Beyond Flying: Rethinking air travel in a globally connected world

Beyond Flying front cover: edited by Chris Watson, published by Green Books.
Beyond Flying front cover: edited by Chris Watson, published by Green Books.
For today's tourists and travellers the elephant in the room is the jumbo jet which whisks us to our destinations - but pollutes the air, promotes destructive development, and isolates us from the the real world. Rose Bridger reviews 'Beyond Flying'.
The book is an antidote to travel journalism which has no regard to the impacts of flying.

Beyond Flying brings together contributions from 14 people who drastically cut flying, or stopped altogether.

They made this commitment because flying is one of the fastest growing sources of climate disrupting greenhouse gas emissions. A single flight cancels out lifestyle efforts such as plant based diets, energy efficient homes and recycling.

In recounting experiences of undertaking long intercontinental journeys, and running businesses which require international communication, the book is an antidote to travel journalism which has no regard to the impacts of flying.

How air travel narrows the mind

With its wealth of practical advice for readers, the book celebrates the joys of substituting flight with surface travel, and also addresses the difficulties. People need the luxury of time to undertake intercontinental journeys by buses, trains and boats, which take days or weeks instead of the few hours for a flight.

All the authors are mindful of, and eloquent about, the constraints on individual choices. For many people, cost is the most important consideration and, lavished with subsidies, flying is artificially cheap.

A theme touched on by all the travellers is embracing the journey, engaging with the places they are passing though. Their psycho-geographical insights are a marked contrast with the experience of air travellers, who are, in one sense, broadening their horizons, yet are also extraordinarily blinkered, fixated solely on desired destinations while flying oblivious over everything in between.

Personal transformations

The most remarkable attitudinal transformation in the book is documented by the editor, Chris Watson. After growing up in an airline family, becoming a fully fledged aviation enthusiast and light aircraft pilot, he drastically reduced his flying upon learning about the climate impacts.

Many of the co-authors are refreshingly candid about enjoying the benefits of flying, the speed and convenience, even the experience in itself, and none gloss over how difficult it can be to abstain.

Tom Bennion, an environmental lawyer who runs his practice without flying, is particularly frank about this. Relinquishing flight, and therefore the places that can no longer be reached, had a profound effect on his view of the world and future in it, inducing feelings of grief.

He identifies the sacrifice that not flying entails as indicative of the scale of the shift in our individual behaviour that is needed in order to avert climate catastrophe: "voluntary, drastic reduction in personal air travel is a kind of fault line for action in the climate change debate".

All the co-authors refer to the subsidies for aviation, in particular the fuel tax exemption bestowed on almost all international flights.

Systemic change - not just individual abstention

For Chris Brazier, a co-editor of New Internationalist magazine, government cosseting of the industry means that efforts by individuals to reduce the number of flights they take are secondary to the need for systemic change, campaigning for policy change and involvement in local campaigns against airport expansion.

The book is an antidote to travel journalism which has no regard to the impacts of flying.

Saci Lloyd, who has written extensively on climate change and works with young people, takes a similar approach, saying that the "line of persuasion needs to be about the root causes of the issue".

Young people are a group for whom flying is more accessible than ever before. It is important to them as a status symbol and for "being part of a connected global culture".

They do not respond to dry statistics and being exhorted to forego what previous generations enjoyed guilt free. Instead, we need to involve young people in a positive narrative that envisions a greener future.

Flight remains the preserve of the wealthy

From within narrow peer groups, a person who makes a commitment to reduce or stop flying might feel marked out as an oddity. But from a global perspective, flight is, in the main, the preserve of relatively wealthy people in wealthy countries.

The vast majority of people from poor countries have never stepped on a plane. Flying is an elitist activity. Only about 5% of the world population has ever flown.

John Stewart, leader of the campaign against a third runway at Heathrow Airport, points out that emissions can only be stabilised in an equitable way of people from rich countries fly less, in order to allow some aviation growth in the poorest countries so they can reap a fairer share of the benefits of speedy international connectivity and international cultural exchange.

His only flight across the Atlantic was made with the intention of touring the US by train, for a series of meetings with aviation campaigners. Having been refused entry to the US, he made his second journey across the Atlantic Ocean just hours later.

No man is an island

Other co-authors reluctantly resorted to taking the occasional flight. This is understandable. Our world is shaped by aviation and we do not live in a vacuum. There is no denying that face to face contact is the most effective form of communication, and there is no more vital communication than sharing knowledge to combat the climate crisis.

Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Town movement, a global network of communities away from fossil fuel dependency resilience, adopted a no-fly policy.

The global nature of the Transition Town movement presented challenges but he became adept at electronic communications such as videoconferencing, presenting remotely at overseas conferences, but he decided to fly to the US for one key event.

Leading climate expert Professor Kevin Anderson takes a different view of flights undertaken as part of efforts to address climate change. He is rightly wary that "evangelising from 32,000 feet", no matter how well-meaning, is perceived as hypocrisy - and maintains that all flying, regardless of the reason for the journey, is still a trigger for aviation expansion.

