Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Cost-Benefit Analysis Of Air Travel, Or Am I Just Another Hypocrite?

Having just returned from a 10-day visit to England, my first and my wife's third, the hypocrisy of my use of air travel is not lost on me. Well-known as the worst carbon-emitting form of transportation, jets pose a moral dilemma for all of us who claim to care about the environment. However, despite recognizing how personally and environmentally compromising such travel is, I doubt that this will be my last trip abroad.

I could argue that my infrequent use of airplanes is compensated by the measured steps I take in my daily life to reduce my carbon footprint, but they hardly balance the equation. In many ways, I guess I am no different from those who refuse to use their cars sparingly, who profligately and heedlessly make discretionary energy-intensive purchases, and who put their own comforts, conveniences and wishes above all others.

Ah, but the benefits and perspectives conferred by travel are ones that I cannot resist. I will likely address some of them in the future.

Perhaps to assuage my conscience, I would like to direct you to Star ethicist Ken Gallinger's column in today's paper.

A reader writes:
I lie awake thinking about climate change and air travel. As a means of transport, planes create the worst carbon footprint, yet no one cares. Carbon emissions are destroying the earth, yet friends feel entitled to warm vacations or unnecessary business travel. Years ago I committed to flying as rarely as possible, but it’s hard. For Canada’s 150th, we want to visit the new Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Is it ever ethically defensible to fly?
Gallinger attempts to put the question into a wider perspective, one that may not actually fully address the morality of optional travel:
Sometimes this column puts me in a conflict of interest. Since “retiring,” my wife and I travel a lot, so I won’t pretend this is a disinterested response.

Having confessed to frequent flying, I invite you to join me on a “fantasy flight,” perhaps from Toronto to London, England. Let me introduce our fellow travellers.

See those 30 teenagers in the front rows? They’re small-town high school kids, on their way to Vimy Ridge. They’ll be stunned by the monument, but more to the point, they’ll be brought to tears by the sacrifice, dignity and sheer valour of Canadian kids not much older than themselves.

Observe the couple in 33B and C. His arm’s wrapped around her? Well, her mum is dying over in Jolly Ol’, and she’s praying to arrive in time for a final goodbye. It’s a particularly long flight, though she’s made it many times.

Look over there: 24F. He’s a worldfamous cellist, returning to Vienna after a sold-out performance at Roy Thomson. The thunderous ovation still rings in his ears — or maybe that’s just pressure at 33,000 feet. 18G? The nervous-looking young woman? She’s a nurse from Yellowknife, working with Médecins Sans Frontières and heading for her first assignment in Pakistan. She’s never been away from home before.

The quiet man in 27C? He’s connecting at Heathrow, flying to his ancestral home in Kenya. He’s Canadian, but he returns regularly to this tiny community, helping build a school for girls. A Scarborough church helps out financially; others do, too. But he’s the one who goes, and without his journey of hope, the project would die.
Can the broadening effects of travel be an ample justification and an effective counterbalance to the ignorance that so many seem to embrace today?
Is it ever ethically defensibly to fly? Of course it is. We live in an interconnected world.

Our stories, our families, our hopes and fears are interlaced with faraway places, and despite the occasional backwash of parochialism such as south of the border, there’s no turning back. The globe is our workshop, playground, farm — our heritage and our home.

That doesn’t mean we can ignore environmental implications of air travel, any more than the costs of recreational boating, going for a Sunday drive, bearing children or eating a steak. Air travel is costly, so we need to weigh decisions carefully, avoid flying when feasible and support attempts to mitigate environmental damage. But history shows that living in silos of national, ethnic or religious isolation has a cost too — a cost that is, perhaps, even greater.

Fly to Winnipeg. See the museum. Walk the Forks. Wave to the Golden Boy. Eat Real Perogies.

Just wait till the ice melts, the Jets have again missed the playoffs, the floods recede and the mosquitoes die. There are three or four days in August when the ’Peg is a lovely city.


  1. I gave up air travel, Lorne, because I had my fair share in the 60s through the 80s. I lived in Britain and for a while in Spain from the late 60s into the early 70s. Pretty much most of what I experienced then is gone. I remember visiting the henge on Salisbury Plain in the pre-dawn hours a day or two after the Equinox and watching, virtually alone, the sunrise. It's all cordoned off now. Visitors are kept away at a "safe" distance.

    The little coastal town I worked at in southern Spain was then a fishing village with a magnificent stretch of sandy beach. Today it's a wall of high rise condos. You don't see the beach any more. That village is now full of drunks wandering the streets barfing their guts out.

    I used Google Street to check out my old digs in East Dulwich. That was in my day a very pleasant, clean working class neighbourhood. Today it stands transformed, gentrified. It's amazing what bags of money will accomplish.

    The British pub is in decline. High Street shops have given way to laundromats and mini-cab depots. The High Street is said to be an endangered species. People shop Big Box today so I'm told.

    Even the legendary Dirty Dick's pub at Bishop's Gate has been gentrified. The docklands are gone replaced by Canary Wharf and waterfront condos. So much of the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras is now gone.

    All things considered, I've had my fair share of travel and I'm glad I took the time to do it when I did. It's the turn of others now and I don't begrudge anyone taking the opportunities I had.

    1. It sounds like you had some very enriching experiences, Mound, ones that I am sure enhanced your life. When I was young, for a variety of reasons I had little opportunity to travel, and really did almost none until after I retired.

      Now, as time slips away, I find my interest in international peregrinations is rather limited, but I would like to explore Britain further. My father's parents were from there, and we have a niece who, with her husband and children, emigrated to Cambridge for job opportunities.

      What I discovered during my brief stay there was an affinity both for the culture and the values that in some ways are so much like our own. Particularly refreshing was getting away from the American-centric media we are bombarded with. I suspect many Americans visiting would be disappointed in the Brits' lack of acknowledgement of the U.S. as the centre of the universe.