Flight Shame

This was going to be the year that I finally took some long service leave and went to visit old school friends in Canada. I suppose I don’t need to explain to anyone why this is no longer going to happen.

However, even before COVID, I was wrestling with my conscience. I have just lived through fires so widespread, so unrelenting, so terrifying that I couldn’t even imagine how we would live again on the other side of them. I’ve also been aware for many years now that hopping on a Boeing 747 and flying to the other side of the word is the single greatest way for me to personally raise my carbon emissions. If I take a flight from Australia to the northern hemisphere every year, it really doesn’t matter how much I cycle to work, turn off light switches, reduce my food miles or recycle my clothes and furniture. In relation to carbon emissions, that flight negates any other actions I might take.

I don’t fly every year, not even domestically. In 2018 I flew overseas twice, for the first time in many years, and it was life-changing. Most of my colleagues, who are academics, do fly all the time and consider it necessary for networking, for research, for professional coordination and for personal development and growth. I’m a bit jealous – my children’s needs have meant very few trips for a very long time – and I also don’t usually have research money and scholarships to fund it. I’ve also refused to junket , which is what some conferences are unashamedly about, but it’s not that I haven’t wanted to.

As far back as I can remember, probably from the time that I could read, and certainly from the time that I went to school and met kids from other cities and other countries, I’ve wanted to travel. I had a strong case of Eurocentrism and cultural cringe as a kid: it was only once I was at university and read The Empire Writes Back that I understood the common colonial issue/delusion of always imagining that ‘real’ life and culture and art lies elsewhere. Even taking this into account, I’ve rarely not been consumed by a hunger for experiences – for other languages, people and landscapes.

I recall this now because I’m realising that this hunger might never be satiated, or at the very least I’ll need to re-channel it. I got stroppy in an academic seminar at the beginning of this year – when fires were still burning to the south of us – about a student ‘cultural immersion’ trip to China that was being planned. Of course, it didn’t happen anyway, and I fear that I came across as bitter and unreasonable, or just plain mean. Again, I think that I need to take into account that at the root of my frustration with the cavalierly attitude towards long-haul travel that I see in colleagues and friends is that I’m always a little envious: I would love nothing more than to devote a month to exploring China.

But that’s not all that’s at stake for me. I’m glad – really relieved in fact! – that research trips, study exchanges, holidays, tours and cruises have been cancelled for the last couple of months. I’m aware that the consequences of continuing this pause on travel and flight will be dire, far-reaching and often very negative. Many places and countries depend on tourism and there are undoubtedly positive things about understanding the lives, the places, the languages and the cultures of other peoples. The consequences of returning to a time when a good portion of the world’s population are also on the move, largely for their own pleasure and edification, is equally dire.

I see such a denial, and a huge, unspoken tension, at the heart of all of this seemingly justified travel. So much of first world travel says to everyone else on the planet that the education, development, enlightenment and health of a privileged individual overrides the well-being of the place they are visiting and the well-being of the global environment. The cultural enrichment of the wealthy is directly damaging the lives of the powerless. Perhaps it always has.

I still want to see my friends in Canada. Desperately. I want to return to Vanuatu, Hawaii and Bali. I miss Hong Kong. I long to explore South East Asia, China, Japan, Korea and the Phillipines. I would like to see the Swat Valley in Pakistan and the mountains of Kathmandu. I want to see so much of Russia, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. I’ve never been to Germany or Switzerland or Austria. I wish I could explore the Mediterranean.  I have a longing to spend time in Cape Town and I would also like to see Morocco. I’ve read so much about Nigeria in the last couple of years: I want to experience life there. I wish I could see South America, the tops of the Andes, the Amazon, the beaches of Chile and Brazil and Argentina.

I want to return to the lands of my ancestors in Ireland and England. I want to see Caernavon Castle again and visit friends in Wales. I want to experience the wild Scottish islands and visit the ancient sites of worship in Malta. I want to see everything, know everything, to celebrate my own wild and precious life and to have the stories to tell about it.

But I’m slowly, painfully, coming to accept that I’ll never do most of these things. Thirteen years ago I spent the day walking with a dear friend near Websters Falls in Southern Ontario. At one point, crossing through a path boundary, I experienced a sharp stab of what I’ll call anticipatory nostalgia. I thought to myself: I will never pass this way again.

I was thirty-six at the time. I won’t know until my death if I was right, but I’ve never forgotten the feeling. The pain has been tempered, though, by realising that there are many places I’ll only ever pass by once, and millions more that I’ll never pass by at all. I suppose this is a realisation that most people have at some point in middle-age. My mourning around this is quiet and bearable, but it’s ever present.

I’m not saying that if the opportunity came up to teach or to study or to work in another country that I wouldn’t seize it with both hands and an open heart. I’m not saying that I’m resigned to never seeing friends and family members again. But I’m coming to terms with the fact that I can’t personally reconcile air travel with a commitment to doing what I can to fight climate change and to lower carbon emissions. Yes, individual efforts are never enough and yes, it’s corporations that are the real villains here.  But for me it’s in a similar bracket to eating meat and seafood and drinking alcohol: yes, it’s pleasurable and there’s personal benefits and fun and I’ve indulged many times – to excess – so it’s not about criticising myself or anyone else. It’s just that, knowing what I know, I can’t keep on being such a huge hypocrite. I have to stop, because the world is not all about my personal pleasure.

I’m not much of an ascetic either. I don’t want to live a life of denial. But I think I finally have to see my life here as my home and my community, and to think really carefully about the energy I consume when I leave it. I can’t just fly or even drive at whim. This city and this place is large enough to sustain me and my family. We still have so much to learn about where we live, coming as we do from other places. This is also a good base from which to build and support relationships with people from everywhere. Zoom, Skype, Facebook Chat or whatever are not the same as being there. I think we all know that. But with books and film and a vast array of communication tools at my disposal, I’ll continue to connect as best I can.

(Update: here’s another good take on this issue).

Webster's Falls
Webster’s Falls. Dundas, Ontario.

The Word Cathedral

I have been thinking about what it means to have no one (or very few people) at a funeral, as has been the case for most victims of COVID 19. How does it change how we celebrate life? If we can’t gather next to a grave and mourn, can we create a benediction and an honouring from words alone?

The angel of history can only look back at the wreckage piled behind us. We, more than ever, can only look forward. If that’s even how time works. I don’t think that’s what time works. Of the many things that have been laid bare this year, in 2020, that’s one. Time was never linear. Places were never something that you just got to by car or plane.

I believe in the future, simply because there is no other place to go.  But if our deaths can’t be memorialised, if no one will remember our lives and actions, then we need to focus ever more fiercely on the now, and make everything of it that we can.

(the picture above shows the glass church in the film of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda)