happen. So the question becomes not “should I fly?” but “how much hurt will I cause or damage to that relationship if I don’t?”

If it was me, I’d go.


Richard 05.29.11 at 10:44 pm

You’ve articulated the dilemma of trying to be ‘green’ in the world as it is. I’m not comfortable with Tony’s “it’ll fly anyway”, but on balance I agree with him. Keeping ourselves ‘pure’ is impossible, and sometimes you just have to sin boldly. I’d argue that a flight taken just for joy and the strengthening of a relationship is very likely to be worth the carbon. But you’re right to keep challenging yourself about this stuff, as should we all.

And thanks for being the first with an Open Mike guest post!


DaveW 05.29.11 at 11:55 pm

From the mid 1980’s through to the early years of this century I did a lot of flying for work. I haven’t flown for something over 6 years and have no intention of flying again in the foreseeable future, after all I have more than used up my fair share of flying in the past (although I think I have only ever flown on holiday 3 times - Greece, Turkey and Jersey).

I have friends all over the world and we have relatives in other continents. So I appreciate there is a relationship cost in not flying.

However, if I fly long-haul for my own pleasure then can I look my sister or brother from Bangladesh, or from an Island in the Pacific or from the Netherlands in the face and recognise that I am part of the reason for their losing their home to floods.

I don’t have any control over what others do. I can make my own choices but I need to be prepared to deal with the consequences.


Tony Buglass 05.30.11 at 9:57 am

To be honest, I’m not comfortable with it, either. But it’s true. I’m uncomfortable because it illustrates my sense of powerlessness - my personal stand at reducing emissions is swept aside in a lemming-like stampede by everyone else, it seems.

What concerns me more than flying per se (which will probably be priced out of the market if oil prices continue to rise) but the amount of flying which is essentially trivial. People travelling is one thing - work, family, friendships are important enough to do it sometimes. But flying in flowers and out-of season fruit? How many tonnes of CO2 are emitted so we can have strawberries or roses at Christmas?

There’s a lot of ‘we can so we may’, which is essentially thoughtless and selfish. But how we change that attitude, I really don’t know. Ever tried holding you hands up to stop a lemming run?


phillip mutchell 05.30.11 at 11:42 am

Please scrub that last comment Richard, short on sleep and didn’t notice you’re not the author so comment inapplicable. Sorry

[Richard says: That's done. No worries]


Bob Gilston 05.30.11 at 12:07 pm

I agree with Tony that the trivial and frivolous flying is completely unacceptable. We have a son living in the USA. Whilst skyping is a wonderful way today to stay in touch it goes nowhere near in satisfying the need to meet face to face and to be able to hug.

Why did he go there in the first place causing us having to travel? He was made redundant and eventually had to find a job outside of the UK.

My mother spent her entire life never having travelled abroad. Was she the poorer for it? Maybe not. What I do know is that my life has been enriched by travel. That has inevitabley come at a cost from the carbon footprint perspective.

Nan’s post above probably says it all. We have the ability to fly and maybe the responsibility to experience things outside of our own environment.

My advice Elizabeth is go. You may still feel guilty but go.


DaveW 05.30.11 at 10:33 pm


Nan’s post above probably says it all. We have the ability to fly and maybe the responsibility to experience things outside of our own environment.

I agree that I have been incredibly blessed by what I have experienced of other cultures and by the people I have learned from on the way.

However, isn’t part of the problem summed up in “We have the ability to fly”. It is only a tiny fraction of the world’s population who have this ability. Why do I deserve to have this ability unlike 90% (or is it 95% or 98%) of the world’s population?


Bob Gilston 05.31.11 at 9:16 pm

Dave, you are right. That is the problem.

I can do a lot of things that 90% or more of the population can’t do.

I can switch my electric lights on. I can run water and wash, drink and cook with it. There are many things that I have in this affluent society that I live in that I enjoy which are not available to others.

There are many programmes and initiatives by organisations inside and outside the church, in government, in international circles supported by groups and individuals who seek to redress the balance. Obviously, I try to be a part of that effort.

But it’s not enough.

Tony’s point about frivolous flying is taken on board in our family. We grow our own vegetables, buy from the Veg Co-op at the local Community Hall and don’t buy out of season vegetables and fruit. We try to not be wasteful with our resources.

But, we fly to the USA twice a year to see our son. If that’s wrong, then it’s wrong. We want to see our son.

As I said to Elizabeth, she will still be guilty, but I think she should go.


Bob Gilston 05.31.11 at 9:18 pm

That last line should have read “she will still feel guilty”


A supportive friend 05.31.11 at 10:28 pm

Dear Elizabeth,
How well you articulate the faith/moral dimensions of the problem of climate change! You’re so right that it is a social justice issue, so it’s entirely relevant for people of faith to bring God into it. I’ve also wrestled with the question of flying. My commitment never again to fly for a holiday means that I’ve had to accept that it’s possible I may not see very dear friends in the USA again, so I know how difficult it can be and I offer my thoughts with empathy for you and others.

