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.


I’m listening to this today as COVID 19 starts to go global. I said in my last post that I ‘didn’t give a shit’ about the virus and that I hoped it stayed that way.

There’s a lot of caveats. I meant that I wasn’t worried about myself, or particularly about the children. However, there’s clearly a lot to worry about, particularly our capacity to all worry about one another.

At the moment, though, it feels like a continuation of the summer: a quiet time, but a scary time too, when it wasn’t clear what would happen next but you knew you couldn’t trust your leaders to tell you. I’m glad – if nothing else – that so many of us are experiencing this together, and that we have the technology to keep on connecting us across the planet. Let’s hope that continues. Let’s hope we don’t die before our time, and that metamorphosis is possible.



Fires Near Me

It’s so long since I’ve written here. I’ve struggled with words all summer. I rely on words to process my experiences. But words have abandoned me often in recent times.

I’m still working out the meaning of this summer in the most fundamental of ways. Actually, there was no meaning: I’m constructing it. I felt inevitable horror in realising the fragility of my reasonably privileged life. I felt fortunate and unfortunate. I realised how painfully small and insignificant and helpless I was – and yet I still had people and animals to protect, a job to go to, routines to maintain.

And always, always the knowledge that however bad it was here, it was worse elsewhere. People on the front lines didn’t get any time to reflect on their place in it all: they were too busy surviving. We were just trapped inside, for weeks on end. (A dubious advantage could be that coronavirus quarantining doesn’t seem like a scary prospect  at all, as long as we still have clean air to breathe and some food and water).

Also, the knowledge that life has always been like this, for many: people and animals suffer and life is often very uncomfortable. The majority of people are at the mercy of the powerful few, we create purpose and meaning with what we have but it can always be taken away.

But I did learn, perhaps, a sense of balance. A deep love and awe for this country. Aching grief at what we have done.

I’m struggling to find humour, lightness and joy in the daily-ness of life again.  I think I’m depressed – a little – but most people around me seem under similar strain. I don’t give a shit about coronavirus and hope it stays that way. I’m painfully aware though that once again the poor and powerless will suffer. I do hope it might buy some of us some time for contemplation: a planetary pause so that the trees and more-than-human life can recover a little.

Below are some snippets of emails I wrote to a friend in Canada. I wrote quite incessantly, insistently, to a few people. I wanted them to know what it was like here. I desperately want to visit Canada again: I think my sense of how finite accessible travel might be has dovetailed with a mid-life crisis. I no longer have all the time in the world and there are people I urgently want to see and things I urgently want to do

And yet who am I – to think that my personal bucket list overrides the need of everyone to stop taking flights for pleasure? I feel that the everyday middle-class values (it’s good to travel, to take holidays, to visit friends) is now at loggerheads with what the natural world needs humans to do.

I’ve got an idea for a new blog: “Dear Friends, Beloved Planet.” Not a very funny or catchy title. Perhaps I’ll change it again. I’m dreaming up ways that I can connect with those I love without trashing the atmosphere with carbon emissions while I do it.




There’s not much reprieve here, although we are fairly comfortable – we got a new air conditioner installed three weeks ago. It’s a slightly guilty realisation, but air conditioners really do change lives. We can sleep, we’re not exhausted and hot. We’re almost completely trapped, however. There’s fires on every side of us and there’s no way down to the coast.

I just wrote to A and H to reassure them that we will be safe. You might see that conditions deteriorate around us in the next couple of days and there might be fires closer to us but we won’t be at any risk personally (and will evacuate well ahead of time if anything gets close). I’ve actually just completed some community fire training but am not yet fully qualified – we will get out! And we’re fully insured.

Fires Near Me (also the name of the app we used most of the time).

It’s so hard to know what to say. Words aren’t coming easily right now. We are OK – and not OK. We are safe – and not safe. This week the city was hit by massive hailstorms causing millions of dollars of damage and killing more animals. That felt vaguely normal (given that my own car and house didn’t lose any windows and we do sometimes have violent summer storms, though never like this). We had some cool weather, a small amount of rain (there was more rain in some places, but not enough to extinguish fires) and some beautiful beautiful sunny days and clear starry nights.

Our street
Our view at midday on New Year’s Day, as the smoke rolled in from the coast

Today I’m watching a enormous dust storm from my office window. The wind is so strong that it took me twenty minutes to walk from the car park to my office (usually just a quick walk up the path). Two fires have broken out within the city in the last hour – warnings are appearing on my phone again. I’ve contemplated returning home, but I think we’re OK and anyway, I’m behind with preparing classes for the start of Term One.

I see now that this is how it goes – you cope a bit, if you’re lucky you then recover a bit, and then it starts again.

South of the city. Over a billion animals perished in the fires in just over two months.

We’re in the midst of a great unravelling and the sense of rapid disintegration is inextricable from the weather. We’ve had a few lovely days – and then I have hope. On days like today I know that we either get out, or bunker down and come to accept that we probably won’t live that long.

It’s that grim. I’m sorry.

The remains of Cobargo, I think. Or maybe Malua Bay. Or Mogo

Those last lines were too grim – and of course I have no idea if they will prove to be accurate or not. I suppose what I was thinking is that this little area of the world can’t go on like this – it might become very hard to eke out an existence here. I don’t mean that we’ll literally be killed or die as a direct result of all of these horrible natural disasters. At the moment, that doesn’t look very likely. The death toll is low. It’s more that institutions that felt solid only a couple of years ago feel insecure. I think I was also just expressing what I fear.

    . . . It’s just been awful, K. I’m tired – and sick of being afraid.

