I have flown in an airplane only once in the past 30 years, and Betsy has not flown at all during that time. Yet we enjoy visits from distant family and friends and plan to take a few trips that require flying in future years.
In describing our lives in this series of blog posts, we intend to share our enthusiasms and motivations, not judge how others live. We welcome your feedback because we believe it is important to discuss and wrestle with these questions about what it means to live a “good life. Values are embedded in the choices we all make.
The main reason why Betsy and I avoid air travel is that we feel very connected – she says rooted – to our home and region and don’t have a strong desire to leave. The garden always needs attention in the summer and the woodstove always needs tending in the winter. We are fortunate that most of our family members live in New England and we are blessed to have friends and community where we are planted.
But what about our other family and friends who are spread all over the country and the world? We live in the context of a mobile society built over the past 50-plus years on the foundation of abundant and cheap fossil fuel energy. Choosing to settle far away hasn’t meant you don’t see your dear ones.
Although she flew a good bit in her younger life, Betsy has become reluctant to undertake air travel since 9/11. And although we know that there are a lot more accidents per passenger mile in cars, that knowledge doesn’t always override the fear.
And then there is the carbon footprint. The inconvenient truth is that air travel generates a significant amount of the emissions that cause climate disruption. One round trip to California has the warming effect of 2 to 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person, more if you’re flying first-class, according to the New York Times. The average American generates a total of 19 tons of CO2 a year, the average European 10 tons.
Although more of our cars will be driven by electricity in coming years, that potential doesn’t exist for airplanes. And oh yes, trains are more energy-efficient than either planes or cars.
Only half the country takes one or more flights a year, and air travel is heavily concentrated in the 1 percent wealthiest people, according to Megan McArdle of bloomberg.com. Although air travel has been fairly cheap, it has still been out of reach for half the country and most of the world. We are part of a privileged slice of people to be able to afford to fly, and being super-frugal, we don’t make it a regular thing.
What do you think when McArdle writes, “Going to a distant conference should attract the kind of scorn that is currently reserved for buying a Hummer”? Think that’s tough? McArdle quotes a woman named Christie Aschwanden as saying, “Every time you get on an airplane, you’re helping to shove a Bangladeshi home underwater.” Phew! She adds, “It’s easy to act like an environmentalist when it means buying cool stuff like reusable grocery bags, a high-efficiency washer or a hybrid car. When doing the green thing requires actual sacrifice or substantial change in lifestyle, well, that’s where most of us draw the line.” OMG!
One way some people try to compensate for their air travel or other fossil fuel use is to buy carbon credits. We recently learned about a program for charging yourself a voluntary carbon tax and donating the “tax revenues” to groups working to address climate change. There are also groups working for statewide and national carbon taxes; some are revenue-neutral to help middle- and lower-income people when the price for carbon fuels rises.
People have to make our own choices about where to live and how much to use planes, trains and automobiles. But for reasons of both “home, sweet home” and living lightly on the Earth, we choose to keep our feet on the ground.
Betsy Krogh contributed significantly to the writing of this post.