"In November 2006, I sat at the back of the Barn Cinema, Dartington, and watched ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘. It had such an impact on me that by the time it ended, I had decided that I couldn’t just leave the cinema without marking the event by making some kind of change in my life. I decided that evening not to fly again, and I haven’t flown since. "
That's how Rob Hopkins opens up a post exploring why he is reneging on his commitment never to fly again.
Up until now, Rob has been building one of the most prolific grassroots environmental movements of our time through overland travel, video interviews, teleconferencing and email exchanges with folks like yours truly. But that's about to change, at least partially.
Unlike me, who once swore never to fly again, and then fell in love with an American woman (now my wife) on my supposedly last trip ever, Hopkins is less concerned with romantic love, and more concerned with doing the right thing. Having recently watched Chasing Ice, he's convinced we need to start being more strategic in distinguishing between our personal carbon footprints and interventions to the collective trajectory we are on. Here's his reasoning:
The fact is that at a time in history when we desperately need to cut emissions sharply, we all have a responsibility to re-evaluate behaviour we undertake that normalises, for those around us, ways of acting that generate high levels of emissions. As Sandberg puts it, “while it may not typically be wrong of me to drive or fly, then, it may be wrong of us to do so and we must therefore seek ways of coordinating our environmental efforts more effectively”. I will still not fly for holidays or family reasons, to conferences, for pretty much any reasons. However I have decided, through discussions with those I work with, that passing 400 ppm, the extent of the climate crisis, means that it is time to get back on a plane, in cases where the benefits can be seen as outweighing the impacts.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am 100% convinced that Rob is making the right decision. To be honest, while I applaud his abstinence from flying for personal reasons, I'd even support him if he confessed that he'd decided to fly to visit a family member in Canada, or take a beach vacation in Hawaii.
As I argued recently in my piece on environmental "hypocrisy" being both inevitable and irrelevant, I've come to believe that environmentalists talk too much about personal footprints, beating each other up over our supposed transgressions against the ideal of a low carbon lifestyle in a world that encourages the opposite.
While we must indeed find ways to "walk our talk" as best we can, the primary relevance of choices like biking, growing our own food or eschewing flying are in their capacity as levers for broader cultural or political change. As such, they are best thought of as voluntary positive actions, not mandatory "tests" for being good enough to join the movement.
By focusing too strongly on the ethics of each personal lifestyle decision, I fear we lose many a would-be environmentalist who would support policy-level action to transition to a low carbon culture which in itself would do more to discourage fossil fuel use and overconsumption than any individual lifestyle decision ever will.
Should the vegan who flies to her yearly yoga retreat be at odds with the meat eater who never sets foot on a plane? Should the car-driving commuter who grows all his own food consider himself superior to the telecommuter with a thing for fast food? Or should they acknowledge their status as flawed, contradictory and complex beings (aka humans) and then organize to change the rules of the playing field so that doing the right thing becomes the default, not the heroic exception?
We need to build the broadest social movement in history. You don't do that by pointing fingers at those who would join you.