Friday, August 01, 2008

The end of flying

Almost a year ago I participated in the Heathrow Climate Camp. I never got to write a long blog entry about it - having to move house and the PhD write-up took higher priority. I still have my notes from last year; I hope to do something with them one day.

The declared goal of the camp was to stop the construction of a Heathrow 3rd runway, and to draw attention to the damage of aviation to the climate. The battle on the runway is still not concluded.

Most of the talks I went to in the camp did not deal specifically with aviation, but when speakers referred to it, it was clear that ending aviation as we know it is essential to stop climate change. At the same time, airplanes were taking off over our heads every 50 seconds; we were sitting in the heart of fly-mad Europe, cheap airlines heaven, tickets at 1p to places you never heard of.

Despite all the enthusiasm and optimism that activists' gatherings often generate, I could not imagine the aviation industry shutting down because of environmental concerns. In 'business as usual' scenarios, emissions from airport expansions would offset a considerable amount of the emissions cuts planned in the UK, if not all. But I could not see any chance of governments taking steps to prevent this. I could also not see a chance of convincing a large enough section of the population to stop flying.

I know a couple of people who decided to stop, or severely limit their flights due to global warming concerns. I respect and admire their choice, but never believed this is a viable course of action. Citizens of rich countries were never going to give up the right to fly. Governments were never going to make their voters angry in such a way.

But flying as we have known it in the last decade is going to come to an end. High oil prices have come to the rescue. 25 airlines have closed in the last year, and still more will follow. Fuel price hikes have taken all their profits away; no airline can make a profit at oil prices above $100 a barrel. British Airways are changing their plans so that they can survive at $150 p/b: this means less flights, higher prices, and emphasis on business class. But what happens when oil reaches $200p/b - and it will, in the next five years? Flying again is becoming a luxury that only upper middle class families will be able to afford.

Peak Oil - the end of the cheap oil era, the stagnating and falling oil production around the world - is not going to save us from climate change, or end this car-based-civilisation; much can go wrong. But aviation is about to become a dead horse. For environmentalists, focusing on an industry going bust does not make much sense anymore (still it would be good to prevent spending public money on expanding airports that will never be used - and the chances to stop Heathrow's 3rd runways are better than they were last year). Instead I believe activists should focus on other things: fighting the comeback of coal; pushing renewable energy, and public transport; and perhaps most urgently, stopping food-based biofuels.

What is important however is that the end of flying is understood for what it is: not a temporary hardship, caused by evil speculators and oil companies. Neither it is, as some would put it, a problem of 'geological constraints', the fact that we are running out of a natural resource; rather this is the logical result of a reckless way of living; a civilisation which is consuming all it can for short-term profit; a cannibalistic system which burns what it finds today and thinks not about tomorrow.

11 comments:

bad botten said...
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mink said...

I admire people's willingness to pay a personal price in order to live according to their political and moral beliefs, "to walk the talk".

If you think that aviation is bad for humans' future, then it's best if you live up to your moral standards, and don't wait until someone tells you not to fly.

Setting an example of sustainable way of living is important. But in this case I did not think that it was in any way possible to wean people of flying by explaining the climate consequences or setting a personal example.

As for cheap flights - you are right, of course, about deregulation, but should add internet booking into the list of factors. Cheap oil didn't create these companies, but expensive oil is going to kill them.

bad botten said...
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bad botten said...
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mink said...

botten
I thank you for the discussion, this is something I often think about, and I do not have clear-cut answers.

Let me begin by saying that both individuals I mentioned are simply not your hate-figures of sanctimonious holier-than-thou. Both do not preach to others to stop flying, or wear proudly 'I don't fly' stickers. They made a personal decision to stop flying, based on their understanding of the issues at stake, and - if you press them - they will explain why. This is very different from preaching.

My post talked about a cannibalistic system/ civilisation/way of living - all these are very different from individuals. We all partake in this way of living, whether we want it or not. No one attacked you personally, or anyone, for flying, using plastic bags, or whatever.

I share your dislike of green consumer choice. Unfortunately it pervades much of the environmentalist discourse, and indeed the industry is booming and the righteousness premium is great for business. This no doubt encourages distasteful smugness. I agree that we need to act as political subjects rather than consumers.

I am also not a big fan of Kant's Categorical Imperative, according to which you should act only in a way that should become a universal law. The 'what if everybody behaved like this?' attitude seems to me flawed in some important ways, it ignores the social setting of our actions and the system in which we live.

Nevertheless, I don't follow your 'statistical logic'. In German they have the word "konsequent" - which means someone who follows her/his principals and understanding of the world in their personal lives, that is, someone that lives up to the consequences of their beliefs. If you believe that the aviation industry forms a grave and acute danger and needs to be shut down, and then you take a flight to Europe every month, that would seem to me contradictory. If you think driving SUV's is a criminal waste of resources, and then buy one yourself, because you can afford to, that would seem to me strange. If you talked against the exploitation of labour in poor countries, and then went on to buy coffee that was purchased from its producers for cut-throat prices - when fairly-traded coffee is available and affordable - it would seem to me inconsistent. In all of these cases your contribution in one way or another is marginal. Your decision will not solve global problems. But the question remain if you live according to your understanding and principles. In addition, if you were ever serious about mobilising a broad political base towards action, these contradictions would make it more difficult. If you campaign for higher taxes on aviation (which at least one of the two persons mentioned does) and then - let's say - you continue to take flights regularly, because you can afford to, a lot of people that will not be able to afford flying anymore would become angry and see it as a class war rather than environmental action.

bad botten said...
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mink said...

botten
your style appears rather smug and condescending - is this for the purpose of being amusing? Are you parodying yourself?

Your basic assumption is that statstical marginality saves one from personal responsibility. This is one that I do not share. I am not sure you have a concept of personal responsibility at all, or what it is linked to. But I think people who know the consequences of their actions should face up to their responsibility. There are various ways to do so, but responsbility nonetheless exists. Again, - for example - if I bought sweatshop-made shoes - I would say that I was personally ripping off the people who made them.

Is it not the case? Why? Because everybody does that? Because the exploitation is indirect? (the same argument is used by corporations that outsource their produciton. Why are you different? because your order one pair of shoes, not 100 or 100,000? when does responsibility start?)

By accepting responsibility one cannot escape the system and the relations of production and consumption, but one can reach some kind of "understanding" as you put it. And then, there is the question of what to do about it. To me it seems that if you want to fight against something, supporting it actively is a strange way to do so.

bad botten said...
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bad botten said...
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mink said...

After all this yadda yadda about intense dislikes and irritations beyond measure... what you say does not add up. You can't mock the notion that one's actions have meaningfull impact on the environment, and then go on to criticise people for not voting. One's vote is as inconsequental to the general elections result as is frequent flying to global carbon emissions. Your anarchist friends should have voted, but it wouldn't have been enough to stop Mrs. Thatcher.

as to your gleeful reaction to falling oil prices: yes, the only thing that could have brought oil prices down has happened - we now have a severe global recession, ahead of peak oil. Great, wonderful news. It doesn't change much for the aviation industry: as the recession bites in , far less people would be able to afford flying.

bad botten said...
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