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Though the scientific and moral case against flying is robust, the reaction to making it has made me lose faith in the power of individual action. I think the only solution is a carbon price: see why in my new introduction.

There is a strong imperative for individual action. Arguments like “the plane will go anyway” and “my little ten tonnes doesn’t make a difference” are, of course, valid if there really is just one of you. However, individual actions are cumulative, both over time and over society. Annual holidays can add up to a Hell of a lot of carbon over a lifetime, and a huge amount over the population of the developed world. If nobody acts, millions or even billions could die. That’s a lot of blood, even if you’ve got plenty of hands to spread it on.

In depth

The plane will go anyway.

This argument only stands up to scrutiny if a tiny number of individuals stop taking holidays. An aircraft will certainly run with a couple of empty seats if you and your friend decide to go on holiday by train instead. However, even a fairly small percentage reduction in individuals travelling by air will mean that certain routes require fewer flights to service them and, as capitalism dictates, the airlines will cut back where fewer planes will do to maximise their profits.

Air travel has to have much higher occupancies than other forms of public transport. A bus might sometimes run with only one person on it, but it’s just not economic, particularly for the budget airlines, to leave when a plane isn’t full. Consequently, they are very sensitive to reductions in passenger numbers. If over a reasonable period ten or twenty fewer people were to fly a route, a couple of flights would be cut to make sure that the planes which did go were absolutely packed.

If half of flying holiday-goers were to decide to go by train or holiday in the UK instead, then it would certainly not be the case that the planes would go anyway; airline companies with shareholders to consider would be forced to slash numbers of flights, leading to massively reduced emissions.

Further, air travel is an industry growing at an alarming pace—if consumers vote with their feet now, airport expansion will not take place, which will ultimately lead to lives being saved. These are aircraft and takeoff slots which don’t even exist yet, so they can’t “go anyway”: today’s punters can have a big effect on carbon emissions tomorrow.

My actions as an individual won’t make any difference. A tonne of carbon? Might be a significant fraction of my carbon allowance but it’s probably only going to save 0.00001 of an African life. Why bother?

It is true that if a handful of individuals make the choice to stop taking holidays by plane, nothing will happen. The Earth will warm by 1.9999 instead of 2°C and the effects will be, give or take the unpredictability in climate models anyway, exactly the same as they were before.

However, it is not true that this absolves you from individual responsibility. A single person, or even a few tens or hundreds of people cannot effect a significant change whether they stop flying, cycle everywhere or even if they were to reduce their carbon emissions to zero. But society comprises individuals, and if the whole of society takes action, big effects will be seen.

People won’t listen. It will take government action and/or heavy taxation before people will do anything. I’m going to fly until someone makes it uneconomic for me to do so.

It would be very naïve to expect that my consternation, this website or the entire green lobby will convince the people of Earth and save the World. Indeed, much of tackling climate change is going to require changes in the political and economic infrastructure which will actually be impossible without multilateral state intervention.

There are a few reasons that it’s still important both to be convinced and to act on a personal level.

Firstly, until there is a more widespread consensus amongst the public, we simply aren’t going to see as many green policies as are needed. Politicians have some tough wrangling ahead if they are to take the necessary action hard enough and fast enough, and even the least cynical of us know that they won’t do so without a mandate from the people, lest they not get elected next time. Awareness is good, but voting with your feet is even better. We need to let them know that we’re up for fighting climate change.

Even if we could elect a greener government, though, laws, bills and taxation take a while to trickle through, and the process, complete with preceding debate, will take months or years before demand for air travel plateaus, let alone falls. As a collection of individuals, we can each act now, and save lives. Just don’t get on the plane. It’s that easy.

Finally, why not tell your friends? Your action as an individual is a contribution, but if everyone convinces someone else, the benefits snowball into something big—hopefully big enough convince the politicians and set in motion the saving of the Earth all at once.

Comments

  1. It’s a classic free-rider problem. If everyone but me decides not to travel by plane, I benefit. If I decide not to travel by plane, but everyone else continues to, I lose out.

    Suggesting that my choice makes an impact simply because there are millions of other similar choices being made is a fallacy. The choices are being made independently.

    In a market where the economics of an easyJet flight relies on the last 20 seats being sold, it is still true that my contribution does not inform any of the other consumers in the market – all the other consumers do what they would have done anyway.

    Even if two flights I might have taken were to become uneconomic, there is no causal link to be drawn which suggests that more flights would be grounded. There’s simply no mechanism for that change to happen.

    The best quote I could find to describe the economics from “The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups” by Mancur Olson:
    “It does not follow, because all of the individuals in a group would gain if they achieved their group objective, that they would act to achieve that objective, even if they were all rational and self-interested. Indeed unless the number of individuals in a group is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.”

  2. I’ve not argued that your choice makes a difference because there are millions of other choices going on—I’ve made an argument for why your choice might be worth more than you think.

    The issue with the argument you make is that economics is not a system of morality. It might be in your “best interests” to fly if you are an amoral scoundrel. (!) As soon as you acknowledge that human suffering is caused by your choice to fly, then the decision is not merely game theory fun-hunting. A more appropriate maxim by which to make your choice might be Kant’s categorical imperative—that you should do only things that you would have others do in your position. That does make not flying the universal best choice and, though a meta-ethicist would probably have something complicated to say about it, it sounds to me like a better yardstick than trying to optimise your own personal pleasure.

  3. The reason for the economic argument is because, ultimately, if there is to be a reduction in flights it is the economics of collective action rather than the morality of individual action with which society/world governments/the green lobby will have to contend.

    Even if I were to acknowledge that human suffering is caused by my choice to fly, if I were to take a position of utilitarianism I would have to consider my effect, not the effect of all flights. I can only control the choices I take, and while the consequences are not 100% clear, I have yet to see be convinced of the harm caused by my 500g per mile.

  4. Individual choice is, as I emphasise, extremely limited in its usefulness. The idea behind this website is to set those economics of collective action in motion, by convincing a lot of people not to fly. This page seeks to convince you that the collective action can be effective with fewer people than you think, and that you do have an obligation as an individual not to break ranks with your fellow non-fliers.

    If everyone takes your nihilistic attitude, we’re all doomed. If people start to take notice of climate change and flying becomes socially unacceptable, we might be getting somewhere.

  5. “In a market where the economics of an easyJet flight relies on the last 20 seats being sold, it is still true that my contribution does not inform any of the other consumers in the market – all the other consumers do what they would have done anyway.”

    Statto wasn’t talking about sending signals to other consumers, he was saying what you can do to change the practices of easyJet, rather than easyJet customers. You can’t deny that if you don’t fly with them they will have fewer customers, and will as such suffer lower profits which will cause them to consider cutting some of their less profitable flights.

    If you meant that even if you don’t take the last seat on that flight, then someone else will, then my logic still stands. Even if the net fall in customers and profits don’t affect that specific flight, you can’t deny that somewhere down the line, easyJet will not generate as much profit if you don’t give them your custom. Thus, you can have an impact. And with air travel, the impact of the individual can be massive. The fixed costs of hiring the planes etc. are so massive, and the variable costs so small (being only the on-flight food, essentially…), that the firms really do need every last customer to profit maximise.

    All Statto was saying, concerning us influencing others, was that we should use our consumer choices to shape the practices of firms. You argued with this by saying that you couldn’t stop other consumers doing bad things still, but nobody had suggested that you could or should.

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