Come not-fly with me?

I hadn’t realised that I had never written about my decision not to fly…so here it is.

The flying revolution, romanticised by the beautiful old airplanes and pilots with flying goggles and aviator jackets, and made doubly appealing by films like “Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” (a childhood favourite), has been appealing from the outset.

How could it not be?

As it became safer, more commercialised and glossy it became more accessible to ordinary people who weren’t pilots, part of the armed forces or a celebrity.

Couple the romance with the innovation of opportunity that comes with throwing the world wide open for anyone to explore as much as they dare and you have a potent combination of feelings associated with flying. I even feel all of those things myself….

I only made this decision when I was about 17 or 18 years old, so about 4-5 years ago. Before that, there was a period where our family would make about one flight a year, of varying distances; this period included a long-haul flight to Australasia, and flights to Turkey and Lapland, all great places. My last flight was made amidst great soul-searching as I had been on the verge of making the decision but then my aunt and uncle wanted to get married in Tobago! So I made that one last journey, with a lot of emotional blackmail baggage both from myself and a few friends….so I know the feeling, and yes, to an extent the whole process of checking in and taking off is exciting and “part” of going on holiday, but since then I have discovered a very different way of travelling….

Why would you decide not to fly?

There’s many a different argument why we shouldn’t, here are some that I considered:

Carbon emissions:

For any environmentalist this is the big one!

  1. Flying uses 3 times as much energy per mile travelled (per passenger) than a train.
  2. The effect of emitting greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels is more potent at the height that a plane travels than at ground level. By EU standards (for planes) this means the same greenhouse gases released by an airplane are 2.5 – 2.7 times stronger than those released by a car at ground level.

Combined, these two effects mean that per mile you travel in a plane, you are causing 7.5 times as much environmental damage than if you travelled by train. And the difference is even bigger if you travel by coach or car because they emit less than trains. Furthermore, the shorter the plane journey, proportionally, the more harm you are causing because the plane’s emissions are highest at take off and landing. Eurostar has calculated that by taking the train from London to Paris instead of flying each passenger cuts their travelling emissions by 90%, a HUGE figure!

As a local community puts it on their website:

“Let’s try to put it into perspective:
We try to be reasonable in our car use, by for example not making unnecessary trips to the shops which are only a couple of miles away.

Maybe over the course of the year, by cycling, car sharing etc, we might save 100 trips, and therefore perhaps feel that we have done something positive for the environment.

But each car trip, of 4 miles, is the equivalent to just one passengers’ share of an airplane for just 11 seconds.”

And just for those who advocate “offsetting” when you fly, DON’T BOTHER. Please check out this fantastic little film about why carbon offsetting just


Consumer power:

As a privileged individual from a developed country with enough money (or ability to make the money) to be able to afford to make decisions between means of transport (i.e I am not forced to fly to get anywhere) I should take my consumer power seriously. Those of us who have always had consumer power don’t even think about what we are spending our money on or who is getting the profit in the end. We just don’t.

Large companies with different product lines watch very closely where consumers spend their money and where they don’t, withdrawing lines that people aren’t taking up and coming up with different versions and ‘limited editions’ of lines that people do like. Airlines cannot afford to fly empty planes, so vote with your purse.

It’s time to take responsibility for where you spend your money, time to put my money where my mouth is in my case.

Quality of experience:

This is a less penalising justification for choosing public transport over flying!

Whilst this will depend on whether you mind sharing a room with strangers, or whether you are prepared to talk to someone sitting next to you, quality of experience means that when you travel by slower means you are likely to meet more people. Amazing people, annoying people, kind people, people you can’t communicate with through language, scary people. But that is the beauty of public transport travelling!

I have met an African Diamond dealer; a recently self-released hermit who had cleared bodies from the beach of the Boxing-Day Tsunami, set up an orphanage and hung out with the Malaysian Princess; Mongolian clothes smugglers; an old Dutch man who took disabled young people on train journeys around the world; a friend of the Prince of Monaco who paid for my train ticket, and many many more interesting characters.

Every single one of them added to my journey and memory of the trip. Some of them gave me great advice, some of them I gave (great) advice too-I still have the silver water bottled in a viagra dropper bottle that the hermit had brewed himself (believe it or not I did actually let him put some of his home-brewed silver water IN my eye….that was a little stupid though).

Then there’s the views. When you are high up in the atmosphere you have none for the majority of the journey. I always feel much more of a connection to where I’m going if I’ve been watching my progress.

The food is often much better on trains (not relevant on coaches) than on planes! On our train journey from the UK to Mongolia there was a Russian food cart going through Russia and Siberia, and then a Mongolian food cart when the train reached the Russian/Mongolian border. It was all far more interesting than vacuum-packed bread and fruit salad that disintegrates into compost in your mouth.

