Flightless Travel

Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee  set out on an adventure around  the world by cargo ship, train and road to understand how people were responding to the Climate Crises and to experience alternatives to the high carbon activity of flying.

It started with An Inconvenient Truth. After watching Al Gore’s documentary, we used a carbon calculator to figure out our emissions footprint. We answered some basic questions about our lifestyle, hit “calculate,” and were shocked to find that our emissions were much higher than the US average. Why was the software making us look so bad? After all, we don’t own a car, we eat mostly vegetarian, and compost religiously. A deeper look revealed the culprit: Air travel. A trip for two to New York and back had the climate impact of driving for six to eight months, while our annual family trip to India was the equivalent of driving for two years. Our air travel was killing us, totally undoing every other effort we were making to live sustainably. Forget the Hummer drivers — we were just as much to blame for climate change.

As Indians, and as Bengalis, the likely impacts of climate change looms large in our minds. Bangladesh and India are #1 and #2 on the list of countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts between now and 2040, per Maplecroft research. We wanted to learn first-hand from global activists and policymakers about impacts of and responses to climate change–but knowing the massive impact of aviation emissions (4.9% of the human impact on the climate comes from planes), couldn’t justify flying to these places to talk to people about climate change. Global warming is about numbers. If we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent by 2050, we can’t ignore the fast-growing aviation sector. If the global aviation industry were a country, it would be one of the half dozen biggest emitters in the world, yet it remains unregulated and largely unacknowledged in international policy discussions. On a personal level, having taken flying for granted for so long, we wondered what it might feel like to live without it. Could one realistically travel long distances any other way?

We spent the 2009-2010 year trying to find out, challenging ourselves to try to get around the world without setting foot in an airplane, while at the same time learning about global climate and transportation challenges from local activists around the world.

We set sail from Seattle aboard a cargo ship on which we were the only two passengers, arriving in Japan after ten days. We savored the slow pace of our journey, devoid of internet and phone, filling our days with books, conversation, writing, and ocean gazing. Having crossed it mile by mile at ground level, we gained a new appreciation for how incredibly massive the Pacific Ocean is. A ferry to China, trains to Vietnam, and buses to Cambodia and Thailand — traveling flight-free was beginning to look pretty easy. The locals didn’t need planes to get from city to city, so why should we? Then suddenly it all changed. We had traveled halfway across the planet flight-free, but couldn’t figure out how to get from Thailand to nearby India without flying so Anirvan could see his 93-year-old grandfather. Security restrictions, winter weather, and the tyranny of aviation-oriented development had eliminated every alternative route. We eventually took a flight to India, breaking our fast. We told ourselves we were flying “love miles,” climate-damaging trips taken in the name of those we love. Growing up in a family of transnational immigrants, our personal history is deeply connected with the democratization of air travel — countless flights to and from India, Canada, Nigeria, and the United States. Like many immigrants our stories begin and end in airports. As we continued our journey, we came to the painful realization that these love miles would be the hardest to give up and personal sacrifice alone could not provide a satisfactory systemic solution. And yet, the very countries we were flying to were the most threatened.

We eventually returned to China, where we continued our journey aboard the legendary trains of the Trans-Siberian Railway. After making our way across Russia, we went to Ukraine, then by ferry across the Black Sea to Turkey, and then another ferry across the Adriatic to Italy. Overland seemed easy again: We marveled at the sophisticated bus system in Turkey and the ease of train travel in Europe.

The stories of the people we met on the road enriched our travels. In Japan, we talked to NGOs assessing the new government’s climate policies, and learned how climate change had altered the timing of cherry blossom season. In Vietnam, we were inspired by the emerging wave of youth climate activists, bravely trying to avert a future where rising seas might swallow half the nation’s rice paddies by 2100. We admired their optimism, focusing on achievable adaptation goals, even as they know that their future is being decided by a handful of top-emitting countries like the U.S., India, and China. In London, we were inspired by young activists doing Gandhian civil disobedience against the nation’s dirtiest climate polluters, risking arrest and imprisonment to help ensure that emissions stay within the range that global scientific consensus deems safe.

