Friday, January 04, 2013

Food-related environmentalism and flying

Many readers of this blog seek to make environmentally sustainable food choices.  Good choices include eating food with less meat, less processing, and less food packaging.  We can choose food sourced in season and closer to home.  We can waste less.

For some of us in first-world countries, the benefit of these choices is more than offset by the impact of frequent flying.

The book by Berners-Lee, How Bad Are Bananas?, which I discussed a couple months ago, gives the technical details on greenhouse gas estimates.  Buses and trains have vastly lower impact, and even automobile driving is much better so long as the vehicle carries multiple passengers.

In the New York Times recently, M. Sanjayan, the lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy, reflects very briefly on the paradox of environmentalists who frequently fly.  I see earlier commentaries in recent years by Anna Guyer (with an interesting comment thread) and others.  In 2006, George Monbiot wrote that we are all killers until we stop flying.  Still, basically, this question seems to be discussed quite rarely.

For those of us who fly frequently, we each offer reasons.  We tend to describe our motivation as "necessity" rather than "desire" to fly.  We must fly because of work.  We must fly so that children can know their grandparents.  But there surely is an awful pile of assumed privilege in these claims of necessity.  It is not just that most people in the world never fly; most people in the United States do not fly even once in any particular year.  The concept of flying as a necessity is confined to a small elite.

When I travel by train for business trips, I feel a higher quality of life.  Boston's South Station is walking distance from my office.  The homeland security apparatus is more humane.  The trains now have wi-fi and fairly good working conditions.  The views of the Connecticut shoreline, New York City, and the Susquehanna are striking.  An hour before the destination, one can shut down the laptop and go to the cafe car for a beer.

As I watch the news about climate change, replacing just one or two plane trips with alternative transportation modes does not seem sufficient.

Is it possible for an active university-based researcher not to fly?  Would colleagues think I had become unhinged?  I wonder, who is the highest-profile academic researcher in the United States who does not fly?  How does he or she do it?

I once went 15 months without flying for work.  In advance, when I told my colleagues over drinks at a conference reception what I planned to do, they laughed.  "Sure, let me be an environmentalist too and spend more time with my family!," one said.  Is it possible that millions of American professionals are squandering the environmental commons by packing ourselves like sardines into aluminum flying tubes, at great expense, with no welfare benefit? 

It would be ironic if we each fly joylessly out of obligation to other people who simultaneously flew joylessly in order to meet us.  Not just ironic, it seems insane.

Before deciding what to do about this, my family and I are spending some months discussing it with family and friends, including with relatives in distant places.  If you have any thoughts, or web links or reading suggestions, feel free to share.  There may be an update in a future post.


Elisa said...

I watched the documentary 180 Degrees South last night and this very same topic came up between my housemate and myself. So many people who consider themselves (and are!) environmentalists travel around the world, consistently, via airplane...which can offset the good work they are doing...
Perhaps with the spread of other technologies that make our world more connected (without forcing people to be in the same place) it will be easier and easier to fly less. However, there is still no true replacement for human contact.. or first-hand experience.
If we all learned to slow down a little bit and were not in such a rush... trains, cars, and ships might make a comeback? Travel is trendy though (and often 'necessary') everyone is in a rush... and our jobs don't give us enough time off to take the train from California to New York...
I think this is a tricky thing... and there should certainly be more public discourse around it...

Anonymous said...

I also think about the amount of money spent on international research travel, which is often a very large part of the budget. Often researchers in our field are involved in multiple research projects spanning multiple continents. Is this necessary? Is it cost effective? Is this even beneficial to the projects the researchers are dividing their time on? (not to mention to the wellbeing of the researchers themselves!) I wonder how this ability to be involved in so many projects around the world at one time has affected research and programs quality and effectiveness...