Get Comfortable on the Horns of this Dilemma


+Jeff Greenwald is executive director of Ethical Traveler, an Earth Island-sponsored project that seeks to use the economic clout of tourism to protect human rights and the environment. His travel writings have appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Outside, among other publications. He is the author of six books, including The Size of the World.

As Executive Director of Ethical Traveler, the air travel issue has placed me on the horns of a dilemma.

The development of air travel has created some of the greatest opportunities – and responsibilities – of our age. Visiting distant countries (and parts of our own) overturns preconceptions, shatters ignorance, and promotes cross-cultural understanding. “Don’t tell me how educated you are,” Mohammed declared, “tell me how much you have traveled.” The equation balances, even today. Few endeavors provide the wisdom and insight of mindful travel.

photo of luggage

I won’t contest the facts and figures used by Mr. Stewart, nor his observations that airports invite a certain level of nuisance noise and cause measurable harm to the environment. My observations on the issue are these: Globalization is an unstoppable and likely irreversible process; and humans are going to continue to fly. We will fly not only for business and for pleasure, but to dispatch mail and medical supplies, deliver consumer products, pursue military objectives, support diplomacy, attend conferences, and ferry sports teams.

These are facts of contemporary world culture. Argue as loudly as you like for an air travel prohibition; it will not happen.

On top of that, travel and tourism are now one of the world’s biggest industries – larger than automobiles or oil – supporting innumerable economies and generating 9 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product.

Focusing on air travel as the bad boy of climate change seems a bit misguided. To invert Mr. Stewart’s own argument: An overwhelming 96.5 percent of human-induced climate change is not caused by aviation. Agriculture, by comparison, accounts for about 14 percent of those greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, the Internet’s carbon footprint, according to a 2010 article in The Guardian, is “around 300 million [British] tons of CO2 a year – as much as all the coal, oil and gas burned in Turkey or Poland, or more than half of the fossil fuels burned in the UK.” So much for the social networking alternative.

There are two sensible approaches to the very real problem of airline emissions: a state of heightened mindfulness about the problem, and rigorously monitored and mandatory carbon offsets. (I’m not including the development of more fuel-efficient aircraft; developing such jets is a continual process by the airlines, which reap real benefits from greener fleets.).

The mindfulness issue is critical, and well served by activists like Mr. Stewart. Air travel is a double-edged privilege. We are not entitled to soar through atmosphere, spewing greenhouse gases. We must be aware of our impact, and take steps to minimize any harm.

On an individual level, there are a number of ways to accomplish this. First of all, we can fly less. When possible, take one long trip, with stopovers, instead of numerous short ones. Second, pack light. Every ounce adds to the fuel used in flight. Patronize airlines with younger fleets. The newer the jet, the more fuel-efficient it will be. Next – this will sting – always fly economy class. It halves your footprint. It is a drag to be sandwiched in a middle seat between a Sumo wrestler and a short-order cook from Missouri, but remember: The fuller the flight, the more efficient it is.

On a personal level, I’m galled by how utterly dependent we’ve all become on air travel. It’s become as natural as, um, driving. The culture of flight is so ingrained at this point that we often forget we have a choice. Do I really have to fly the 400 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles?

Here are some surprising figures provided by Sustainable Travel International. For a party of two traveling 500 miles, bus, train, or an average car are all more eco-friendly than flight (for shorter trips, even an SUV beats flying). For journeys of more than 1,000 miles, a bus is the greenest option – but at that distance, flying becomes slightly more fuel-efficient than train travel.

Let’s assume we take this information to heart, and try to cut down on our impact. We ride a bus from Paris to Berlin, videoconference with our colleagues in Mumbai, and visit New York without carrying an extra pair of shoes. The problem is that conservation, in the case of air travel, isn’t enough. Even one transcontinental flight a year upsets our carbon cart. What to do?

Though I was long on the fence, I’m now convinced that everyone who flies – especially those of us with an iota of environmental awareness – must buy carbon offsets. These do not cancel the footprint of our flights. But they support proactive efforts, like replanting forests or retrofitting old oil heaters, which help to reduce it.

small excerpt of a poll pageReader OpinionWhat do you think? Should we stop flying in order to help reduce
greenhouse gas emissions? Vote and be counted.

Bottom line: There is no perfect solution. With the exception of terror attacks and volcanic eruptions, nothing is going to stop our Airbuses and Boeings from taking off, in their thousands, each day. It’s absurd to demand that no one fly anymore. We are prisoners of our age, as well as its architects.

Sometimes, you just have to get comfortable on the horns of a dilemma. I do take some solace from the knowledge that we live at an awkward moment in human transportation: somewhere between the covered wagon and Star Trek’s transporter.

We can’t go back to horse-drawn carts. Our job is to keep the planet healthy until the transporters come along.

For an opposing view, read what John Stewart has to say.

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