Eco + Veg | “Love Miles” aka my complicated relationship with air travel
Pretty much anyone who knows me learns early on that I care about the environment. A lot. Like at the age of 25 I’m still not sure what name I should go by, but I know that working on environmental issues is what I will do with my life in some form or another, no question.
However, travel has been a huge part of my life, and it’s not exactly great for the environment. It’s also a huge part of this blog, hence an existential crisis about whether I’m doing more net harm than good.
I’m developing a campaign for my town to reduce carbon emissions and I’ve been reading a lot about the role of personal action in mitigating climate change. Air travel is a huge contributor to a person’s carbon footprint (the amount of carbon emissions someone’s responsible for).
As someone who’s second generation, I was born into flying more than my fair share. A large chunk of my family, including my grandparents, still live in India, meaning that ever since I was a baby, I’ve been flying halfway around the world to see the people I love. I also find myself feeling more and more at home here and know that I’m going to want to come back.
George Monbiot calls these “love miles: the distance you must travel to visit friends and partners and relatives on the other side of the planet.” While I know how privileged I am that my family prioritized this time and was able to afford to do so, I also wonder how I can cut my impact, especially since I’ve been spending the past couple of years gaining more and more love miles.
This guilt is absolutely a “first world problem”: the 2-3% of people who are able to take flights are responsible for 5% of global emissions. However, this is also a problem with worldwide impacts that are just going to get worse as air travel continues to expand. We need practical solutions. What to do?
For work purposes, telecommuting can help, and for vacations, “staycations” can be freaking awesome. My overarching strategy for super “slow travel” was to live in a place for a few months at a time and explore more locally. As for all those love miles, here are some ideas I’m thinking about:
Space visits out: This is actually an idea inspired by personal finance author Ramit Sethi, who applies this to expenses like haircuts; one relatively painless way to reduce emissions is to start by letting more time go in between visits. It seems pretty obvious, and I’m fortunate that I got to see my family every couple of years, but maybe it’s worth considering tacking on extra time between visits. My grandparents don’t have Skype, but I’m fortunate enough that the majority of my friends and family are accessible by Facebook at the very least, a far cry from needing to wait months for a letter or pay lots of money for phone calls like my parents used to do.
Drawbacks: Grandparents who need to wait even longer to tell me how thin I’ve gotten. Nephews and nieces I’ll never get to see as babies. KFCs that seem to appear out of nowhere.
Taking advantage of stopovers: If I’m going to be emitting carbon, I might as well squeeze out as many experiences as possible out of each time I have a stopover (direct flights emit less carbon dioxide). I did this on my way to France by extending my stay in Iceland, and I’m thinking about this as an option for future visits to Europe. Since I pretty much always have to stop in Europe on the way to India, I might as well stick around for a visit. I’m essentially doing a really long version of that this year and have been eyeing other destinations for future stopover trips (Egypt, Turkey).
How I’ve done it: I think when I was going through Iceland, I ended up needing to book directly on the Icelandair website instead of through Skyscanner, but that was really easy and gave me more options for travel (I think some airlines might be a little more flexible with their terms (aka refunds and changes) as well if you book directly instead of through a third party site) and the prices tend to be a little different.
Drawbacks: Depending on the route, this could be more expensive, although I’ve been toying with the ticket prices lately and that doesn’t always seem to be the case.
Making the most of those miles by staying longer: As I mentioned, I’ve been spending longer in a place to make the travel there worth it. I flew to India in 2011 and flew out in 2013, so the impact of that round trip was split up among a few years. I feel as though I’ve gotten a lot out of the flight I took here more than six months ago, and staying in one place has allowed me to do a lot more…
Travel overland without flying: Since being here, I’ve been able to visit Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, England, and more of France without flying (Italy is the exception…). This was possible since countries here are pretty small and I was here for long enough to make trips by car, bus, or train, which have a lower impact than flying. I prefer taking the train or bus anyway wherever possible; even though flight times are technically shorter, it takes so much more time and energy to get to and from airports and make sure that all the liquids are under 3 oz and that I’ve remembered to take the razors and clippers out of my bag and that it’s the right size without a measuring tape or scale handy…
How I’ve done it: The trains here are super nice; I have a carte jeune, which lets me travel at a discount on the local TER and long-distance TGV trains since I’m between 18-27. There are also a ton of bus companies from Lille; IDBUS is probably the most comfortable and tends to have deals, while Cice voyages has trips to more touristy events and places. When none of those have worked out (or that time we missed our train and were kinda stuck in Amsterdam), Blablacar has been great for finding a ride (sorry ‘ma…).
Drawbacks: Perversely, depending on the destination, flying can actually be the cheapest option (dammit Ryanair). However, being open-minded about the places I go to has made it more likely that I’ll pick a trip that doesn’t require a flight. I did have a list of places I wanted to visit, but since getting here I’ve found so many amazing places nearby that I never would have known about back home. After journeys to India that can take a very, very long time, I’m also totally fine with taking slower means of transport with a lower impact.
I don’t know that these go far enough. They all require a minimal amount of change in my life, when much more might be necessary for me to consume my “fair share” of carbon. Monbiot outlines some of the adjustments that will be needed to reduce carbon emissions by flying less:
It means the end of shopping trips to New York, parties in Ibiza, second homes in Tuscany and, most painfully for me, political meetings in Porto Alegre – unless you believe that these activities are worth the sacrifice of the biosphere and the lives of the poor.
But I urge you to remember that these privations affect only a tiny proportion of the world’s people. The reason they seem so harsh is that this tiny proportion almost certainly includes you.
Airplanes are the reason I’m alive today. They allowed my parents to build futures for themselves and then allowed us to have precious time with their own parents, learning that love can come through ghee and lentils, fresh-picked vegetables and rounds of sangati rolled by superhuman-hands that don’t flinch when scalded. All those flights have given me the opportunity to learn how to transform fumbled foreign words into inside jokes and tea-time conversations.
Playing with lambs and watching farmland turn into housing developments in my grandparents’ village is probably a huge part of why I care about animals and the environment today. Living in France has allowed me to experience what it’s like to go to a supermarket without a bag and walk out with arms overflowing with food, and to have that be totally normal. Traveling around Europe has shown me that windmills and solar panels being a normalized part of the landscape is completely possible if there is economic and political support for sustainable initiatives. It’s given me the space and inspiration to look back at my country and make plans for how to make it better. I’ve seen breathtaking places that have made me love the world even more and realize just how much is at stake. These experiences have completely changed the way I think and are a driving force behind my desire to help the environment.
I’d like to think that the net good that I’ll do for the planet over my life has made this travel worth it, but I also know that the planet doesn’t care. I’m not a special snowflake and my travel emits greenhouse gases that will change our climate just like anyone else’s. While I know that personal action alone is not enough to solve this problem and that much larger institutional change is required, as a person privileged enough to consume in a way that has a large carbon footprint, it is my responsibility to start thinking about the sacrifices that I should make as well.