Fear of Flying

Air travel was undoing every effort we were making to live sustainably…

It started with An Inconvenient Truth. After watching Al Gore’s documentary, we used an online carbon calculator to figure our emissions footprint. We answered some basic questions about our lifestyle, hit “calculate” – and were shocked to find that our emissions were much higher than the US average. Why was the software making us look so bad? After all, we don’t own a car; we eat mostly vegetarian; we compost.

photo of two people outside smiling

A deeper look revealed the culprit: air travel. Our annual family trip to India was the equivalent of driving for two years. Air travel was undoing every effort we were making to live sustainably. Forget the Hummer drivers – we were just as much to blame for climate change.

If we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent by 2050, we can’t ignore the aviation sector, which accounted for 2 to 3 percent of emissions due to human activity in 2010. If the global aviation industry were a country, it would be among the biggest emitters in the world, yet it remains largely unacknowledged in international policy discussions. On a personal level, we wondered what it might feel like to live without it. Could one realistically travel long distances any other way?

We spent the past year trying to find out, challenging ourselves to try to get around the world without setting foot in an airplane.

We set sail from Seattle aboard a cargo ship on which we were the only two passengers. We savored the steady pace of our journey, devoid of Internet and phone, filling our days with books, conversation, writing, and ocean gazing. Crossing it mile by mile, we gained a new appreciation for how incredibly massive the Pacific is. The ocean journey would be our introduction to the virtues of slow travel – a view of the world up close, with time and space to reflect.

A ferry to China, trains to Vietnam, and buses to Cambodia and Thailand – traveling flight-free was pretty easy. Then suddenly it all changed. We had traveled halfway across the planet flight-free, but couldn’t figure out how to get from Thailand to India so Anirvan could see his ailing 93-year-old grandfather. Security restrictions, winter weather, and aviation-centric development had eliminated every route. We eventually flew to India, breaking our aviation fast. We told ourselves we were flying “love miles.” Growing up in a family of immigrants, our personal history is deeply connected with the democratization of air travel. Our stories begin and end in airports and we’ve come to the painful realization that these “love miles” will be the hardest to give up, and that personal sacrifice alone isn’t a satisfactory solution.

We eventually returned to China, where we continued our journey aboard the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway. After making our way across Russia, we went to Ukraine, then by ferry across the Black Sea to Turkey. We marveled at the sophisticated bus system in Turkey and the ease of train travel in Europe.

The stories of the people we met on the road enriched our travels. In Japan, we learned how climate change had altered the timing of cherry blossom season. In Vietnam, we were inspired by youth climate activists bravely trying to avert a future where rising seas might swallow half the nation’s rice paddies by 2100. In Bangladesh, we heard how rising seas and increasingly fierce storms have already submerged over a thousand square miles of Bhola Island, leaving half a million homeless.

Our last stop was London, home of the world’s biggest, and most successful, movement against aviation emissions. We met people who participated in the ten-year struggle to prevent an expansion of Heathrow Airport, the most visible battlefront against an industry spewing 11 percent of UK’s greenhouse gases.

A trans-Atlantic container ship journey, a cross-country Amtrak trip, and we finally found ourselves back home, the culmination of a year of (almost) no flying. We returned deeply inspired by the movement challenging the growth of aviation. While only about 5 percent of humanity flies, aviation impacts the whole planet, and with it, our common future. We hope that future generations will live in a world beyond dirty aviation, where they can enjoy the efficiency of high-speed rail, the decadence of slow travel, the connectedness of Web, and the comfort of having created fewer climate refugees. We lived in that world this past year – and we loved every minute of it.

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