Shaming the flight shamers?

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Is flying or flight shaming worse?

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Flight shaming: the flavor of the decade? Don’t step into an airplane, we are instructed, because it contributes far too much to climate change. But how scientifically robust is the movement to put airline companies out of business?

There is no doubt that flying burns a lot of fossil fuels. As part of sustainable living, all consumption needs to be reduced, so it makes sense to consider which flights could be avoided.

Caution is needed, however, in targeting one action, commercial flying, based on one parameter, carbon footprint. Focusing only on the climate change implications of an activity is especially concerning, given that we impact the environment in many other ways. It is possible to reduce an action’s carbon footprint in a way that increases its overall ecological footprint or environmental cost.

Consider jet and train travel: What is the overall cost of 1,000 miles of metal tracks cleaving the landscape along with the train’s power consumption, compared to the fuel burned in aviation? How do different types of aircraft and trains compare, as well as different types of airports and train stations?

Or what about driving an electric vehicle? Roads must be built and maintained over long distances. Electric bikes use far less material than cars and require much less road space. The routes still cut through habitats, use resources, and require maintenance. Journeys of hundreds of miles might not be that simple.

Furthermore, producing the metals for the batteries has environmental and social costs, as do fossil fuel exploration and extraction. How credible are the data and calculations for comparing all transportation modes across each of their entire life cycles, including constructing and decommissioning vehicles/crafts, related infrastructure, and cradle-to-grave processes for the fuels? If comparing passenger, freight, and military transportation suggests that flying to anti-war or anti-consumption protests has a net gain for stopping climate change, then what?

The irony of burning fuel to tackle waste would never be lost!

It also raises the question of other lifestyle choices that could be shamed alongside commercial flying. Apart from essential uses such as in medicine, would eliminating single-use plastics from one’s life exceed the environmental gain of canceling one annual round-trip flight for vacation? If so, does that justify the flight?

We are told that the biggest rewards and joys in life come from family, which could mean many take vacations together with their kin (aside from those who claim that they need a real vacation after visiting family). Current systems too often devalue workers, make career-building challenging (especially for particular demographics, such as women), and scatter jobs around the globe. This could require flying to spend time with family. Should we shame the need to balance career and family?

The topic of family also leads to the carbon and environmental costs of having pets and children. Mandating population stabilization is equated, with some legitimacy, with overzealous social engineering, eugenics, neo-Malthusian assumptions, and the social problems (culminating in infanticide) identified when China had its one-child policy. Is it really appropriate to shame people for reproducing?

Instead, the key is to be aware of the consequences of one’s choices and to make deliberate decisions based on the best information available. Many reasons exist for having kids, so be aware that it is an active choice that, like everything, has environmental and social costs and benefits.

Same with flying. Never traveling would be a boon for some and a horror for others. As would a long-haul flight for a weekend shopping trip. The latter, though, might be pushing the limits of what society and the planet can afford, irrespective of all the provisos above.

We should always consider how many kids to have and how much to shop, as well as how many thousand-plus-mile trips are really necessary. Questioning and examining does not mean shaming, but instead focuses on informed and considered discussions and selections.

Ultimately, any choice must balance factors including energy, materials, time, and outcomes. Frequently, the numbers do not exist to make adequate comparisons. It is far easier to ask the questions posed here than to answer them thoroughly and convincingly.

It is clear that flight shaming does not tackle the real or baseline concerns and is hardly scientific. Asking about flying and thinking about alternatives might nonetheless be fruitful in raising awareness and creating constructive debate regarding the complex impacts that individual choices have for the future of Earth and humanity together.

This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.