Flying. Joyful or Joyless?
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Flying during a climate crisis seems wildly contradictory, doesn’t it? We know emissions create joylessness for many. We know this crisis requires drastic societal and economic changes, and yet… the joy of travel pulls us across borders via a mode of transport known to contribute to the crisis.
For many, myself included, flying means exploring a new place, culture, food, history and meeting new people. These are the core experiences that can make enduring the airport and flight to somewhere far flung joyful.
But what about the joy we steal when we fly? For every flight we take our individual footprint for greenhouse gases grows. The bigger our footprint, the more we contribute to climate change and the more global temperatures continue climbing. For every fraction of a degree the planet heats, joy is stolen somewhere via drought, famine, flood, heat.
With our window to halt warming closing, are we selfishly placing our joy of travel above the joy of those on the frontlines of climate change?
The joy of travel
Travel is freeing, in more ways than one.
Travel frees us from the monotony of ideas and sameness. It has the ability to break down barriers and expose us to the joy of different and new (to us at least) thoughts, ideas and perspectives that we would otherwise have been closed off to.
Travel frees us temporarily from the 9–5. When we travel, it’s sometimes the only time we get to truly switch off. We have no work obligations. No home to clean. No routine for cooking. We have a new world at our feet, waiting to be explored and, for a few days or a few weeks, we’ve shirked our normal responsibilities to do just that. This lack of responsibility allows our mind the freedom to access ‘authentic joy’. The kind of joy we aren’t chasing through productivity, consumption or affirmation. We get to experience the kind of joy where we’re just living in the moment with ourselves, or our loved ones, rather than living in the past or future.
But above all else, travel is freedom to escape. From ourselves, our work, our lives and sometimes… the joylessness of capitalism.
Flying and Class
I’m from a working class family. Most of my Grandparents have never left the UK. My parents didn’t board a plane until their mid-20’s and my first flight was at 17. Although traditionally and culturally working-class, my parents and I have now moved into a weird space where we’re not really working class anymore. We’ve moved from the council estate, we own homes, earn salaries above minimum wage, have degrees and we fly outside of the UK to holiday — we’ve collected things that mark us as middle-class without having collected the middle-class experiences through childhood (and in my parents’ cases early adulthood) like flying abroad.
This is where class marks a difference in travel experience… When I started working in offices, the subject of travel revealed very quickly who grew up middle-class. When talk turns to holidays ands starts with “we used to go to Greece alllll the time as kids” or “we spent Christmas in the Alps”, you get the gist of the type of upbringing someone has had. When you’re working class and earning minimum wage or barely above it, you can’t relate to these conversations. You’re no longer easily part of the conversation, you feel outside of it instead of part of it and suddenly the fact you haven’t flown to 30 different countries before the age of 30 sends you into a spiral of joylessness that ends in imposter syndrome.
I love travel. Not because I feel like I need travel experiences to compete with co-workers… I’ve just always felt the pull of wanting to travel, before I had even stepped off a plane for the first time at 17. Travel for me has always been about the joy of being free, the joy of dropping everything to escape somewhere, the joy of something new, something that, in another life, in other circumstances, I might not have had access to. The joy of going to anywhere that isn’t here, even if I need to fly to get there.
Flying for me comes down to freedom. When you’re working class, so many people around you can’t escape. They don’t have the means to escape where they live, the work they do, the poverty they live in or are surrounded by. They don’t always get to travel and see the world. Despite the tory lie that’s parroted through media, working hard doesn’t lift you out of poverty, minimum wage or council estate life. It’s down to a mixture of luck, privilege and circumstance that my parents and I have traversed into the middle-class and get to escape, to fly and explore the world.
The number of people who grow up on council estates and go on to travel abroad, attend university, own a home and live in another country are disproportionately lower than for those who don’t grow up on council estates. I couldn’t find stats to back this up, but the evidence is all around us. Ask yourself, how many people have you worked with, gone through education with, met aboard, travelled with or are friends with that grew up on a council estate or in poverty? I look around me, in my middle-class life, and I see very few people who shared a childhood like mine and I see even less of these people when I travel.
So, what about the joy of travel from another perspective?
The joy of travel to others
Activist Influencer Mikaela Loach recently travelled to her ancestral home of Jamaica. In her Instagram stories she’s talked of the joy of reconnecting with the place she was born, of spending time with her family. She talked of recognising that flying isn’t the most sustainable way to travel, so she makes flights count by trying to spend as long as possible in an area. This narrative is an important one to consider in the context of the British empire that has a far reach to places all over the world. The consequences of which mean families are split into multiple locations. Flying offers that chance to connect or reconnect with an essential part of who someone is.
