You want me to stop doing WHAT?

Flying. I’d like it if you stopped using airplanes. I’m not saying you have to or that I’m going to make you or that you should: I’m just hoping you’ll think about it.

downed airplane

The number of things we could be doing every day to reduce our carbon footprint and fight climate change disaster is unmanageable, overwhelming. Reducing paper and plastic use, recycling, reusing, repurposing, gardening, public transit, local foods, avoiding processed foods, solar and wind power …  I don’t know if you have time to tackle it all at once, but there’s no way I can manage. I have to change at most a few things at a time–which is why it’s essential for me to to figure out the things I can do that will make the greatest impact and do those first.

Number one on my list? Not flying.

For millions upon millions of years, not flying for humans has been a no-brainer. Then the airplane comes along and suddenly we’re Jonathan freakin’ Seagull.

I totally get the wonder of flight. I don’t mean the feeling of it, which for humans generally means getting a little queasy, trying not to spill the little airplane meal, and looking out a small window at a weirdly disconnect landscape; I mean the possibilities. Years ago I flew to Japan, and while I visited, there wasn’t a day I didn’t look around me to see and feel that holy crap, I was in Japan, and my two shoestring trips to Europe after I got out of college felt even more life-changing to me. On the other hand, as wonderful as those trips were, did I really need to go to Japan or Belgium or Hungary? No, not really. It was fun and fascinating, but there are other fun and fascinating things to do in the world.

Travel to foreign countries used to be one of my favorite things. Now that I see the real cost of it–which is not counted in dollars but in disasters–the shine has worn off.

I understand there are a lot of people who travel for business. The first thing I would suggest is that this often isn’t strictly necessary, just convenient and even, from a cost standpoint, reasonable. The second thing I’d suggest is that if you’re in a business that really does require a lot of air travel, you could make a disproportionately huge, positive impact on climate change by finding a way to cut way back, or to stop it. The third thing I’d suggest is that if your job really requires air travel and you don’t have the means to change it, it may be worth considering another job if you want to fight climate change.

Easy for me to say, though. Except for vacations and writing-related events, I generally have no reason to fly. Yet it being easy for me to say this doesn’t take away any of its importance. I’m sure I’d be more convincing on the subject if I were a former world-traveling business prodigy who had stopped flying instead of some schmuck who started taking regional vacations, but I’m doing my best.

Just how bad is air travel? Of course it depends on the specifics, but two or three round trip transatlantic flights can do as much damage to the climate as everything else an average American might do during the course of a year put together. All of the heating fuel, the driving, the fertilizers and fuel to bring you food, the cow methane, the household waste, and everything else: it’s doubled by a few flights.

As far as alternatives are concerned, the best and easiest is often to stay put or go to some alternative destination close by. Trains, boats, and buses are good bets, each having a much smaller carbon footprint than airplanes. Even cars are a lot better than planes, with hybrid, plug-in electric, and highly fuel-efficient cars of course being the preferred way to go. A trip by car can come close to emitting the same amount of greenhouse gases as a flight of the same distance, depending on the circumstances, but airplane emissions occur high in the atmosphere, where they have several times the impact they would have on the ground.

No one is going to stop you from flying. Few people even care at this point, but I hope you’ll be one of them, if you aren’t already. If fighting climate change is important to you, there’s not a single thing I can recommend that can reduce your footprint so easily and so profoundly.

Photo by The_ Incredible_ Mr.E