Your holiday is killing African children, but telling people that probably isn’t the way to stop the African children from dying. I have been rendered cynical (some would say pragmatic) by watching my little attempt to save the planet fall flat. What we really need is swift action on behalf of the World’s governments to enact an international cap on emissions, and an international market to trade carbon dioxide.
Having talked to people about the ethics of flying for over a year, I have been elevated to a status somewhere between minor green deity and condescending eco-prick; people feel the need to offer me sacrifice, alms or apologies for their flights, as though only through my soothing hand can absolution for their environmental sins be granted. The more pragmatic have simply stopped telling me that they’re going on holiday, and snap at people who mistakenly bring it up in my presence.
The upshot of a year’s self-inflicted social ostracision has not been a grassroots movement campaigning for social change. The Facebook group managed, with the help of a few mates, to rack up about 1,000 invitations. Its membership peaked at 35, some of whom only joined to disagree, and is now slowly dwindling. I don’t have high hopes of a viral, Facebook-wide, world-changing coalition springing from its ashes.
I didn’t even manage to convince my friends—even my closest friends, who were subjected to a version of the argument more careful, measured and detailed than anyone else and who, being my closest friends, I like to think are moral, ethical people, have all booked flights since being ‘convinced’. ‘I’ll meet you half-way,’ one told me, ‘I’ll still fly where necessary, but I’ll take the train wherever possible,’ before booking a flight to Brussels which, a cursory look at the Eurostar website will tell you, is one hour and fifty-one minutes from London St Pancras. This is depressing firstly because my friends appear to be immune to moral persuasion, but secondly because the universality of flying in my middle-class sample is a microcosm of the huge expansion of aviation across the globe.
The main difficulty seems to be breaking the mindset that all this flying business is somebody else’s problem. ‘The plane will go anyway,’ whine your critics, ‘I’ll stop flying when everyone else stops flying.’ Worse, everyone has an excuse for ‘just this one’ trip because it’s the only escape they get from the tedious monotony of their boring life. This hot-potato attitude to responsibility is a bit like those silly ‘my child has a healthy appetite; your child is always hungry; their child is fat’ adjective conjugations: ‘my holiday is a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience; your holiday is a fatuous booze cruise; their holiday is killing African children.’
What’s strangest about this inability to act as a group is that people take the precise opposite attitude to, say, voting. ‘The plane will go anyway,’ is precisely equivalent to asking ‘when was the last time a party won an election by one vote?’, and yet people feel it’s their ‘civic duty’ to put a cross on a ballot paper, usually citing something about the Suffragettes, or giving thanks for living in a free, democratic society. Why is it not your global ethical duty not to holiday by plane?
Plane Truth’s failure renders the question purely rhetorical. People won’t stop flying, because they think other people are too stingy to do so, and the sad thing is that they’re probably right. I don’t think it’s possible to build a grassroots social movement around the idea of limiting personal freedom. People are far closer to the cynical, perceived-happiness-maximising ‘rational’ agents proposed in economic theory than they are to being the moral agents I had hoped them to be. So what can we do?
Well, rational agents respond to incentives, especially financial incentives. We just need to price everyone out of the sky. We need carbon trading.
Carbon trading is a method of making pollution expensive and, through the proxy of carbon dioxide, making it costly to behave immorally. What’s even better is that, because CO2 is traded on a free market, the market gets to choose how much it’s willing to pay for carbon-intensive activities. If it turns out that we’re willing to cough up for the carbon credits needed to fly, and other industries can cut back and sell their excess CO2 to aviators, then we don’t need a condescending eco-prick to ban flying: it will survive, but at an economic price which reflects its ethical one. For all the reasons I’ve outlined, I suspect aviation is too high-carbon to emerge unscathed, but the distinction is that ‘the market’ has made that choice, not me. Nobody likes being told what to do, but having an infinitesimal say as part of the incomprehensible machine of capitalism suits most people just fine.
The single biggest contribution you can make to avert man-made global warming is to stop flying. Unfortunately, making people aware of that hasn’t won me many friends. It hasn’t even convinced anyone not to fly. The conclusion you can draw from my failure is inescapable whether you’re an idealistic ethical agent or a cynical rational one: international carbon trading is the only way we can stop your holiday killing African children, because, unless we hit your wallet, you’re not going to listen.
Everything I wrote when trying to kick-start this campaign is as true now as it was then. It can all be browsed using the links below. The most interesting part is probably the numbers, which gives you an idea of just how bad flying is for the environment—it really is the worst thing you, as an individual, can possibly do.
If you want to follow through the argument as it was originally put, the old introduction is included along with all the following pages.