Indigenous climate activist Xiye Bastide relayed recently, sometimes travel is required to get the voices and experiences of the most impacted people heard at conferences where climate legislation and policy is being set. This type of flight is deeper than authentic joy, it is about fighting for access to systemic joy, the type of joy that everyone should have the right to — clean air, water, a variety of food, freedom from violence and pollution. This is the joy of flying for your very right to live.
There’s also the joy of flying to migrate somewhere. The prospect of a new life, new opportunities. Consider also, the need to migrate to escape from war or persecution, again accessing the joy to exist and live. Malak Yassine told me she ‘grew up Palestinian which meant we had not the right to a nationality, meaning we could not travel. And we talk about travel in the construct — we are talking so far removed out of it being a fun experience. Travel was always talked about in terms of running away from war and oppression. Right now, I just became a British citizen. I finally can see travel as a luxury that I 100% plan to take, it’s not out of survival.” This is a powerful and neglected side of travel and who has access to it. Flying in this context would not be a joyful moment, but it would most definitely bring access to future systemic joys of being free from specific types of persecution. The social, emotional and mental cost of not flying into these instances is almost unfathomable.
The joyful solution
What are the alternative solutions that create more joyful and sustaining travel?
My partner and I lived in Canada for a while. When we decided to move back to the UK we looked at the potential of doing it flight free. The trip from Vancouver to Liverpool would cost us approximately 10k (for trains across the whole distance of Canada and then a ship to the UK) and take between 3–4 weeks. in the end, we took a flight that was less than $600 and took 9 hours.
Whether it’s the cost or the time, it’s clear that only the very privileged have the resources to go flight-free to anywhere in the world. Slow travel or environmentally conscious travel, especially over longer distances to places we might be culturally unfamiliar with, isn’t accessible for most people.
For anyone working, or even studying, holiday allowances aren’t compatible with sustainable travel. For anyone not working, welfare usually isn’t enough to cover high costs of travel.
There’s a whole wonderful, beautiful world and I think we should get to experience it. The more I’ve experienced the world, the more I’ve come to cherish every person, every animal, plant and ecosystem there is to be cherished, the more I’ve realised the insidiousness of capitalism. I believe travel can open our eyes to the damage our economic systems and consumption patterns create and open our hearts to start acting more seriously to protect the earth. Joy is seeing the world. It’s an injustice that we can’t do as our ancestors did and migrate slowly across a borderless land. It’s an injustice that the most accessible (monetarily and timely) way to travel contributes to the joylessness of climate change.
Ultimately, the most joyful solution, to me anyway, comes in the forms of eradicating borders, cheaper on-the-ground public transport, universal basic income and drastically increased holiday allowances. Imagine all workers had the same (paid) holiday as schools, not only would working parents be freed up for childcare and families be given more time together (separate issues but very valid and joyful reasons to do this), but people would have a week or two to slow travel semi-locally and a massive 6 week block to slow travel over a longer distance. Imagine the mental health relief this work-life balance would bring if only we had the political and economic will to make it happen.
My joyful vision of school holidays for all is paired with solutions to deter flying, such as reductions in flights, mandatory incremental taxes on flying (the tax gets more expensive with every flight you take and funds are reinvesting into ground based public transport and rewilding projects), mandatory offsetting, no new airports and expansions, no more ghost flights and no more billionaires (I’ll come back to this in a second). These are strategies that reflect a climate crisis. It doesn’t mean we can’t fly, it just means flying isn’t the main source of transport and it ensures that the richest who can afford to fly all the time pay for alternatives for those who can’t — across the whole world, not just in the UK.
As much as I think these suggestions are completely possible, I don’t think they are probable in the next 10 years given that owners of capital, generally, want us to work more for less, rather than work less for the same salary. They want bailouts and subsidies rather than paying more in taxes and they want to expand things, not detract them.
So, given that slow travel can be wildly expensive and not all that timely, is it still unethical to fly knowing we’re living in a climate crisis? Does our joy of experiencing this beautiful, incredible, diverse planet outweigh the joy we steal by flying and contributing to the crisis?
Is our joy worth someone else’s joylessness?
Every time we fly we contribute greenhouse gas emissions that then impact someone somewhere else in the world. The most devastating impacts of climate change are, generally, not being felt by people who fly, they are being felt by some of the poorest on the planet — who may not have the means to easily flee from their location, let alone fly to a new one. That seems wildly unfair when positioned like that doesn’t it? That our flights could possibly entrap someone else in joylessness who can’t even access a flight out of it.
