The Plane Truth: Your holiday is killing African children

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.

People are still flying. The Plane Truth, along with everyone else campaigning on this issue, has failed.

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.


  1. I contend that the best thing any of us can do to limit our impact on global warming is to have fewer children. The carbon footprint calculation for each of us should include 50% of each child’s carbon footprint and 25% of each grandchild’s, etc.

  2. I agree that population control is a vital plank of any climate change policy, but aviation control is also deserving of attention.

    Hopefully our children and grandchildren will be born into a world where per capita carbon emissions have decreased to a more sustainable level, but if even a small percentage of them are able to fly on a regular basis then this will simply be impossible. For example, imagine we halved the Earth’s population (which I would argue is an unrealistic goal, but let’s roll with it for a moment). If the remaining three billion people each took a short haul flight on an annual basis, the effects would pretty much cancel out—carbon emissions would remain as planet-cripplingly high as today.

    Clearly, then, fighting climate change requires a multi-pronged approach: those children who are born must be priced out of the sky, and other high-carbon activities.

  3. I can’t say that I disagree with what you say. If you consider that modern agriculture is a way of converting fossil fuels into food, I suspect that food shortages will have a bigger and more direct effect on global political and economic stability than global warming itself (though naturally the two are related). Hence the most pressing problem we need to address (and one that I see all too little effort on) is population growth. Almost all the other problems are a function of this one (including global warming) and while it gets worse, so do all the others. I can foresee technological changes that might mean air travel could still be possible (a return to dirigibles perhaps), even if it is slower than at present, but I cannot see a way to sustain the present growth in world population. The real scary thing is that almost every economy in the world relies on exactly that for prosperity, i.e. population growth!!!

  4. Hello from a fellow Oxford student! I recently realised myself the need to stop flying, and have thought about it obsessively ever since. I had exactly the same thoughts as you articulate here about both elections (the “one person doesn’t make a difference” mentality) and the need for carbon trading. It’s amazing how much you echo what I’ve been thinking about.

    One thing I will say is that I’m not surprised your Facebook group failed as I think the title, which was obviously designed to shock people, might come across to many as being aggressive to the point of irrational, and thus will put people off from joining, even people who have made a decision to stop flying. I think a softer approach would have got more people joining and maybe therefore changing more minds.

    I’m much younger in this process than you are and I haven’t yet decided how much of a prick I am going to be about it. So far I have kept my decision quite quiet but I think that that will slowly change as I think about it more and the whole situation irritates me more.

  5. Hi Richard! I hope my years of worry distilled into the best prose I can muster have given you a few ideas. 🙂

    I could be persuaded to agree that my headline claim is over-harsh—as you say, I was going for shock value, but you’re quite right that this could alienate even those already on-side! What surprised me, and inspired this part of my website, is that you can make a word-by-word justification of even such a shocking sentiment.

    Anyway, more than open to ideas if you have any bright ones—and good luck on not being too much of a prick!

  6. It hasn’t even convinced anyone not to fly.

    You’re just using the wrong metric to measure your success.

    Your argument alone may not have convinced anybody not to fly. But for some, you’ll have planted the seed of an idea. For others, you’ll have helped to grow something of which they were already aware. You could express it mathematically, I suppose: perhaps the average change is that for each person who reads your argument, one twentieth of that person doesn’t fly.

    What good is one-twentieth of a person? (one might as well ask what good is one empty seat on a ‘plane!) Arguments like this one aren’t won overnight. Giving up flying feels to many people like giving up some of their freedom, or one of their hard-earned rights. Furthermore, considering giving up for a moral reason when it’s something you’ve “always done” triggers a strong guilt response in people – compare to Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis’s contemporaries, who rejected his (scientifically-verified!) claims, probably because to accept them would require that they came to terms with the number of new mothers that each of them had inadvertently killed.

    So maybe you only make (say) one-twentieth of each person ‘see the light’. But then another twentieth is knocked off by one of their friends accepting your argument. And another twentieth is knocked off by a news article about the environmental damage caused by powered flight. And another twentieth when they lie awake at night and think about it. It takes a while! ‘Planes superficially LOOK clean – white vapour trails that disappear like mist, coming out of sleek, fast-moving aluminium tubes – so it’s not easy for humans to immediately accept that they’re environmentally disasterous.

    Furthermore, humans are bound by a consistency principle: it’s more-important to many of us to be seen as consistent than it is to be correct. As a result, even when you do contribute towards one person giving up flying, they’re unlikely to credit or acknowledge you for it. They’ll quietly make the switch, associate themselves with people who feel the same way, and – if genuinely pressed on their reasons – will explain in general terms that they’re doing it because it’s right, as if to say that they came to the conclusion on their own. Which they did, to be fair: what was your part? Showing them a twentieth of the truth that they needed? An important part, certainly, but not one that swings people by itself.

    So I thought I’d try to come and give you some of that credit, that you won’t get anywhere else.

    Early this year, I pressured others to join me in travelling by train, rather than by air, to pretty-much the border of Switzerland. There were other reasons for this, too – JTA doesn’t like flying; Ruth could have conceivably been pregnant (although she wasn’t, as it happens); but for me the biggest reason was an environmental one (like Steve, I feel that not-making-children is a bigger contribution out of my lifestyle, so I’ve been sterilised – putting my genitals where my mouth is! – and I encourage my friends to have fewer children). It wasn’t compelling in it’s own right: had everybody else in our party insisted upon flying, then the inconvenience of those remaining “twentieths” of social pressure would have put me onto an aircraft. But it didn’t. Three fewer ‘plane tickets were told on that flight, and a part of that – perhaps a tiny part – is because of you.

    You’re not going to change the world overnight. But you can change it a little, and that’s a damn good start.

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