The Big Problem With Flight Shaming

Flight shaming is a bit like catholic guilt – probably deserved, but also not very helpful. The origin of the expression is the Swedish term flygskam, which means “flight shame.” The term was coined in 2018. It was spearheaded by a small group of celebrities, including musician Malena Ernman, the mother of climate activist Greta Thunberg.

According to the BBCflight shaming managed to lower the number of international flights at Swedish airports by 4% within a year.

Though some people hate flight shaming, others love it. The Telegraph reported in 2020 that flight shaming had led to a record number of people choosing trains over planes to get from London to Glasgow. Virgin, meanwhile, announced record numbers of people doing the same when it came to getting from London to Scotland.

The idea behind flight shaming is nice. Who doesn’t want to save the planet? Even putting it into practice, probably, is a good thing to do, in a modified form (which we’ll discuss later on in this article).

But there are a few reasons why you shouldn’t be ‘flight shamed’ out of taking a holiday, which various travel lovers have put forward recently.

Hayley Rogue Ashworth, writing for EuroNewssaid earlier this week: “While I appreciate we all have a part to play in lowering emissions, I can’t help but be frustrated that we are being pressured to make these sacrifices, when, according to the Carbon Majors Database, 71 per cent of all emissions come from the same 100 companies.”

Statistics from atag.org appear to back this up. According to atag.org: “The global aviation industry produces around 2.1% of all human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Aviation is responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transports sources, compared to 74% from road transport.”

On top of that, we’d argue, in keeping with the ~guilt~ theme, repressing things usually doesn’t end well. If you deny yourself the joys of flying, while watching the rest of your friends and family flit about the world (and while watching the world continuing to burn thanks to the world’s biggest polluters), you are liable to start feeling frustrated and resentful. You might also, if you’re too aggressive about it, get people who would have otherwise agreed with you to tell you to get stuffed.

This, we reckon, means you are more likely to one day crack, say f*ck it, and give up, than if you had a so-called balanced diet.

The other reason to be sceptical of flight shaming is because some people have much better reasons to travel than others. There’s a difference between flying over to Italy for two days because you wanted to try some different pasta, and flying across the world to see family you haven’t seen in years.

Other people travel for medical treatment, while yet others travel to start new lives, go to funerals; provide essential aid. We’re a global society, and that doesn’t look like changing any time soon.

Tourism makes trillions of dollars for the global economy and employs millions. Traveling is also what helps people understand, connect, and care about each other (and not everyone can afford to take months off to do so).

Flight shaming is counterproductive. It’s too extreme. The solution of flight shaming is to encourage instead collective responsibility and to campaign for the government to force airlines to clean up their act.

Beth Gardiner, a London based environmental journalist, articulates this school of thought well. She wrote for CNN: “The debate around flying – particularly the Swedish notion of flygskam, or flight shame – reflects a larger problem in the way we talk about climate change.”

“It’s a conversation that is heavily skewed toward individual behavior and personal choice – how much I fly, what kind of car you drive, whether we’ve installed efficient light bulbs. And that obscures a much bigger, and more important, picture.”

“While we fret over our own actions – and each other’s – we are failing to ponder much more consequential questions about how the systems that shape our lives have led us to this point of crisis. Questions about corporate malfeasance, the power of big money and decades of political failure.”

A point well made. But not so fast: on the other hand, there are also a few reasons to encourage flight shaming – at least, in my view, in a modified form.

As The Conversation reports, feeling guilty about flying won’t necessarily lead to you bullying others, you eventually giving up, or your focus being misdirected.

The Conversation Claims Swedes who gave up flying did not view their choice as a sacrifice, but found it fulfilling.

“Far from giving up something important to them, most spoke about the decision as a kind of liberation – a transformation towards a life with less stress,” The Conversation reports.

“Air travel boosts individual emission levels higher and faster than any other activity. When so much of our engagement with climate change is based on anxiousness about our own role, giving up the single largest individual contribution to the problem felt cathartic for many of those we spoke to.”

The Conversation

“Flying is central to a worldview that prizes convenience and speed. But as many people found during lockdown, a slower pace of life with fewer options can sometimes feel freeing, rather than limiting. Adopting a new worldview that cherishes local relationships and opportunities can, somewhat ironically, feel like expanding our horizons rather than narrowing them.”

So flight shaming isn’t so bad after all. It’s just not a golden bullet, and it should be taken in the spirit of the original concept – individual flight shame – rather than a bullying flight shaming. You’re also more likely to win people over this way, too.

The Guardian summed up the usefulness of flight shaming well in 2020, writing: “Individuals altering their habits, even in large numbers, will not avert disaster. In a sense the opposite is true: collective action by whole countries, led by governments, to push entire collection into a clean era is the answer.”

“But ‘flight shame’, along with movements to restrict other carbon-intensive forms of consumption, is still a force for good. The point is not to show that you are better than other people, or to displace anxiety from the public realm into the private one. It is to show the world’s leaders, in business and politics, that we get it: life must change.”

The Guardian

Flight shamethen, if promoted right (ie not as flight shaming), can actually make a difference. Ryanair, for instance, is betting that most Brits will continue to care more about quickly and cheaply getting drunk on The Continent than they do about reducing their carbon footprint.

As The Economist reported in 2020: “By increasing its MAX order from 135 to 210 (admittedly at a hefty discount from Boeing), [Ryanair] is betting that within a few years aviation will return to just the way it was before the covid-19 pandemic bludgeoned travel.”

It’s exactly these kinds of decisions people have the power, en masse, over time, to sway. If people stop flying Ryanair, and put their dollars towards more sustainable modes of transport – and airlines experimenting with cleaner technology – bets like this could eventually stop being made. Either something is profitable or it’s not. Companies won’t make bets like this if they don’t think you’re going to buy what they’re selling.

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“With hotels, bars and beaches empty, Mr O’Leary [the Ryanair CEO] thinks that European regulators will be reluctant to push more ‘anti-aircraft’ environmental taxes,” The Economist reported in 2020.

“In the battle between Europe’s ‘flight-shaming’ ecowarriors and those wanting cheap holidays abroad, the second lot may prevail.”

“But Mr O’Leary may also be complacent. He risks locking Ryanair into a dirty technology—and a partnership with Boeing—that may be out of step with the times. He may underestimate the EU’s desire to crack down on carbon. And he may overlook the greener alternatives that could support tourism in Europe: trains, buses and electrified cars,” (The Economist).

To make sure companies actually do start investing in sustainable technology, so we can have our cake and eat it too, maybe a little bit of flight shame isn’t such a bad thing after all. Just don’t call it flight shaming.

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