BUT… this is a big but, we have to remember how big our footprints are and who really is causing all the joylessness that accompanies the climate crisis — drought, famine, sickness, heat waves, smog, natural disasters, women and girls committed to labour instead of accessing schooling.
A study by Oxfam estimates the richest 1% of people on Earth are responsible for twice the carbon emissions of the poorest 50 percent from 1990 to 2015. The richest 1% also have carbon footprints that are 175 bigger than the bottom 10% AND just 1% are responsible for 50% of aviation emissions.
In line with the Paris agreement, every living person would need to emit 2.3 tonnes of co2 per year by 2030 to stay within the goal of 1.5c of global warming. To be in line with this, someone in the richest 1% would need to reduce their emissions by around 97% and yet the 1% are set to exceed the target 30 times over. Similarly, the richest 10% of the global population is set to exceed the required emissions level by 9 times.
Based on this alone, it would seem the joylessness of climate change is firmly in the hands of the rich and middle classes. It’s the responsibility of these groups to cut their carbon footprints in as many capacities as possible, including reducing or ceasing flying.
Whilst flying on holiday is a problem because it produces some level of emissions, comparatively, flying a few times a year in economy is nothing compared to first class flyers and those with private jets, which are the most environmentally damaging method of transport and creates up to 5–14 times more greenhouse gas pollution than commercial planes.
Combined, private jet trips are responsible for more annual emissions than some countries. According to WingX, in 2021 there were 3.3 million private flights, the highest recorded in a single year, despite commercial flying being lower than pre-pandemic numbers.
As demonstrated by Kylie Jenner recently, some of those flights are pretty needless. She isn’t alone. Kim Kardashian, Drake and Taylor Swift have all been flagged for making frequent, short trips via private jet. 10, 15, 20 minutes flights, that would have taken at most 2 hours by car, seem to be a common occurrence among the mega wealthy. A depressing reality when people who fly less than twice a year are worrying ‘are we flying too much?’ This is why just one of the reasons we need to abolish billionaires. They have the most capacity to slow travel but instead choose the most harmful option.
If we’re looking at individual responsibility, ultimately everyone with a personal footprint over the Paris Agreement target of 2.3 tonnes of co2 per year needs to act to reduce their emissions. Although, those whose footprints vastly exceeding this, like private jet users, hold the biggest responsibility and need to do the most work. But… I also believe the average individual can only do so much. I’m someone who buys nearly everything secondhand, shops organic, grows some of my own food etc. etc. and, according to most carbon trackers, my footprint still exceeds the necessary requirements to keep us within 1.5C of warming. This is because the infrastructure around me, around us, is highly polluting and that needs to change.
The emissions of 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. And more concerning still, a third of carbon emissions can be traced back to 20 companies… all of them fossil fuel giants.
This means the biggest burden of the climate crisis is also on big polluters who take government subsidies, suppress climate science, spread climate disinformation, create marketing tactics to blame the consumer (they literally created the idea of the carbon footprint to distract us from their own responsibility), and refuse a rapid transition to green energy by divesting from fossil fuels.
A switch to green energy would see carbon emissions reduced to the point that end users wouldn’t be so burdened by figuring out how to reduce their footprint. We wouldn’t be so tied up with if flying is joyful or joyless because having a low footprint would be better integrated into the system we live in.
So… Is flying joyful or joyless?
I’m no climate scientist. I can’t cover every facet of flying and its relationship with the climate crisis. I can’t cover all the intricate solutions and policies we would need to curb aviation emissions.
I deal in joy. Which means I can express (and have done above) what I think a joyful future looks like. I can also express the reality of joy now, which is that we all bear some responsibility for the joy stolen via the climate crisis because everything we do has a carbon footprint that adds to it, including flying. But, most of us aren’t the most responsible. That rests with private jet users and fossil fuel companies who hold the biggest footprints and do very little to limit the joy they steal. These are the real joy thieves… Those who have power to create the biggest change and imbue more joy across the planet… but choose to destroy it instead.
For me, as an individual, flying is joyful but being conscious is key. I ask myself questions as a reminder…
How can I be as conscious as possible whilst still getting to experience the beauty of the world?
How can I spread my wealth to the places I visit so that others also get the opportunity to see that beauty too?
What can I be doing outside of travel that elevates the lives of people all around the world, in and out of my community?
AND, most importantly, how am I holding the biggest joy thieves accountable for the joy they steal?
We can limit our own emissions and we can do that by not flying, but we need policy and governance that will limit the emissions from the biggest emitters. For that, we need a government that recognises public will. We have to hold joy thieves accountable to the joy they steal, in whatever way we think will work.