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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Small God of Air Travel
distributed 2/21/20 - ©2020

There's a perennial question in any conversation about the climate crisis: what about flying? It is an important question, because air travel (as well as shipping stuff by air) is really nasty.

A NASA scientist says, "there's no more potent way hour-for-hour to warm the planet than flying." The same scientist believes carbon offsets for air travel might do more harm than good, when people believe they can fly without contributing to climate change.

A recent "Ask Umbra" column on eco-advice offers some interesting suggestions. Beyond those practicalities, the whole debate is an interesting window into the topic of last week's Notes, about "burying our gods." Tim DeChristopher asked us, "What are the idols through which we understand our purpose and our relationships -- particularly those idols that have brought us to this brink of climate and ecological catastrophe?" Our love affair with flying should make many of us squirm about idolatry.

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"Ask Umbra" is a regular feature from the online magazine Grist, with quirky advice about green living. Last week's column (by a guest columnist) came out on the day before Valentine's, dealing with the question, "Will breaking up with my long-distance girlfriend help save the planet?"

Columnist L.V. Anderson admits the huge impacts of flying -- "each overseas trip is basically guaranteed to add a ton or two of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere" -- but seems to minimize the problem when saying that the average American "only" makes 2.1 round-trip flights a year.

Anderson also falls into what I consider a fallacy of comparing flying with other climate impacts. If you change daily commuting habits, or switch from beef to beans three times a week, we're told that could make a bigger positive change than eliminating those 2.1 flights. The fallacy -- which I covered in more detail over 10 years ago -- is in thinking that my overall climate impact is generally OK, and if I can break even in the plus and minus columns, then everything is fine. If I cut my impact by going vegetarian, then I can still fly a bunch. No -- in today's climate crisis, we need to cut back on flying, change commuting behaviors, eat less meat, and do a lot of other things.

But Anderson eases back toward my good graces by raising "a Kantian argument for flying as little as possible -- or not at all." The climate impacts of air travel are rising, and are projected to triple or more by 2050. And if everyone in the world could afford to fly as much as US folk, "we'd be looking at a global catastrophe." (Note: we already are!) Anderson adds, "I think it's reasonable to limit personal behaviors that would result in disaster if everyone did them."

At that point, Anderson tells us that some reasons for flying are more justifiable than others. Pay attention to your emotions as you read the list!

  • Business travel is named as the least justifiable reason to fly -- "if you're getting on a plane every other week to meet clients, I humbly suggest that your company's business model could use some updating."
  • Traveling for vacation, or to "see the world" doesn't fare much better than business travel in Anderson's assessment. There's an awful lot of the world that can be seen by bus or train.
  • For this Valentine's Day column, Anderson gives the highest purpose of air travel as "traveling to see someone you love." That meshes with the wrenching ethical decisions that I've heard from many of you who have grandchildren far away from your home. Notes readers have shared with me how a deeply held ethical commitment about never flying eventually crumbles in the pull to spend time with the offspring.

Writing from a faith perspective which affirms that "God is love," the pull of loving relationships is hard to deny. But I'll push the theological point that love isn't just warm emotions. It is a commitment to doing the best for those we love, and so love should also insist on little or no air travel.

(A personal confession about my absolutist stances: our son lives three miles from our house, and we get to see him frequently with virtually no climate impact.)

Anderson does provide some practical suggestions for those whose travel has just been semi-justified. Travel less often (trans-Atlantic flights only every other month instead of monthly? Ouch!), fly non-stop because the worst emissions happen at take-off, and fly economy because there's less per-person impact when we're all crammed in.

I'll throw in the teaser that last week's "Substitute Umbra" did end with a surprising piece of advice column guidance about relationships. Check out the last two paragraphs of the column ...

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In my frequent conversations with good-hearted, ethically-aware people, I generally find a deeply held sense of entitlement about flying. It is a practice that is so familiar, so common, that they find it surprising that anyone would even question the modern right to zip from one part of the world to another.

Philosopher David Loy -- I referred to his "Religion of the Market" last week -- says that one of the characteristics of market capitalism as a religion is that it tells us that the way thing are is natural and inevitable. When we adhere to the worldview of the market, "its consequences seem unavoidable, despite the fact that they have led to extreme social inequity and are leading to environmental catastrophe." Tim DeChristopher reminds us that these idols define how we understand our purpose and our relationships.

Our idols, our false religions, are not tidy rational constructs. If we were rational, we'd look at all of the numbers about the climate impacts of flying, and change our lifestyles rapidly and dramatically. But we've been told that such convenience is normal and natural. We've been told that we deserve to travel whenever we want (if we can afford it), and any negative impacts are inevitable. It really isn't our fault -- that's just the way the world works.

Burying the god of such individualist convenience requires an act of conversion. It makes us re-define big and complex matters of our identity and our relationships. Rather than evaluating another flight to a far-off meeting in terms of family (or business) relationships and cost, we have to use a different set of relationships and costs. Our ties to future generations and the biosphere need to take priority. Taking those larger relationships seriously -- even if imperfectly -- forces us to reject the assertions of business-as-usual. It calls us to insist that, "no, that's not how the world really works, and I refuse to compromise myself."

I've noted above that our love affair with flying should make many of us squirm about idolatry. I asked you to be aware of your emotional reactions to Anderson's list of legitimate and illegitimate flights. Seriously considering how much to fly is a visceral and emotional task. If we really delve deep, it will force us to consider our religious faith, and whether our real commitments are to God, or to gods and idols.

Flying is a perennial question in any conversation about the climate crisis, precisely because it is an icon of the idols and worldviews which must be confronted and challenged.

Take a hard look at what makes you squirm in this conversation, and spend some prayerful time considering where your values and commitments really lie.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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