Flight Shame: should I stop flying?

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This blog is a transcript of this video about Flight Shame:

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I follow a lot of people online who make flight reports or write travel blogs and I’ve never seen so many people wondering if they should give up flying. There’s even a word for it in Swedish: flygskam – fliggs-kaam or flight shame, the status of feeling guilty about taking flights. So should we feel guilty? Should I give up flying?

One Year Challenge

I noticed some travel writers are trying a one year challenge to travel by any other means than aviation and it got me reading a bit more about the impact of aviation on global warming. Look, my channel is mostly about flight reports as well as some ferry and train journeys, so perhaps giving up flying would mean giving up this channel. If you’re new here, I’m also a full-time digital nomad and I live life on the road. Without flying, my life would be a lot more static, or at least local. Having said all that, I still think it’s important to ask what are the consequences of choosing to fly because I want to be conscious about my flying habits and deliberate about how i move forward.

Noise & Opinion

There is a LOT of noise and articles by pro aviation and anti aviation enthusiasts, from encouraging luxurious but high-carbon jet journeys to promoting a never-fly-again agenda. And the research seems to vary widely about the impact of aviation on the health of the planet.

Can we get to some facts?

The Research

I found an article by Klöver et al that tries to Quantify aviation’s contribution to global warming (find links at the bottom of this page). That team works with Oxford and Manchester Universities and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. So it’s a good start point which I’ll link below.

The headline for me is that aviation is responsible for about 4% of all global warming. Within less than 30 years, by 2050, the aviation industry will, on its own, cause a 0.1 degree rise in temperatures. It turns out that is huge, because this is just one small part of the transportation industry.

Aviation: What can we do?

So I guess the question is, what can we do about it?

Some answers are:

  • Shut down the industry
  • Stop flying
  • Feel shame for flying
  • Shame frequent flyers by your example of not flying
  • Fly more
  • Buy a jet
  • Fly but use carbon offsets
  • Develop alternative aviation fuels

There are so many angles here, it would be hard to encapsulate all of them in one short blog. But one that resonates with me is the idea of aviations global environmental footprint vs an individual’s environmental footprint.

Feeling Helpless

On the global scale, it might make us feel helpless to be able to make a substantial difference. If we think about the aviation industry in the context of a globalised and massively interconnected world, it is key to the movement of people and cargo in a way that can enrich our everyday experiences by delivering essential foods, medicines and crucial cargo, as well as people travelling to work or be with family. Have no doubt, remaking the economics of the world to, for example, eradicate the airline industry for the benefit of global warming would be to reconstruct the world order. A stronger reading of climate change critical thinking might argue that global warming will go right ahead and cause the reformation of the capitalist world order as we understand it, and a lot else besides through the destruction of the earth as we currently know it.

On the other hand, what about our individual environmental footprint? There are a long list of actions that each person can take to decrease their demand on resources and, of course, not flying is one of those. Perhaps one person not flying at all won’t stop that flight going, but if enough people change their flying habits, it will cause the patterns of flights and demand to evolve one way or another.

Flight Shame

The Swedish notion of Flyskam or flight shame kind of fits in here. On the one hand, it’s about individuals feeling shame for flying so much and leveraging that shame to reduce their individual carbon footprint by flying less. In another way, it’s about seeing that flight shame as a badge of honour, a way of impressing shame on other people by your example of flying less. In a wider sense, it’s about flight shame as a potential social movement, about making frequent flying feel taboo, all in service of the reduction of our carbon footprint.

Motivation or Denigration?

I have mixed feelings about that idea – I like the idea of motivating myself and others to reduce any harmful behaviours that we transact – but I don’t like the idea of actively shaming other people to do that and I don’t buy into the idea of fliggs-kaam for myself. I think a movement that creates public awareness might be successful and that must start by highlighting the case for personal responsibility.

I am really no saint and I’m not in a position to preach on this subject. However, I do want us to have an ongoing discussion about why flying or not flying matters, how it might cause the aviation industry to evolve and how our own behaviours may or may not change.

For example, ten years ago, I commuted weekly by plane from Ireland to the UK and there is no doubt that my annual flight total was in excess of 100 flights a year. That’s a big carbon footprint. I also owned a car.

My footprint is smaller

Although I now do flight reviews as part of my living and I travel full-time and live life as a digital nomad, I fly much less frequently. I’d guess less than half of my old total. So I’m going to start to measure what I do. I no longer own a car. I take public transport much more often. And in the past year, I’ve regularly taken a train (mostly in Europe) where a flight might have been faster or cheaper, simply – to be honest – because I like taking trains. There has been an increase in accessibility to trains and ferries and they are usually much more carbon efficient ways to travel.

Incentives & Subsidies

If, like me, you have marvelled at the astonishing evolution of the electric car industry in the past ten years, there must be enormous pressure on the aviation industry to evolve towards alternative fuels and ways of cutting carbon emissions. Perhaps, incentivizing the wider transportation industry by subsidizing low-carbon forms of transport might point the nose of the aircraft in the right direction. I could also make an entire video about carbon offsetting and whether it works or not. Let’s just conclude this part by acknowledging that people will still want to travel, I still want to travel even if in a slightly more limited and thoughtful way.

Rethinking the Future of Aviation

I don’t think we are quite there yet with how to collectively man and woman handle the aviation industry into a new future in which it reduces its carbon footprint more dramatically.

I can’t make an argument based on shame, or argue that people can’t go see their loved ones, or argue for something more extreme like a village-based economy in which no-one travels except in the most limited of ways. However, I am fascinated to see how the flight shame community evolves and if it can bring more and more people onside or develop its message in a positive collectivist way.

Right now I can make a cohesive argument that means I will reduce my own reliance on flights, particularly where an alternative exists. I already work remotely as a digital nomad and have met my colleagues only twice. I no longer commute to a job. However, as a filmmaker and writer, I am not going to stop flying at this point. I am not to start feeling ashamed, but I don’t think that rules out behaving responsibly and making choices to take a flight consciously and deliberately at times that I need to take that journey.

I think it’s realistic to recognize that the aviation industry is essential for the world’s economy and transportation of goods and people. We must work together to find ways to reduce its environmental footprint while still meeting our needs.

Where do you stand on flight shame? Have you stopped flying altogether or changed your behaviour? Let me know in the comments below – this is definitely the start of the conversation.

Remember you can see this discussion as a video on my YouTube channel: click here to view.


Klöwer et al: Quantifying aviation’s contribution to global warming

I'm Patrick, your Irish guide to the skies and beyond. With 58 countries visited, my journeys have taken me from busy economy to fabulous first-class.

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