He also makes the important point that, in making comparisons between the emissions from different modes of transport, calculations based on emissions per passenger kilometre are inadequate. We need to factor in the time saving from the speed of flight, which results in additional carbon emitting travel.

Anderson set an example by travelling from the UK to Shanghai by train for a UN Climate Change Conference. The time was not lost, on the contrary it was intensively productive, the respite from daily life was an opportunity to read and write.

Slow travel is travel to savour

Nic Seton, now a digital campaigner for Greenpeace, met with climate activists in a long surface journey by train and bus to a UN Climate Change Conference in Poland. He arrived with first hand knowledge of the impacts of climate change in many countries and able to contribute insights from people who did not have the opportunity to attend.

Several of the co-authors pioneered initiatives which enable others to reduce flying. Kate Andrews established Loco2, which aims to make booking a train across Europe as simple as booking a short-haul flight, a major step forward for enabling rail to compete with air travel.

Ed Gillespie, a director of and investor in Loco2, circumnavigated the globe without flying. In sharing what he learned about how to "savour the journey" he became a prominent advocate of slow travel, and sees the potential for a wider collaborative movement, akin to what has been achieved with 'slow food'.

No-fly zone

Susan Krumdieck organised the first reported no-flying conference, in New Zealand, where surface journeys between dispersed settlements are difficult.

People from all over the country participated in the electronically networked e-conference and she gives a wealth of useful advice for replicating its success. It was estimated that the carbon intensity of the event was 1,000 times lower than if delegates had flown to attend it.

In their 'Year of no flying' Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh travelled around the world by cargo ship, train and bus, interviewing over 60 climate activists en route.

Their investigative journey embraced communities that are victims, rather than beneficiaries, of aviation expansion, such as slums threatened with eviction for expansion of Mumbai Airport, and villages that would be wiped off the map by the proposed new airport for the city, at Navi.

Venturing behind the facade of tourism-oriented developments in Bangkok they witnessed the industry's voracious appetite for new undiscovered destinations, which are quickly over-developed then slammed as 'too touristy'.

Fighting aviation blight

Upon their return Chatterjee and Ghosh founded Aviation Justice, a coalition of airport neighbour communities throughout the US, all blighted by harmful air pollutants and noise from aircraft and united in working for a more sustainable aviation system.

For all the climate benefits of a modal shift to surface journeys - by trains, motor vehicles and ships - fossil fuel dependent travel of all kinds is a major factor in an individual's a carbon footprint.

So it is fitting, and admirable, that two of the contributors to Beyond Flying embarked on epic journeys by bicycle, and one on foot. These travellers took several months to cover distances that would take days or weeks by road, rail or ship, or just a few hours by plane.

It is these ultra-slow travellers who see the most of what is excluded from tourist maps, such as the highways whisking air passengers to and from airports, industrial areas and vast rural areas that are dedicated to agricultural monocultures and not remotely picturesque.

Travel as a parable for life

They all felt that they gained from the unexpected experiences arising from being forced to engage with the places they pass through.

Lowanna Doye cycled from the UK to Sydney, with a cargo ship leg from Singapore to Brisbane. The journey took 15 months. Doye's travel partner described the experience of engagement with surroundings vividly, as "the world going through you instead of around you".

But the joys of cycling were tempered with trials and tribulations in each country she passed through, such as harsh weather and inconsiderate drivers of motor vehicles.

Chris Smith's cycling odyssey, from the UK to Beijing, took 13 months. He had intended to cycle on to Vladivostock then take Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow and cycle home from there, but was stopped in his tracks by border bureaucracy. His travel for journey, not just the destination, has a deeper resonance as a "parable for journey through life".

Engage more, care more, do more ...

Adam Weymouth took the slowest journey of all, walking from the UK to Turkey. Reflecting on trudging though landscapes that are the very antithesis of tourist attractions, such as business parks and abandoned villages he writes that "Perhaps if we had to engage with these places we would take more care of them".

It is inevitable that, in a compilation of this kind, there is a degree of repetition about the role of flying in climate change. For example, many of the writers point out that just one long haul return flight results in emissions comparable to driving a car for a year.

But important points such as this need to be reiterated. And the authors' journeys, in terms of alternative travel, travel foregone, and the shifts in mindset that arise from their commitment to enacting and galvanising change, are very different.

Beyond Flying makes a persuasive case for everyone to minimise the number of flights they take, and gives invaluable practical advice and moral support.

If you are among those who are already making an effort to fly less, or stop flying altogether, this book will strengthen your resolve.



The book: 'Beyond Flying: Rethinking air travel in a globally connected world' is edited by Chris Watson and published by Green Books, 2014 in a paperback edition of 208pp @ £9.99.

Contributors: Chris Brazier, Rob Hopkins, Saci Lloyd, John Stewart, Kevin Anderson, Kate Andrews, Tom Bennion, Susan Krumdieck, Ed Gillespie, Adam Weymouth, Lowanna Doye and Nic Seton.

Rose Bridger (@RoseKBridger) is the author of Plane Truth: Aviation's Real Impact on People and the Environment, published by Pluto Press in October 2013.


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