Flights are the fastest-growing polluter in transport, and 95% of the world’s population has never been on a plane. In his latest Going Green column Robert Butler asks: Do the rest of us have a right to fly? 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009

Back in October 2006 Tony Blair gave a big speech about climate change  in which he urged us to act now or the consequences would be “disastrous” and “irreversible”. He said nothing was more serious or more urgent. What was required—naturally—was leadership. Two months later he was asked if he was going to show some leadership by not flying to Barbados for his Christmas holiday. “I personally think”, he said, “these things are a bit impractical actually.”

He may be the first politician to turn his holiday in Barbados into a question of practicality. When it comes to flying, we split between those who believe asking individuals to rethink their choices is a bit impractical (ie, completely impossible) and those who believe, things being what they are, that there’s no longer a choice. The former prime minister’s leadership style didn’t include leading by example, but there’s an increasingly vociferous group of people who are doing just that—and a good number of them are artists. They are the flight refuseniks.

The first green voice to take against flying was Henry David Thoreau, author of “Walden”, who made a pre-emptive strike in 1861. “Thank God men cannot as yet fly”, he wrote, “and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.” The grandfather of today’s refuseniks is the artist Gustav Metzger, Holocaust survivor and student of David Bomberg, whose work last year “Reduce Art Flights” (or RAF) hit out at artists who measure their international success by the airmiles they rack up. Other artists, notably David Cross of Cornford & Cross, have given up flying. Cross also gave up his car in 1983, his television in 1985, his motorbike in 1989, his credit card in 2000, and his mobile phone in 2007.

What could be more annoying for the rest of us? So, right on cue, there’s another group—the anti-refuseniks—who say that not-flying is pompous, silly and pointless. They argue that the plane is going to fly anyway. The impact of an individual not-flying would be infinitesimal. All that’s achieved is a warm glow for those who like self-denial. Puritanism has found a new way of expressing itself.

When Ben Jonson created a killjoy Puritan elder called Zeal-of-the-Land Busy in “Bartholomew Fair” (1614), he had him disapprove of long hair, ale, tobacco and the temptations of “fleshly woman”. It’s tempting to imagine a contemporary version of Zeal-of-the-Land Busy turning his puritan rage on SUVs, plastic bags, bottled water, tellies on standby and low-cost flights to top European destinations.

Only the update would be misleading. Forget the morals. You could argue that the refuseniks are taking the classic libertarian position: your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins (and not just my nose, but the noses of billions of other people round the world). Or rather, your right to pollute the sky ended at the moment CO2 in the atmosphere passed the level of 350 parts per million. It was a liberal philosopher, John Locke, who said: “Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.”

In not-flying, the refuseniks also find themselves part of the great majority. As Helen Simpson pointed out in her sharp story “In-flight Entertainment” (Granta, 2008), 95% of the world’s population has never been on a plane. The 2 billion flights taken each year are taken by the remaining 335m of us. Think too hard about the rights of the other 95% and you may end up supporting an idea floated by the American artist Amy Balkin—turning the atmosphere into a World Heritage Site.

For those of us who do fly, aviation connects deeply with the ideology of modern life—individualism, self-fulfilment, choice, travel, freedom. If aviation adds 3.5% of the CO2 to the atmosphere, that seems a trivial price to pay. The refuseniks counter that flights are the fastest-growing polluter in transport, while other sectors are falling, and the government is committed to an 80% reduction. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research said in a report in 2006: “If the aviation industry is allowed to grow at rates even lower than those being experienced today, the European Union could see aviation accounting for 39-79% of its total carbon budget by 2050.”

It’s like looking through both ends of the telescope. From one end, not-flying is an absurd gesture that will make no difference. From the other, cutting back on flying is probably the single biggest step you can take to shrink your carbon footprint. (A single long-haul flight will account for almost a quarter of the average British citizen’s annual energy use.) It’s a question of how we view politics. For Gandhi, the personal was always political, but for the rest of us the gap between the two is often about 30,000 feet.

Picture credit: albertopveiga (via Flickr), Sam Barker

(Robert Butler, a theatre critic turned green blogger at the Ashden Directory, writes the Going Green column in Intelligent Life. His last piece for More Intelligent Life was part of a series that asked the question, "What was the most important year ever?")