I choose not to fly as much as possible. People don’t like to hear this, because they can already feel a potential judgment coming of their own actions or choices. But let me explain why first.

It’s not because I’m scared or because I don’t like looking at the clouds from above (in fact I do): it is just unfortunately the case that flying by air is just an incredibly quick way to blow all of the good karma you built up by cycling and reusing plastic bags. After space travel and splitting the atom it’s probably the fastest way you could burn fuel and create pollution. You’d have to cross the Atlantic by jet ski in order to be more environmentally unfriendly.

Everywhere I go however (by bus, boat and train) from Toronto to Mexico, from La Paz to Rio de Janeiro, I hear the exact same words, from different people, repeated with eeiree similarity: “But the plane will be going anyway. So why not be on it?”.

It’s fascinating to me that humans can trick ourselves with statements such as this when we know it would be morally reprehensible to respond to “look, we’re gonna gang-rape this girl anyway, so you might as well join in”. Rape is a very clear example of an active, directly immoral act. But many of us find it more difficult to imagine immoral consequences that come passively out of indirect actions with an unclear moral motivation. It’s the equivalent of saying to a vegetarian “look, the cow is dead anyway, you might as well eat it”: meat-eaters often see the meat as simply “food” in front of them to be eaten, with the “immoral” action of killing the animal already having happened and somebody else bearing the responsibility for it, where vegetarians understand perfectly-well that animals are not killed “anyway” but directly because they’re being sold for people to eat. If you eat meat you are, largely, although not completely, responsible for animals being killed. Although awkward, that should be obvious and undeniable to all but the most unimaginative, unsympathetic meat-eater, especially since the average meateater in their life will eat 36 pigs, 36 sheep and 750 chickens and turkeys. They used to be walking around and then at some point they arrive on your plate, you put them in your mouth, they come through the other end. What did you think was happening? The link, however unsavoury, is there, it’s tangible. Yet maybe because the effects of climate-related damage are even more “abstract” to most people than the fate of farm animals, even less tangible, not enough people change their behaviour around flying.

In the last year while travelling through Latin America I’ve seen many instances where the plane was “going anyway”. Each of these plane journeys – which I did by bus or boat instead- would have saved me an overnight journey or more, and would have cost less or not very much more (partly due to the false price advantages air travel is given by government tax regimes):

Cancun to Flores 556km 0.2 tonnes
Guatemala City to Managua 544km 0.1 tonnes
Managua to Big Corn return ~400km 0.2 tonnes
Panama City to Cartagena 450km 0.2 tonnes
Cartagena to Bogatá 657km 0.2 tonnes
Guayaquil to Lima 1139km 0.3 tonnes
Lima to Iquitos 1006km 0.3 tonnes
Iquitos to Cusco 1006km 0.3 tonnes
Santa Cruz to São Paulo 1836km 0.5 tonnes
São Paulo to Rio 361km 0.2 tonnes
Rio to Salvador da Bahía return 2430km 0.7 tonnes
Rio to Montevideo 1826km 0.5 tonnes

14 flights, 3.7 tonnes C02e total

In the end I only took a one-way of one of these flights, and only then at the insistence of my travel buddy (ironically a Green Party member short of time).

The figures next to each flight show the amount of pollution each flight would have created solely on my behalf, in carbon dioxide equivalent. The total equals 3.7 tons. That’s nearly twice as much CO2e than one person should be responsible for in a year, if global responsibility was divvied-up fairly and we set ourselves on a path to not ruin the planet.

Adding these flights to all the other assorted greenhouse gas pollution that I would be responsible for in a year means that with these flights I would have probably used up not only all of my own yearly total sustainable allotment but that of two or three other people as well.

At least I didn’t take a holiday from say, London to Chicago (12688km, 3 tonnes. That’s one and half times your yearly quota right there). Or London to Sydney (34037km, 8 tonnes).

Flying Business Class is even worse (because you take-up relatively so much more of the plane). Britain to Australia in Business Class is 23.4 tonnes: over 11 times your yearly fair quota used up in one day.  First Class is an incredible 32 tonnes. Even DC to LA in Premium Economy is around 3 tonnes for the return flight.

This is how we aggrandise ourselves when we fly. We put ourselves so many times above most other people in the world, as well as in our own countries, who, needless to say, don’t even have the money to fly. We become mega world citizens. But only in a negative way: that we are many many times more responsible for global catastrophic climate change than most people.

And because flying is unfortunately so uniquely destructive, it’s very easy (and for us cheap) to create a relatively very large amount of damage in a short few hours. And to wipe-away all of the environmentally beneficial things we’ve spent months doing in the rest of the year.

As Andrew Steele calculates, flying is so environmentally destructive that, assuming your apartment has energy-saving lightbulbs, you would have to use them every day for 33 years before they were responsible for as much pollution as one trip from England to Spain. Or, you’d have to do an average daily commute in the car for 2 months before the car was responsible for as much pollution as the flight to Spain. That’s how bad flying is.

I don’t want to be a part of that. By refusing to fly I’m choosing to not be the cause of that amount of environmental damage, and as Steele points out, the human damage that comes from that. Steele puts it bluntly: “your holiday is killing African children”.

But refusing to fly is more than just me ducking out of blame’s way. I’m effectively making the claim “Everybody should act like me” or at least “Everybody should act more like me… and the world would be a better place”.

I don’t want to say so too loudly because nobody likes being told that what somebody else is doing is better. But there is a moral claim here. And it’s a moral claim because I believe our actions – certainly together, if not one-by-one – do make a positive and critical difference to our shared global environment. And what that moral claim is doing is showing leadership – leading by example. It is the most honest way I can find to advocate a low-carbon way of living. After all if we cannot do something ourselves how do we expect others to take what we advocate seriously if it’s “do what I say not as I do”? Demonstrating it shows it can be done, as well as honestly finding its real-world limitations.

Every time you accept defeat and fly it’s saying “my dreams of a better world where we don’t destroy our own planet are just that – dreams, that are ideal and theoretical and not real”. Conversely every time we manage to not fly we’re saying “I did this! My dreams are real, a better world is possible! I’ve just created it”. Sometimes we might have to admit defeat, sometimes we might have to admit to compromise, like my journey by ship across the Atlantic. After all we’re seldom in charge of every aspect of our lives or the way the world works, and often we have to incorporate the needs of others.

Or maybe we don’t all want to be leaders. But let’s not admit defeat just yet. Let’s not let the corporations who profit from destroying Earth’s atmosphere win. Let’s say no to the governments who tax us to the hilt for drinking beer yet don’t tax corporations anything on airliner fuel. Let’s show that another world is possible whenever we can, and instead of losing, let’s start showing how we can win.

How many people on a flight? 150? 300? 400? If only a small fraction of the flying public made the choice not to fly or not to fly less, then there really would be some planes that wouldn’t be “going anyway”.

Individual actions make a difference when lots of people make them. 712 million people flew with American scheduled airlines last year. That means that even based on a capacity of 300 seats, if just one-tenth of one percent of those Americans did not fly, there would be 2372 whole planes that wouldn’t be going away. Things add up. Actions add up. People can make a difference. To think that everything that we do would just “happen anyway” is not simply unimaginative… it’s possibly an abdication of moral responsibility.

We just have to all make the leap of understanding that actions have consequences, both positive and negative, and it’s possible to have a negative effect with a seemingly innocent action. When taken together, our positive choices can make a difference.