 Culture Shock: Most simple of all: why do you think people get culture shock as soon as they step off a plane in Mumbai? Finding themselves surrounded by poverty and unfamiliar colours, smells and people for 5 minutes they turn right around and step right back onto the first plane heading straight back to London – this has happened.

There is no context for your arrival in Mumbai. Lifting off in London financial capital of wherever, a developed country blah blah blah, there has been no transition to the less developed country half way round the world, only an extraction from reality for however many hours it takes, and then you’re placed on the ground again, somewhere “a whole world away” from your own.

By public transport you see the changing landscape, you see the transition between countries, peoples and ways of life to an extent, even though you are travelling at 80mph. You have at the very least, an idea of what’s coming, and so the likelihood of culture shock is drastically reduced. When I arrived in Mongolia, at no point did I get one of those realisation moments “oh my god I am in Mongolia!”, no, every time I realised I hadn’t had one of those moments I just thought “I bloody well am in Mongolia because it took me 6 days to get here”.

Some other powerful arguments

Love miles: I’ve heard many a staunch environmentalist talk about their decision not to fly….and then happily qualify their decision with the ‘love miles’ argument. That is, “well I live in the UK but my daughter has permanently moved to India” so you excuse yourself with a return flight to India every few years, because you obviously love your daughter. This argument is such an emotive one. No one, when pushed, is willing to give up their familial relationships for the sake of their carbon emissions. Opening up the world brings its consequences, positive and negative, one of them being people’s unwillingness to just settle in the country where they were born, or for some, have more than one home on more than one continent. There is no easy answer to this one, but all of the weighing up I keep referring to should still be relevant…..blinded by love comes to mind…..

Expense: There’s a touch of the chicken and egg scenario in this one. Yes planes are often cheaper, yes you could argue you then have more money to spend in the local economy when you arrive if you flew more cheaply.

There needs to be the demand for the cost to go down as well as much better government investment in their public transport infrastructures. If there was an international commitment to streamline public transport networks similar to the way airlines can manage their flights, the travel times would also be streamlined as well as the cost.

In the meantime the argument I use for justifying spending more money on train travel than I do on clothes, food etc, is simply that travelling must be costly, why should we be able to transport ourselves around the world with as little cost to ourselves but maximum cost to the planet and those who rely on it? Public transport is a ‘good thing’ to put my money into I tell myself, and if I can’t afford the non-flying option this time around, I just don’t go, saving the money for one great trip when I do have sufficient funds, making it all the more worthwhile.

I will never be able to evade the fact that I come from a family who did have a holiday once a year, and so could afford to choose not to fly most of the time, so I cannot justify myself to those families who work all the year round to be able to afford one cheap flight for the family to go on holiday ever year/2 years, etc. But given that the majority of flights are either business or those families who fly on holiday at least twice a year, it is those people who I aim my argument at, because they make up the primary consumers of flights, when they needn’t.

The ‘Greater Cause’: Whatever your cause is, with the advent of the internet and globalisation it’s likely it will have an element of business/contact/actions outside of the country you live in. Amongst the environmental movement, rightly so in my opinion, there are many that battle with the conundrum of flying to spread the word, strategically educating people in other countries so that they can then pass the knowledge on within their country, attending conferences (e.g the UN Climate Negotiations) to try and effect change on a greater level (on an international and state level) which you could never achieve by yourself etc etc I could go on.

This one has a powerful draw for someone like myself who advocates both personal actions, national actions and international co-operation on an issue like climate change and sustainably. Every decision I make to travel (so far avoiding flying) has been painstakingly researched to look for alternative less carbon-heavy methods of travel, how I would be contributing once I got there, and the likelihood that I would actually be adding something that would be missing if I wasn’t there. In 2010 I made the decision to stay in the UK for the UN Climate Negotiations annual Conference of the Parties (COP16) in Cancun, Mexico; I knew that I could support a team of other people to do what I would have done, and they were already going, so there are often ways round conundrums, even if its a bit self-sacrificing.

When there just aren’t ways round it, I have heard powerful personal justifications of how seriously the decision was taken, and that within the current system of flawed non-flying transport infrastructure, it is still the quickest and most economical way to travel long-haul. As long as this attitude does not give way to apathy and taking the effects of your actions for granted, as long as it really means you fight for a better world when you get there, or, it makes you more able to fight for a better world (e.g soul food from love miles!) I might hesitatingly, and with a heavy heart make the decision to fly.

Ultimately I have to weigh up how much of a hypocrite I can bear to be, how much flying would compromise everything I am fighting for, and how much I need to go.



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4 responses to “Come not-fly with me?”

  1. Taliesin says :

    Great post Izzy! Loving the Mongolia photo’s!

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