Year 4, day 1 of not flying

March 23, 2019 by Joshua
in Nature

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).

aviation airplane pollution

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.

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4 responses on “Year 4, day 1 of not flying

  1. I’m interested in better understanding your primary motivation for choosing not to fly (nowadays instead of the initial year-long challenge). Is it that your identity is one of seeing yourself as a person whose net green-house gas emissions is fairly low? And you don’t see flying as something you can do without expanding your greenhouse gas emissions substantially?

    I’m confused why you wouldn’t just donate to offset the emissions of your flight if that were the case.

    • I’m glad you distinguished between why I stopped, which was to live by my environmental values, and why I continue, which includes that reason as well as others. The other reasons include that I have learned to create for myself all the things I used to get from flying — adventure, cuisine, culture, and so on.

      I often use the slow food movement by analogy. Fast food is faster, but once you get into slow food, you can’t go back, or at least I couldn’t. By the values of most Americans, slow food doesn’t make sense. They prefer salt, sugar, and fat manufactured into some packaged product. I can’t point to anything wrong with their diet. I just don’t like it.

      I don’t see how to fly without polluting more than IPCC recommendations. I’m not aware of offsets reducing greenhouse gases by any meaningful amount. Systemically, they appear to increase them by creating incentives to fly more. If you know differently, please let me know.

      Why do you ask?

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