I’m glad you can see the massive flaw in the argument “even if I decided not to fly, the plane would go anyway.” Yes, of course that’s literally true of the plane that you might get to Japan. The actions of a single person very rarely make a big difference to the world, especially not immediately. But lots of single people deciding to do what they believe is right - even if it seems it can’t make a difference - leads to change over the longer-term. At 949 people have so far pledged not to fly for 12 months. Eventually this may result in fewer planes taking off.

The power of example is also incredibly important. Every choice we make helps to create/maintain social norms. Your resentment about “everybody looking at me like a gonk for saying I feel it would maybe be wrong to fly” is a perfect example. If more people choose not to fly because of concern about climate change, because of love for “our vulnerable neighbours”, and are willing to say so, that will help to change ideas of what is normal and acceptable. I think that’s part of the answer to Tony’s question about how to change attitudes. We can never know the extent of our influence - but we can choose the direction of it.

Regarding our “responsibility” to experience things outside our own environment: I think Dave W hits the nail on the head when he points out how few have the ability to fly. Does living up to our faith really lead to a responsibility to do something that only very wealthy people, in global terms, can actually do? There are so many ways to experience things outside our own environment that we can’t do them all in a lifetime, so why not pick some less harmful ones? For example, getting to really know people from other cultures through a multicultural society or a project helping asylum seekers; taking part in interfaith events; becoming friends with prisoners or homeless people or people of a different generation through any number of volunteering opportunities. I know you’ve done and valued things like this, Elizabeth. Our culture tends to appreciate distant, ‘exotic’ landscapes and places over more familiar ones. But I’d be surprised if you could feel more joy, or get closer to God, being in Japan than you have experienced through walking in the UK.

The comments about relationships make good points. However, your situation is different from those who have relatives settled long-term overseas. I think you told me your friend is in Japan for a year or less. Although I appreciate how much fun you could have visiting him, I think that if your friendship could be damaged by deciding not to fly to Japan, it’s probably not in great shape. I hope your friend would honour your faith - such a vital part of you! I’ve found that my friendship with someone in the States whom I haven’t seen for years now is growing stronger and more loving as time passes - writing to people can bring a new dimension to a friendship, not necessarily any less valuable than being with them.

It’s true that we can’t achieve ‘purity’. However, as you say, we can try to do the best we can. A dieter who is avoiding icecream will always be better off breaking their resolution by eating one or two scoops of raspberry ripple than devouring the whole tub! The idea of ’sinning boldly’ I think only applies in desperate situations such as Bonhoeffer’s decision that trying to kill Hitler would be less of a sin than refusing to join the plot because of wishing to keep himself pure. (I don’t necessarily endorse that plot but I can see that there were no sinless options in WW2.)

Of course, it’s not just all about individuals. I’ve felt recently that I’ve perhaps been too concentrated on the question ‘how low can I get my carbon footprint?’ - my personal purity quest - and that I should give more attention to campaigning for the policies necessary to create a lower-carbon society. However, I think the two go hand-in-hand; I’m not going to give up the one to do the other. Politicians need to see that there is political will for radical legislation. They need to see we are willing to change our lifestyles.

Thanks for your patience with this long post. I’ll finish by saying that, from my own experience, and from what I know of you, I think it is making the decision that is the hardest thing. Often decisions look harder from before than afterwards. God accompanies us, so when we go where we feel led, we get more comfortable. If you were to make the decision not to fly to Japan, make it once and for all and not revisit it, I think you’d find your resentment easing, and discover a sense of peace. It’s possible you could also find that by making the opposite decision - only you can know. But if you’d carry on feeling guilty, I don’t think it’s worth ignoring that. Since you ask for advice, here’s mine: sit quietly and imagine you’ve made the decision. For each decision in turn - flying or not flying - imagine you are writing a further post on this blog, telling your friends, and telling a poor woman in Bangladesh or Sudan about your decision. (You can balance out that latter one by also imagining telling a bunch of climate sceptics if you want!) For each decision, how do you feel? Which do you feel more comfortable explaining to those who don’t agree with you? “The peace that passeth understanding” is a wonderful thing, and worth trying for.

I hope you do find peace with this. I will not judge you whatever decision you make, and if you need a supportive friend who doesn’t even know what a gonk is, you know who I am and how to get hold of me! Love x


A supportive friend 05.31.11 at 10:38 pm

Ah - the web address I put in my comment seems to have been left out. In para 2 it should say “At lowflyzone 949 people have so far pledged not to fly for 12 months. (You’ll have to google for this website since the URL has disappeared - sorry.)
Also, at the end, only the word “making” should be italicised.
And of course I meant “nail on the head”, not “mail”.
If it’s possible to sort these faults out, moderator, and just post a revised version, that would be great.

