Recently, I annoyed myself and likely others, with an entirely accurate and extremely pompous statement that I wasn’t fully comfortable, environmentally, with the thought of flying across the country for a quick visit with friends. That’s a lot of carbon to spew into the atmosphere for my own brief pleasure and convenience. And the unthinking ease of it all, that one can flit around the globe in the span of a few hours and not be amazed—just peeved about the lack of snacks—bothers me. This nonchalance bothers me more, maybe, than the carbon molecules spewing out the jets, bonding together again, thickening the atmosphere until the glaciers melt, sea levels rise and seasons change unnaturally. It’s a tough call which sort of arrogance is more irksome.
I’m not particularly pleased that an aversion to air travel has come up as a sticking point in the patchwork of my ethics. For starters, it turns me into a sort of smug-greenier-than-thou killjoy when friends—people I dearly love and have not seen in far too long—begin to talk of reunions and trips and travel. Secondly, it leaves me with a false dichotomy, weighing my love for my people in distant places with the more esoteric love for the planet. Truly, only one of side of that equation loves me back a fiercely as I give, wraps arms around me, laughs with me, makes me feel like the world is both should and will be saved.
It’s not a fair fight—it’s comparing apples to giraffes, really. And it’s one that I try to not bring on myself. It’s not about if I care about my distant people or not or how much. That is immeasurable. This new hiccup comes from a deep disturbance in the unexamined means towards common ends.
Part of this disinclination to fly comes from the fact I earned Masters degree in the monetarily-unrewarding field of Environmental Writing just as the economy tanked. For the last five years, I have been unable to consider flying anywhere. Either I haven’t had to money to buy a plane ticket, or I haven’t been able—either scheduling or dollar-wise—to take enough time off from my cobbled part-time and seasonal jobs to go anywhere more than a few hours drive away. Perhaps my growing discomfort with air travel is just some gnawing form of Classist jealousy—because I haven’t been able to have X, I’ve hastily built myself some convenient moral high ground about X being foolish as a consolation, so my economically disadvantaged position is a choice, rather than a personal failure. “Oh air planes and organic caviar? They’re fine for silly things, but their richness really poisons the ambrosial purity of my rice, beans and bicycle…”
I hope that I’m not that insecure or priggishly sanctimonious, but it is a possibility.
Whatever, the reason, I’ve had a break from the mental conditioning that one can—and maybe should to be some semblance of an accomplished global citizen? —jet set around frequently. And now, five years grounded, it just seems strange to not think of such things, to just buy a ticket and get on a plane and be elsewhere a few hours later. What is the fuel efficiency of a 747, how much carbon, per passenger, does it emit per mile, where does the jet fuel come from, and what are the labor and environmental standards of where this fuel came from, and so on.
These are metric questions that can be easily answered with some Google searching. But they aren’t, to me, the really interesting ones. I’m interested in why we don’t ask those questions about almost anything that literally fuels our very convenient lives. It is the convenience that troubles me. That what was once a scientific miracle is now commonplace and dreaded as drudgery with people spinning around the world for brief business meetings and snappy international weekends and so on. It some how seems disrespectful of the beauty and complexity between places, between people, of the science and wonder and mechanics of flight itself, to erase all that distance so quickly. There was something about immigrants and pioneers, leaving home and making fully new roots far away that we’ve lost—because it is so easy to go from place to place, I wonder if we are always half-rooted between where we are and where we’ve been.
Yet, there are things I have seen on the other sides of the globe that have changed my understanding of how to be in this world more than I would have ever learned if I’d never left Grover’s Corners. I wouldn’t have the worldview I do without what I saw and did in New Zealand or Japan or Kenya or Denmark. I wouldn’t know myself half so well without the trips I took to Oregon or Montana or Mississippi or Colorado. I don’t begrudge the ethical, mental, emotional, aesthetic benefits of traveling, and there are times when I almost believe that the weight of carbon pollution from flights of fancy is nothing when compared to eyes and a heart opened to all of the possibility witnessed in a different place.
Almost. Because, really, how much of this wonderful world do we each need or want or deserve to see before becoming willing to alter our lives for its survival? Does recycling every week or owning a Prius or joining a CSA or only shopping at thrift stores and Patagonia mean that you “earn” the carbon points to flit off to Paris?
Of course not. Life doesn’t work like that. These are not simple trades and numerical balances. We live in pulsing ecosystems and webs, not algebraic equations or score cards. All I ask is that we begin to think before we act, to believe that the benefit of what we do—in all things, not just airports—is worth the cost. That we do not act casually and callously, that we stop the dangerous cultural habit of being inured to wonder. That we slow down and make choices, rather than be carried on the air currents as if we had no agency in the matter.
And I don’t have an answer or a firm line that I hold. I may fly to Montana to see my friends, I’ll certainly fly to visit my faraway sister at some point, and there are beautiful places I would love to be in, to touch and smell and be alive in. Here is what it comes down to, for me: Fossil fuel is—basically—pressurized, refined extractions of previous life on this planet. It is absolutely crazy to think that we’re all driving and flying around on the carbonic memories of dinosaurs and primordial slime.
But we are. And that is entirely mind-boggling, and more than a little sacred.
If I believe that what I am doing in a car, in an airplane, unwrapping a plastic package, is somehow respectful of and furthering the legacy of these lives that have gone before, then I’m okay with it all. It is an imperfect solution, and I am not in anyway consistently pleased with my own abilities to follow through with this ideal. Being aware and hopeful though, this is the only start I know how to make.
(And I’m not a total Greench. I support people who can and choose to, respectfully and humbly, get on airplanes flying to their loved ones for the winter holidays. It is cold and it is dark and we hunger to be around people we love and who love us. I think that dinosaurs would be okay with some seasonal migrations for love.)