We continued to be inspired and impressed by the young climate activists we met everywhere we went. We were struck by how similar the analysis of young climate activists were. Whether in Dhaka or London, Berlin or Saigon, we heard a common demand that governments pay attention to peer-reviewed science, as they work toward a deal that’s fair, ambitious, and binding. Young climate activists will often ask climate negotiators a simple question: “how old will you be in 2050?” A bureaucrat who will be long dead by mid-century won’t need to deal with the reality of living in a world of climate crisis. Young people aren’t stupid. They’ve done the cost-benefit analyses, and are willing to face some short-term economic pain if it means averting the possibility of living in a world where India will face greater food crises, Bangladesh will face rising sea levels, Pakistan will face even bigger floods.

In India we were particularly impressed by the work of the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN), which manages to work toward positive sustainable visions of the future while working to build a mass base and engaging the government around policy issues which will fundamentally shape the lives of Indians in decades to come. While the climate action and climate justice communities in India are just as savvy as those anywhere else on the planet, government and media have failed in making the general public aware of the need for climate security measures, and the fact that climate change (the single biggest crisis on the planet) will have disproportionate impacts on India. Cross-border terrorists can’t cause floods, droughts, or rising sea levels; climate change can. We need to address the climate crisis as a top critical threat to Indians, rather than as an obscure scientific issue to be solved by technocrats.

Our last stop was London, home of the world’s biggest movement against aviation emissions. We interviewed participants in the decade-long struggle to prevent an expansion of Heathrow Airport, the most visible battlefront against an industry spewing 11 percent of British greenhouse gas emissions. Campaign organizers brought together impacted Heathrow neighbors and environmental direct action activists, green economists and Tory environmentalists. When the new Conservative government was elected, one of its first moves was to shut down Heathrow’s expansion.

A Trans-Atlantic container ship journey, a cross-country trip on Amtrak, and we finally found ourselves back home, the culmination of a year of (almost) no flying. We returned deeply inspired by the movement challenging the limitless growth of aviation pollution.

Since our return we have continued to work on the issue of aviation emissions but with a broader and deeper perspective. We found our allies in airport neighbors who had been fighting the local impacts of aviation, especially related to noise and pollution. We found community organizers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle, all fighting to combat the most immediate impacts that our flying has on their lives. With these communities we formed the Aviation Justice coalition to work for a just aviation industry and advocate for alternatives to an unsustainable system. Our first task will be to raise awareness among the general public about the damaging effects of flying.

And now everywhere we look, we see aviation oriented development raising it’s ugly head and being allowed at the expense of everyone else. The two current airport projects in Mumbai, clearly illustrates that airport development benefits a privileged few and promotes an unsustainable activity. The expansion at the existing Chattrapathi Shivaji Airport will displace approximately 85000 people who will never see the inside of a plane. The new airport at Navi Mumbai will displace 17 villages and destroy 420 acres of Mumbai’s fast shrinking wetlands that are it’s natural defense against flooding, erosion, sea level rise and a resource that also provides carbon sequestration. The Mumbai airport projects are actively destroying communities and natural resources and also promoting increased flying an activity with high GHG emissions that will only help accelerate climate change.

While only about 5 percent of humanity flies, aviation impacts the temperature of the whole planet, and with it, our common future. We will need change that is personal and systemic to fight this industry which to those of us who fly appears inevitable. We hope that future generations will live in a world beyond dirty aviation where they can uniformly enjoy the efficiency of high-speed rail, the decadence of slow travel, the connectedness of ubiquitous videoconferencing, and the comfort of having created fewer climate refugees. We lived in that world during our year of no flying and we loved it.

Read about the links between aviation and climate change at www.aviationjustice.org, and dispatches from their year documenting global climate movements at www.yearofnoflying.com

Barnali Ghosh


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