[Richard says: Glad to have been able to make those changes for you]


Paul 06.02.11 at 12:53 am

I think you should go,

If you were to contribute to carbon offsetting for your flight you would probably help to turn some CO2 back to a solid form of carbon in the form of a tree, maybe not all of it but at least some of it. Carbon offsetting also has a bit of a side track as well, if you put the carbon offset investment in the right place you could help protect or replant an area of endangered woodland, maintaining bio-diversity or possibly ways of life for native people, if for example protecting woodland in Brazil. So arguably you using carbon from the North Sea, or Quwait and replacing it some where else like Brazil or Australian Rainforest might be a positive step.

At this late stage in the game the economic impact of buying, not buying the ticket is probably very very minimal as only a very small percentage of the people on the flight will hold the same values as you so it will still fly, and the market share of your type of travel “a one off” is probably not the airlines bread and butter income, more the monday to friday commuter buisnessman.

On a cultural point of view you will probably spend some money while in Japan helping to maintain jobs there at a time when the coutry could do with investment. I know you will probably also get to see the “real” Japan and not get an airbrushed tourists impresion, helping you to become a more rounded person and give you things to spiritually reflect on.

Climate change models are also very sensitive things, by changing the resolution of the model alone a completely different outcome is predicted. We don’t fully understand ocean circulations 100% in lots of localised areas with masive implications on climate, so if changing resolution has an impact how about their impact? Not to say that their models are wrong but it can be a science of chance. By the way if you do stumble on knoledge on the circulation of curents on the West of Shetland I would love to hear the theories. Having spent 2 year studying lots of theories and models all I concluded is that not very many people really know whats happening when you look at scientific fact often marred by politics and the need to be saying the right thing. It might simply be a natural cycle causing warming, yet again it might not be.

Finally I’m sure your friend would much enjoy your company and you might be able to provide him with some moral support and help in what is probably an Alien culture to him. Remind him of home and the jealous lemons he left behind, if you did make a decision not go I’m sure he would forgive you and still invite you round for a BBQ (Charcoal from a sustainable renewable forest naturally) and a drink.


A supportive friend 06.02.11 at 2:43 pm

Dear Paul,
Although carbon dioxide is sequestered by trees while they’re alive, the minute a tree dies and rots or burns, it’s all released again. So planting trees doesn’t ‘offset’ emissions permanently unless you can ensure that the tree never rots or burns, or is continuously replaced by a new tree until the end of the world. It doesn’t even delay the problem, since a flight tomorrow or next week or next month will cause emissions tomorrow, next week, or next month, whereas the tree planted to ‘offset’ them will take years to sequester carbon, bit by bit. The New Internationalist did an issue all about offsetting a while back which suggested that, in gneral, tree-planting is the worst form of ‘offsetting’. Arguably there is more value in projects which, for example, provide solar cookers to women in African countries, reducing emissions and preventing deforestation, health problems etc etc. However, to see these as ‘offsets’ (rather than simply contributing to such projects as part of our regular giving to make the world a more just place), is still to go along with a system that is all about getting people who already have very low carbon footprints to shrink them even further, while we in the rich world carry on with our unsustainable lifestyles.


malc 06.02.11 at 11:11 pm

I’d say go. You don’t know if you’ll ever get the chance to go out to Japan again, certainly not when there is someone you all ready know out there who will be able to provide accommindation/local knowledge. Sometimes you need to take an opportunity when it comes along.


Rachel 06.03.11 at 8:48 am

Can I just thank “supportive friend” for giving a great example of how to put forward a strongly held view, at one end of a spectrum, in such a courteous way. I’m flying for a family holiday later this year (having researched and discounted train travel to the same destination on cost grounds). I’d already agonised over it, but the “supportive” comments have been informative and challenging. thanks


Bob Gilston 06.03.11 at 5:46 pm

Rachel, I gather from your post that you are still flying. I also found the “Supportive” comments challenging. I also found them infuriating as I always do when people make perfectly sound and reasoned observations with which I agree but I end up doing the opposite.

The selfishness in all of us causes us to do things which on reflection we know to be against what we know to be ideal. For you it is cost. For me it is a desire to be with my son.

I am sure that you are doing many things in your daily living to reduce your carbon footprint. Then you go and spoil it all by making this flight for a family holiday. Join the club. I do not take my flights to the USA with an attitude that I don’t give a toss whether anyone else has that privilege. I know that I am blessed by being able to do what I do.

