About four-and-a-half years ago I learned that flying New York to Los Angeles round trip coach polluted about a year’s worth of driving (from this video of Caltech-trained Oxford physicist David Mackay speaking at Harvard, I think).
Before learning that statistic, I thought I polluted significantly less than anyone with a car, as I lived in Manhattan and didn’t own one. Instead, I realized that I polluted more than my identity allowed.
Prompted by my earlier challenge to avoid packaged food, which became one of my life’s great successes despite wondering if I could do it before trying, I expected a similar challenge to live by my values at the cost of comfort and convenience would lead to similar personal growth.
I settled on challenging myself to avoid flying for a year. When I share this information in person, the person I speak to interrupts me at this point to tell me about their job and family, as if I’m somehow ignorant about jobs and families or how the world works, but I have family around the world and my pay often depended on travel. Deciding to try was hard, as were the first couple months of the challenge.
But I didn’t replace flying with crying or staring at the wall. I replaced it with things I liked more and created what I would have gotten from flying without it—adventure, cuisine, exploration, culture, and so on.
Within a few months I had improved my life more by developing the skills to create what flying used to bring me. While at first I expected to be on a flight on day 366, now I don’t know if I’ll fly again. I probably will, but I don’t see any plans to.
I wrote in Inc about it: What a Year Without Flying Taught Me About Responsibility, Empathy, and Community.
What I learned
My biggest lessons:
It’s not what you stop doing, it’s what you replace it with. When you decide to stop doing something that brings things you like, you think of what you’ll miss. You can’t anticipate what new things will come so you discount them.
Living by my values improves my life, all the more so the more internal resistance I have to overcome. I concluded that if little changes to live by my values improve my life a little, then big changes will improve my life a lot. The conclusion has played out again and again, leading me to seek and find greater challenges, resulting in more meaning, value, purpose, growth, awareness, and so on.
The longer I go without flying the more people talking about flying sounds like people talking about taking heroin. They can’t seem to imagine life without it, are willing to sacrifice huge parts of their lives for it, don’t care who gets hurt by it, and so on.
People think solar planes will one day exist and that they undo the environmental effects of current planes.
Trying to plan such experiments doesn’t work. I just have to try, which teaches more more than any amount of planning or analysis. Most people go around in circles with academic analysis but not doing anything. That pattern makes me feel compassion, contempt, compassion, and pity when I see it in others.
People see not flying as a moral issue and defend their flying, even when you don’t.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees