In many ways, being an environmentalist is like having a religion. Both require devotion, patience, compassion and a sense of higher good. Experiences of nature take on a reverent quality, they invoke meditative reflection about the world, inspire awe and contemplation of greater forces. A mountain valley and a forest clearing, with light shining through huge tree branches, are like cathedrals with vaulted ceilings or stained glass windows; bird song and wind rush are the choir and the choral. Environmental philosophy is a mantra, a treatise for a better life for all.
But just like religion, sometimes being an environmentalist can make you feel bad about things that come naturally or make you feel good. Knowing about over-tourism and climate change means flying to holiday destinations can cause a sense of religious guilt and self-persecution.
There’s lots of information in the media these days about the disproportionate carbon footprint of flying. The 4.6 billion passengers flying in 2019 will generate an estimated three per cent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, and both are expected to grow. It’s anticipated that more than eight billion people will fly by 2036.
Despite opportunities to buy emissions offsets, not every passenger chooses to do so. Meanwhile, biofuel alternatives to aviation fuel are problematic and form their own ethical dilemmas … biomass that could be feeding people instead flies planes? And, inevitably, there’s natural cynicism about just paying to pollute.
The problems with plane flights have created their own antithesis – plane shame. An anti-flying movement begun in Sweden is spreading. ‘Flygskam’ can be translated as ‘flight shame’, and I’ve been suffering from it. I already cringe with the ease that my peers and I can indulge in flights around the world on holiday, when people live in cars, on streets and in poverty here and overseas. But with plane shame, I have to worry about how my quality of life and lifestyle affects future human and animal generations, too – as well as my impact on whole planetary systems.
Some environmentalists suggest that the contribution of individual emissions on global climate change is insignificant because bulk emissions from industry dwarf our own. Others say we should fly and drive and burn all the fossil fuels to get it over and done with, as a catalyst to more sustainable change.
I’m trying to ease my own flying footprint as well as looking for system change, not climate change. But it’s not all self-sacrifice. On a recent trip to the South Island, I took the Northern Explorer train from Auckland to Wellington and the ferry to Picton instead of flying directly. The train trip was 11 hours with more leg room than a plane and better views. Then there was the delight of the Cook Strait crossing. Not only did I benefit from guilt-free beautifully scenic travel, but according to the Swedes, tågskryt, or ‘train brag’, is a virtue, too.