On March 22, 2016 my flight from Paris landed in New York. Before embarking on that trip, I had started to second guess how I had weighed my values to conclude flying was overall good. Today marks the first day of my seventh year without flying. I’ve traveled and seen more of the world and its people more in this time than when I flew.
I grew up flying. My American parents met in India, where we lived a year of my childhood. Many close family members lived flying distance away, a trend that increased as more family members moved farther away. As a history professor who studied mostly India, my father’s livelihood and identity relied on flying. My older sister lived years in Israel and Japan. My younger sister joined the Peace Corps in Africa. They didn’t sail there. My mom and stepfather bought year-long tickets to fly around the world. I lived a year in Paris, then in Shanghai. I don’t think I knew anyone who didn’t fly.
Amid all this flying, I heard no one seriously consider the problems from flying. If anything, people vaguely sensed the exhaust might warm the globe, but the magnitude must have been smaller than what they perceived as the obvious benefits of spreading culture and connectivity. I don’t remember anyone considering people or wildlife displaced to access the oil, noise pollution, military defense of supply chains, and the like as remotely comparable in size of problem to the magnitude of the benefits they took for granted. The benefits, I understood, weren’t just to them, but to the world: “the world benefits from my flying,” everyone believed, it seems. That they personally got to see the Great Barrier Reef or rhinos on safari wasn’t the point. They’d share stories and pictures so everyone would benefit.
So the story went that the benefits were global and huge, the costs abstract and small. No brainer. End of story. Buy the tickets. Let’s go.
It became deeply moral too. As families dispersed, flying meant family. If there was any unalloyed good everyone from every culture agreed on over any wedge issue, it was family. Next would be jobs and producing for society, not being a free rider or parasite. Without flying, people felt, you couldn’t see family or hold down a job. To question flying provoked the response of depriving someone the right to see their parents or hold down a job. Before avoiding flying, I never heard anyone consider questioning it. When I started my year not flying, I saw visceral, moral responses to just questioning it.
Why the indignation?
I wrote recently in Do addicts get less of what they think they get more of? how people addicted to a substance or behavior think they get more of something actually get less. Gamblers feel like winners but are losing money. Heroin addicts think they get more euphoria while living in squalor. Sex addicts think they’re getting intimacy but have less.
People who fly more get the jolt of joy of seeing family because flying led them to live flying distance apart. People who feel flying gives them job opportunities became more dependent.
The longer I don’t fly, the more I see people addicted to flying. I don’t mean addicted as an analogy. I mean it as a behavior addiction like the ones recognized by the main authorities like gambling, video games, and sex can become.
Addicted people become indignant and moral because our voice inside us that tells us to keep doing it tells us it’s good to keep doing it and bad not to.
Historically, people traveled more, I learned from the book The Dawn of Everything, not less the farther back we look, largely owing to living in cities. Flying increased distance traveled, but that’s a lousy measure. Taking a car to an airport, spending hours there, then spending hours or days in a metal tube and other airports, and taking a car or train to a hotel is less of a travel experience than even riding a bike fifty miles. Even just taking a train gives more of a travel experience. Sailing takes it to another level.
We’ve come to confuse flying with traveling, but flying diminishes travel. It leads us to believe nature and interesting things are “out there,” blinding us to the beauty and variety of nature everywhere, even in cities. How many types of trees are within a five-minute walk of where you live? How many varieties of birds? Insects? What constellation are we in right now? Do you know what it means for us to be in a constellation? How much has the variety of trees, birds, and other wildlife decreased in your lifetime? How much is it projected to decrease?
Besides nature, how many of your neighbors within a ten-minute walk do you know? Have you seen a local play or musical performance? How many languages are spoken near you? Has that number increased or decreased? What local foods do they grow? Which, if any, are indigenous? In my experience, people will fly around the world for a food but won’t buy turnips, which in practice are more exotic for appearing more rarely in dishes served to them.
In other words, flying gives the feeling of family, community, connection, jobs, and nature while decreasing our actual experience of them. It spreads family, community, and connections thin to the point of tearing them apart. It destabilizes jobs and the workplace (I didn’t write about that part, but loosely speaking, the gist is that it forces everyone everywhere to compete against everyone for no net gain). It destroys nature while leading us to ignore it all around us, which leads us to pave over more and litter more.
I recognize that if you haven’t experienced living clean of an addiction, life without it seems empty. I can only imagine what life without meth must seem like to someone addicted to it, especially having to face withdrawal first. But whatever the thrill from the hit of an addiction, life with just what our ancestors lived on for hundreds of thousands of years has everything necessary for all the meaning and purpose without the dependence, craving, poison, invasions to steal resources, hopelessness for a fading future, and helplessness about hurting nearly every living thing for the fleeting pleasure of seeing Stonehenge that doesn’t compare with the guidebook picture. Showing your picture of it on Instagram feeds another addiction.
Learn to love the one you’re with. Enjoy nature everywhere. Buy from your local farmers. When you want to travel, camp, ride a bike, sail, and hike. I know such advice sounds like suggesting to a heroin user to exercise, eat healthy, and sleep regularly instead of injecting. For most of you it will go in one ear and out the other, but I’m starting my seventh year clean and I can tell you from experience, clean life beats addicted, withdrawal isn’t that bad, and I got more of what I thought flying brought without it than with it.
With me, it began by challenging myself to a year without flying. That’s it. By three months, I already experienced that I didn’t face deprivation or sacrifice, which I had expected. I found more adventure, family, fun, freedom, community, connection, meaning, and purpose.
I started thinking avoiding flying was about global warming. Yes, but in a tiny sense compared to how much it improved my life directly beyond anything I could have imagined until I experienced it, and there’s nothing special about my connection to family, nature, etc.
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