Flashback 2019: Why ‘flight shame’ is making people swap planes for trains
Excerpts: The flight shame movement is about feeling accountable for your carbon footprint – but it is also about rediscovering the joy of slow travel, writes Jocelyn Timperley.
The term speaks of the guilt of taking flights at a time when the world needs to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions. For me, it points to a painful contrast between the happy-go-lucky indulgence of a weekend flight and the devastating real world impact of climate change. Others have referred to it as the embarrassment of flying despite being environmentally “woke”.
This growing resistance to aviation has reinvigorated rail travel, with some rediscovering the attraction of night trains, and it is increasing pressure on politicians to address aviation’s climate impact.
But it is also changing our ideas of how, why and where we travel.
Although “shame” is a very negative term, the goals are positive – for people who take part in the movement as well as for the environment. Importantly, it is less about “shaming” other people who fly than changing your own travel patterns.
What’s more, the aim of many promoting less flying is by no means to discourage people from exploring the world. “Not flying doesn’t mean not travelling,” says Anna Hughes, who runs the Flight Free 2020 campaign in the UK. “There are so many places that we can access by other means.”
The movement is instead about revelling in the slow, deliberate journeys that are possible without aviation. One of the obvious choices is train travel, which has one-10th the emissions of flying, Hughes notes. “And, from my point of view, it’s way more enjoyable,” she adds.
To put the difference between train and plane in perspective, it only takes a return flight from London to Moscow to use up one-fifth of your “carbon budget” for the whole year. This budget is the amount of carbon each person can emit in 2030 while still avoiding dangerous levels of global warming. Making the same journey by train would use roughly one-50th of your yearly budget.
Slow travel needn’t be limited to short distances, either. Roger Tyers is a climate sociologist who recently returned from a “no-flying fieldtrip” to China, which took him two weeks by train each way. It might sound like a daunting expedition, but he is glowing about his train trip. “It was a fascinating journey,” he says. “I’ve seen some incredible things that you just wouldn’t see getting on a plane.” He lists a slew of other advantages: digital detox, reading, talking to different people, no jetlag. “And just appreciating the size of our planet and how diverse it is.”
The flight shame movement first emerged in 2017, when Swedish singer Staffan Lindberg announced his decision to give up flying. Other celebrity advocates include biathlete Björn Ferry, who has committed to travelling to competitions by train, and opera-singer Malena Ernman, mother of 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg.
The no flying movement is also gaining traction elsewhere
Academia is another flight-heavy industry where people are making changes. Several noted climate scientists are already very public about their efforts to fly less both for work and their personal lives, while 650 academics are supporting a campaign to greatly reduce flying. Alice Larkin, a climate scientist at the University of Manchester who has not flown for over a decade, argues that institutions need to change their expectations of how often their staff fly.
“I can imagine a world in 20 years’ time where people laugh about the fact that we used to fly halfway around the world to have a meeting – it’s like, why would you do that?” she says, adding that good virtual connections could go a long way towards reducing flights for meetings.
Larkin thinks it is particularly important for academics working in climate change to set the example by reducing their flying. “If you go to your GP and they are sitting there smoking and they are telling you to give up smoking,” she says. “Then you think, ‘Well, I’m not sure I believe that it’s actually bad for me.’”