I never thought I would stop flying to distant conferences because being there in person has so many advantages. I enjoyed attending day after day. I made lasting friends; I went to other people’s talks and networked like mad; I drank wine and ate out. In the corridors or over meals, colleagues said what they liked about my talks and what they disagreed with at greater length than they can on Skype.
Then my reading group chose George Monbiot’s “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning,” which said flying emits more sky-heating carbon per person per mile than any other form of transportation. The message I took away from that well-sourced and frightening perspective? “Fly only for love.” That meant that we could, ethically speaking, in select instances, pay for our son and his family to fly to us for vacations.
Still, my inner sage was sleepy, as a poet said. I hesitated to follow through on the rest of Monbiot’s advice, which urged against traveling by plane at all. Trains are better, by the same metric. Then teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg chose to sail for two weeks across the Atlantic Ocean rather than ride a flying oven. The California and Australian fires woke me completely.
Already one invitation to Skype next fall has come from a university in Canada. Other organizations may prove to be as conscious about the climate as they are about cost. Out of consideration for younger scholars who would also dearly like to stop burning fossil fuels, they could space out their conferences.
Being conscious about travel does not have to be a goal set only by academics. Anyone who flies for work can do their part, too. Some CEOs are doing more work through conference calls. Workers could appeal to their employers to work from home. It might even suit their child-care, parent-care, or spouse-care needs as well.
Along with being good for the planet, there are many advantages to skipping the plane. I will not miss the tired mindless lines trudging through airport security, the invasive pat-downs, or the surveillance cameras where I raised my hands as if I were being robbed of more than my privacy. I so hated walking barefoot on the floors that I pretended to be 75 — an age when you no longer have to take off your shoes — long before I was 75. I loathe airlines for dwindling the seating space except for business travelers. I am only 5-foot-4, so the misery must afflict everyone who can’t afford class comfort. The agitated aggrieved restlessness that comes from the conditions leaves you sore and cranky all the next day. I rejoice at staying home.
Fortunately, my granddaughter admires Thunberg as much as I do, and her entire high school was inspired to go on an Earth Strike in New York City. I don’t want her to envy my travels to Europe that were made possible by airplanes — before we knew that oil companies had been lying about global warming for years.
But there is another reason for me to avoid flight: I saw bits of the precious world of nature and culture firsthand already when we traveled with our son as a baby and an adolescent. We saw those parts of the world we loved when most of them were not yet crowded with bustling foreigners. The weather was more temperate then, literally as well as metaphorically. This is a true pocket-history of tourism and inequality over the course of my adulthood.
While many around my age use retirement to fulfill postponed travel dreams, I hope they will think harder about how to do it, how often to fly or whether to fly at all. Calculators allow people to figure out how much carbon dioxide their trip emits and then find, say, a reforestation project to cancel out their emissions and fuel the carbon-capture industry. Indeed, you can always buy more credits than would merely cancel out your seat.
Climate action requires more than marching and giving to environmental organizations; people need a personal stake. They need to discover their own personal, reasonable, ethical, voluntary and active ways to participate in the growing collective impulse to avoid doing harm and to do something worthwhile in its place. Whatever pittance I have done, I can do more. We already have solar panels and are replacing fracked natural gas or gasoline with renewable electricity.
I may now never get to visit antique Kyoto, Japan; Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia or the temples of Angkor Wat, which I had nonchalantly scribbled into an imagined future. But I am strangely not as grieved as I thought I would be. I have seen enough of this overheated, overpopulated, overfished, distressed orb. I can abide by my modest voluntary deprivations, hoping to go on inhaling breathable air with the rest of the living and seven generations to come.