The awareness of how much damage flying does to the environment has been growing for years. More recently, this awareness has given risen to the new social phenonenom of ‘flight shaming’. This ‘shame’ arises where people feel bad about the damage they know they are causing, rather than being shamed by hoards of angry placard-waving, slogan-chanting protesters, as far as I can tell anyway. But should we feel bad about flying?

The Damage

Here are a few return flight figures in economy class, taken from the flight emissions calculating website atmosfair:

Seen in the context of an annual limit of three tonnes of greenhouse gas per year for each of us, it is clear that at a personal level, flying is indeed one of the quickest and cheapest ways of putting huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. It seems challenging to continue to fly very much at all, especially long haul.

But should we really feel ‘shame’ about this? Let’s get psychological.

At this point my love of psychology kicks in, and to understand the concepts it is easier if we  leave the specific rights and wrongs of flying to one side for a moment.

Most people use shame and guilt interchangeably, but they are not actually the same thing. Psychologists generally agree that shame is the feeling that you are a bad person, and that is why you do bad things. Guilt, on the other hand, is focused largely on feeling that you have done something wrong, or something that doesn’t fit with your perception of who you are.

Why does this matter?

In a nutshell, shame makes us focus on ourselves, and therefore interferes with us being able to identify with the victims of the act in question, and right the wrong. This study  into moral behaviour and moral emotions sums it up beautifully:

“Shame’s inherently egocentric focus on the “bad self” (as opposed to the bad behaviour) derails the empathic process. Individuals in the throes of shame turn tightly inward, and are thus less able to focus cognitive and emotional resources on the harmed other. In contrast, people       experiencing guilt are specifically focused on the bad behaviour, which in turn highlights the negative consequences experienced by others, thereby fostering an empathic response and motivating people to “right the wrong.”

So people who feel shame are more likely to blame others, find excuses, or try to move the feeling of shame in some way from themselves to others. They may even actively increase the so-called  ‘shameful’ behaviour as a reaction to these difficult feelings. By contrast, people who feel guilt tend to look at ways to redress the balance, to make things right.

It is of course crazy to suggest that we are bad people because we fly.  There is nothing inherently evil about the act of getting on a plane. It is rather the fact that flying blasts large amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere which is bad, because it is knocking our weather systems out of kilter, killing off entire ecosystems,  and reducing the natural resources on which we all depend to survive.

With this in mind, it appears that flight guilt is probably a healthier emotion, as it enables us to focus on what more we can do in terms of solutions for the millions displaced in the past few days by yet more flooding in India and China; the dead and dying coral in Great Barrier Reef; or the Amazon and Arctic, both of which are burning up as I write this. So is there a way out of this?

Can we fly at all without guilt?

When we consider that a climate-safe annual carbon footprint is just 3 tonnes a year per person, it is pretty easy to conclude that even one flight is going to do serious damage. Eventually we will develop electric or hydrogen powered planes, but these are some way away from being commercially available – on current projections for the climate, far too late to make a difference. So what are the options available now for guilt-free flights?

Carbon Offsets are not the answer

It is possible to offset emissions, but these are fraught with inconsistencies and difficulties. In a nutshell, offsets are much too cheap, and actually increase the amount of flying we tend to do, without adequately fixing the damage. They are worth a separate post in their own right, but in brief, they sooth our feelings of guilt without actually doing much to solve the problem. Worst of all, they encourage us to fly more.

The Three Tonne Solution

If we are living within three tonnes a year of greenhouse gas, then flying is no problem, to my mind. I have done footprints for people who have no car, don’t eat much meat, and live in modest houses who also fly to Europe a couple of times  a year. Their footprint is around the same as mine – i.e. pretty low, at about 5 tonnes – although I don’t fly at all. I burn my carbon in other ways. So if we were doing everything else in a very low carbon way, it would be possible to take a short haul flight every couple of years, or a long haul ‘trip of a lifetime’ every ten years or so (by effectively ‘saving up’ the carbon tokens over a number of years).

Ultimately then, this approach leaves quite a lot of personal choice in this, whilst also doing everything we can as individuals to peg back climate change. Why not try it out?


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