From my office window

Things that happened today: Three US firefighters were killed when their water bomber went down to the south of here. This is terribly sad – they were defending country that is so beloved around here. Another fire that was about eight kms from us has been contained. It’s still burning but there’s been some rain. There’s some property loss and they had to close our international airport all day but the fire hasn’t made it to the suburbs – fingers crossed.

The South Coast has been bad again. This is ongoing and I don’t have all the news yet but it appears more people have been evacuated to the beach and have lost their homes, including a good friend of N’s.

The dust has cleared for now.

The International Airport


From Facebook, February 4:


“We’re still surrounded by fires. But the weather’s cooler now and we’re expecting significant rain over the weekend, which is very promising. If the rain arrives it might mean that this season is nearly over for us. I don’t know about to the south of us – as the Victorian and South Australian fire season would usually go for longer. Are we OK? You asking me that question brings tears to my eyes. It’s partly because not many people in other parts of Australia have been asking that, and I’m really grateful. Probably because for the last week or so I haven’t felt OK at all. I watched Four Corners on Monday – they had to film it in Queanbeyan and not Bega, as planned, because the fires are still active on many parts of the coast. The people in the audience had all experienced the direct impact of the fires. They looked exhausted and traumatised, but some were beginning to talk. Personally, our experience has been indirect, in some ways. We’ve been surrounded for weeks now – and at some points we couldn’t get out of the city at all. I’ve been in here all summer – except for a hot, smoky drive to Braidwood on Boxing Day (empty, except for one open pub and a bakery full of firefighters). I feel like most people in Australia and the world don’t know what’s happened to us and around us. I guess the smoke started rolling in every afternoon some time in early December. Before that we had such a bad dust storm that I remember saying that I would never curse a hot blue summer sky again. I think that was about on December 5 or 6. By December 20 I was telling my brother to pack an inhaler and mask when he visited us for Xmas. He thought I was joking until he arrived. There were some good days – and I remember Christmas Day as actually being beautiful here. The days of high fire threat are actually starting to blur together. I know that after several days of trying to clear around our house before Christmas (we live backing bushland) I developed a wheeze and cough. My chest ached a lot and I remember that at times buying Christmas presents I had to give up and go home because I couldn’t stop coughing. But many people were the same around about that time. After Christmas it got so much worse. I think it was around then that we realised that we didn’t really have any where to go. N made it  to Sydney to visit a friend – then couldn’t get back because the road had closed. Then her friend visited for New Year’s – and of course we were starting to hear dreadful stories of what had happened on the coast. But there was little contact for days so we only started to get a sense of the massacre when the smoke wiped out our sun. I think it was January 2. We needed batteries at one point and I tried to get to Bunnings. The smoke was so thick that I couldn’t find the store. Several times I remember getting lost in the smoke and the darkness. Sometimes it was funny and sometimes it was just. so. grim. I think because I started thinking that I just had to get the kids out. Somewhere. Anywhere. And I didn’t know where I would send them. I woke up one night and our bedroom was full of smoke. I made it to the corridor and struggled for breath so badly that for many minutes I was very, very scared. I guess it was an asthma attack. I’ve never had one before, but since then I’ve carried Ventolin (my chest has since cleared and I’ve felt OK). I think around about that time I started to feel grimmer because I realised that this was what climate change would mean for us. Somehow, stupidly (because I’ve seen the projections for years now and understood how dry and hot and bushfire prone this region would become) I thought we would adapt. We would build houses that could withstand the extremes better, we would recycle our water, we would rearrange some of our rituals around the changing weather (like having holidays in winter, not summer). But I now realise several things more than I did: I’m (personally) neither healthy and young enough to keep surviving here, nor rich and special enough. I understand: most of us will not survive in this climate if we have more than one or two more summers like this. I feel like none’s really listening to this, or taking it in. We are not going to survive. I think at this point (as best I can tell, and I’m no futurist) we will have a little while: perhaps a few milder years of weather, lessened fuel loads, slightly better preparation. But we’re not going to be able to keep living here. What we lived through was unliveable, past a few weeks. Lately, we’ve had a few gorgeous blue days again. Two days ago, we finally hit the trifecta: a sunny, clear day that wasn’t too hot. But then the smoke rolled in again that evening. Again. There’s something about the smoke that’s worn down my emotional reserves. The smoke means death elsewhere, but near us. It means being confined indoors. It means I can’t exercise, the kids and dogs can’t exercise. It means that things will never be quite OK again. It’s very strange living almost at the centre of a crisis, but not quite. There are so many people and animals all around us fighting for their homes and their lives. A billion animals have gone. It’s not an easy number to grapple with but it means WHOLE SPECIES HAVE GONE. In our lifetime, in many lifetimes, they will never return. Their lives and our way of life has gone and we don’t even know what that means yet. I feel like the fires are near me (like the app we use, Fires Near Me) but they’re also in me. I’ve breathed them in all summer. I imagine – though no-one talks about it – that they’ve shortened many lives. In the midst of that, yes, I’m learning that nature is incredibly fucking resilient. My lungs have cleared, I can hear birds calling outside the house, I can see grass appearing where we had rain last week. I don’t know everything that will happen yet. I just know that every time that smoke rolls across the hills again, I feel like I’m at my wit’s end. I don’t know how to live anymore. I don’t know what my life means. I don’t know how to help my community but also stay in one piece myself. I’m a teacher, I work with teachers and I know that the absolutely most crucial thing I can do at the moment is engender a calm, safe, ordered environment, so that students have the ability to learn, and to start to heal. So I’m holding it together. But I don’t think I can normalise, I can’t go back to ‘business as usual’. We’re still in the middle of this and perhaps in time I’ll articulate myself better than this. Thanks again for asking the question. (the picture is one I took out my window at work, seconds after I read you asking if I was OK. not every day looks like this at present, but most do. Today I think my chest was hurting out of sadness, rather than smoke inhalation).”