When you don’t know you’re doing something for the last time for a while, you don’t make it a point of searing it into memory.
On the day of my last flight heading on a hybrid vacation/work trip (90% vacation, if we’re being honest) to Hawaii in November 2019, I don’t remember the weather at takeoff in New York. I vaguely remember the layover in Los Angeles, grabbing food at the Lemonade in the JetBlue terminal. There was a young dad and his kid at the table next to me, and I think I spent a good portion of my meal trading goofy faces, though I can’t be 100% sure. Though I don’t have the specific memory, I can almost feel the sticky tropical air of Honolulu’s open-air terminal turn my jeans into a suction cup around my calves. I may have kicked off my shoes for flip flops stashed in my carry-on upon disembarking from the plane. The flight home from the Big Island to New York is even more of a black hole, aside from a mental snapshot of watching the northern tip of the island pass below the window and then the uninterrupted blue.
The trip itself was, thankfully, much more memorable. There was a house with a fireplace and a bowl of freshly harvest avocados and papaya tucked into the rainforest near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. A stay on an organic farm with the tiniest Siamese cat I have ever seen, named Fairy, who we just decided should be Kitty. Heat radiating off a black sand beach, building around ankles. The puckering kiss of passionfruit on the pallet. A Gadsden flag sticking up above the lava flows from the 1990 Kīlauea eruption, the lush greenery interrupted by basalt from the 2018 eruption, which I had written about from thousands of miles away. Standing on the flanks of the tallest mountain on Earth. Holding the weight of human history. (Even the work part was profound.)
When my wife, a fellow climate person, and I set off for the Big Island, we were conflicted. Commercial aviation accounts for around 3% of all global carbon pollution. The emissions associated with our flights combined to 5,634 pounds (2,555 kilograms). We live in New York, a city home to residents with some of the smallest carbon footprints in the U.S. We also eat mostly vegetarian, take public transit nearly everywhere, and do all the other climate-people things, so I like to think we’re ahead of the game.
The flight was a huge decision, as it meant blowing out our carbon budget for the year. We considered that it could be our last to Hawaii. Little did we know that in just a few months, the rest of the world would be forced to stop taking vacations, too, as the covid-19 pandemic brought the aviation industry to a screeching halt.
When the pandemic struck and it was unclear what the vaccine timetable would be, the prospect of not flying for a while felt completely fine. In fact, I started to envision a life where I became one of those no-fly people. Before the pandemic, I thought of them like the vegans who come out of the woodwork for any story about eating meat (or fish): well-intentioned but ultimately a hindrance to their cause because such a singular focus and holier-than-thou attitude leads to more haters than joiners. There’s a Twitter account that reaches out to me every few months to ask if I have given up flying, and despite being a fairly peaceful person, I would like to throw whoever runs it into a digital trash can. (I don’t believe in blocking or muting people unless they are truly vile.) But still, as someone who grasps the dangers to the climate of carefree air travel, I can understand the reasons for wanting to stop flying.
In a world where people have bucket lists of places they want to see before they die—including myself—a no-fly life is a tough sell. Of course, so is the prospect of leaving your children a planet where they’ll be battling over the last pool of muddy water instead of planning their visit to the Coliseum.
My will to become a no-fly person has wavered in recent weeks, though. As the world opens back up, including the first day with 2 million passengers in the U.S., I suddenly can’t help but think of boarding a flight. Some good friends are suggesting a trip to Barbados. I find myself daydreaming of the Big Island. Or the Dolomites. Or why not Patagonia?
Though I have a bucket list, I’ve long ago resigned myself to the idea that I will never be able to see everything I want, both because I care about the climate and also because I am not exactly rolling in money and free time. But the urge to see something new is tough to kick. I think it’s truly impressive that those who have given up flying have found other ways to scratch that itch.
There are plenty of arguments for the benefits of flying despite the toll. Seeing the world opens your mind to new possibilities, builds empathy and solidarity, and keeps people dependent on tourism for their livelihoods in business. You can also make the climate case that the average flyer isn’t necessarily the problem. Frequent flyers and those in business class and above are by far the biggest individual culprits in destroying the planet. Airlines themselves are also to blame, offering questionable carbon credits to assuage individuals’ guilt so they keep buying tickets. In United’s case, the company recently announced they would be used as part of a way to justify buying even more polluting supersonic aircraft. Institutions like the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations body that oversees airlines, are also failing by setting incredibly weak carbon standards for companies using, you guessed it, crappy carbon credits.
Hell, airlines were sending empty “ghost flights” streaking across European airspace early in the pandemic because of competition rules to reserve slots at airport gates. Regulators eventually addressed it—and in the year since, the French have gone even further to encourage lower-carbon train transportation instead of short-haul flights—but clearly the system we’ve created is broken. With no major fixes like high-speed rail across the U.S. or hydrogen-powered planes on the immediate horizon, there are simply no good choices; you can choose to not fly or just suck it up and pay your climate penance in other ways.
At the end of the day, I firmly believe we have a responsibility to demand accountability for both institutions and ourselves. The main point of Earther is the former—to hold institutions accountable by pointing out the failures and injustices of our current economic system, particularly when it comes to the climate. And this post is a bit of the latter.
While I haven’t perfected the art of deriving maximum joy from exploring a smaller patch of the world compared to savoring the kiss of Pacific salt air on my face, 17 months on the ground has opened me up to the possibility. I went to the beach a few weeks ago and reveled in the frigid Atlantic shocking the breath out of me. I read a great blog about making nocino, a walnut-infused amaro, and am already planning on foraging for black walnuts in Central Park come fall. I’m also planning a kayaking trip with my cousin, and if the Canadian border opens, maybe even a road trip to visit my in-laws.
All that said, I may hop a plane to Barbados at some point. But while I was already an increasingly infrequent flyer even before the pandemic, I see no reason to discontinue that trend. And if being ground for the past year-plus has shown me anything, it’s that I can live with that.