The “Supportive” post is certainly helpful in making an informed decision. Unfortunately, it will only serve (I think) to make people feel guilty. And I suppose that is only right.


Elizabeth 07.01.11 at 7:02 pm

Hello again guys,

Firstly, thanks to Richard for guest posting my original comment, and to you all for taking the time to read it and comment. I have quite a fraught decision making process, but was cheered up along the way by popping back to the blog and getting a response - it’ been quite exciting!

I have wanted to reply to a few things said, but decided to wait until I had made a decision and could give you all what the academics call ‘narrative satisfaction’. Unfortunatley, given the aforementioned decision making process, that’s meant rather a long wait in the real world, which is crazily long in the blogosphere, so sorry about that.

Firstly, a few extra nuggets to think on from my research into this. I had a go at quantifying just how bad flying would be. The news was not good. I discovered flying would roughly double my climate change impact for the year (I say ‘climate change impact’ rather than CO2 emissions here, becasue you have to apply a bit of a multiplier to emissions from flights to account for radiative forcing). Even without flying I found a rough estimate of my emissions to be about double what might actually be sustainable. The only point on which I can feel marginally smug is that I appear to be a bit lower than the UK average, what with the house-sharing vegetarian non-driver cyclist thing going on, but given the previous point, there’s no grounds for feeling smug for long.

To answer a few points directly:

@Paul on the sensitivity of the modelling - You’re right, small tweaks can change the predictions rather a lot, especially if you’re interested in a specific effect in a local area, but in broad terms the science is clear - we’re emitting a lot of CO2, the composition of our atmosphere is changing and that is changing the climate away from the one modern flora and fauna evolved to suit (or were designed to suit), so at a global level its pretty certainly bad news. Given the uncertainty about exactly what’s going to happen, and the uniqueness of the Earth, which prevents a scientific case-control trial, I think we’d do best to try and peturb the system as little as possible.

@Bob - Hugs are indeed precious. There are few things more reassuring in my life than my father’s promise that I could ALWAYS have a hug. I am fortunate that my family are not so far-flung, and given the anxieties I seem to developing, will henceforth start actively counting this as a blessing.

@Nan and ‘a supportive friend’ - I don’t believe there is any general imperative to travel, but I would argue that there is a real loss in not allowing oneself to travel, the experience of the traveller in a far flung land may not be better than someone deeply exploring their local area, but it is a fundamentally different experience. If you desire the specific experience of travel then I suspect you won’t find an easy substitute, though if we’re bringing God in then I can’t help mentioning that He never promised things would be easy.

So, to my decision. I would like to say I put the needs of my unseen, unmet neighbours in far flung lands first and declined to go. I admire the version of me that would have done that. She’s a bit full-on and righteous, but I think she’s basically a better person than me.

Instead, I have decided to go. The rationale is this: I will go to Japan, but at the same time I’m making a public commitment that this will be the last leisure flight I take, unless and until technological advances change the terms of the argument radiacally (solar planes or somesuch). I will fly for my PhD as and when it can’t be avoided and will do so with good grace. Then I will ground myself. I’ll ground myself and be happy about it, because, as ‘a supportive friend’ pointed out, that won’t actually stop me having fun and learning lots and experiencing the richness of diversity. It will also be easier to stay grounded having decided before opportunities arise that that’s what I’ll do (see references to how poor I am at decision making) A priori decisions are a massive reliever of stress in my life and I am largely too lazy to entertain the possibility of changing my mind once its made up. If I look at the climate change impact of these flights as a contribution to climate change over my lifetime, rather than over a year, as seems reasonable for a genuine one-off, then it looks rather less terrible and I feel OK with it. Of course, if it’s a matter of faith I can’t help feeling this sort of filthy compromise doesn’t cut it. Jesus seems to be quite clear on this sort of thing to me - he didn’t ask for the best we could manage, or as much as we could spare, or what felt comfortable - he demanded everything - if it would be best not to fly even this once, then I suspect that would be the more radically Christian way forward, if only I had the courage to take it.

Counter-balancing that is that my initial re-thinking of a steady inclination toward not going was given a fairly hefty triggering hit by the sort of stuff Paul mentioned in the last part of his comment (though not by the comment itself). I won’t be specific here becasue there’s someone else in the frame and it wouldn’t be fair. Suffice to say weighing near-certainty that I could do something good for a friend against a benefit to a greater number of people that is only more than a gesture in the deeply uncertain case that I am joined by others, I ended up in the tangle of weighing things up on seperate uncalibrated scales and, in the end, cut myself some slack.

Oh, and I’m not denying there’s a big wedge of purely selfish ” Yay Japan! that would be awesome” in here too, by the way.

Thanks again for your patience with this long comment and the lovely supportive, thoughtful comments you’ve all left.

I’m off home now to flick through a guide-book and get excited!

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>