Sweden Has Invented a Word to Shame People for Flying

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The stigma surrounding air travel is taking a toll on the industry. Wang An Qi/Shutterstock

With parts of their country huddled in the Arctic circle, it's little surprise that Swedes have long relied on air travel to warm their frozen toes in milder southern climes.

The mass exodus from northern Europe to, well anywhere south, usually begins towards the end of summer, peaking as winter casts entire days in darkness.

But today, more and more Swedes are taking the long way out of town — as in, by train car or boat. Anything but a plane. A big reason for that is the growing stigma around planes as a source of planet-warming gases. With some 20,000 planes in service around the world — and 50,000 expected to be in the air by 2040 — you can imagine the growing burden air travel heaps on our increasingly unhappy atmosphere.

Many Swedes certainly do. In fact, air travel has become a subject of such shame and scorn there's even a word for it: flygskam, which translates literally to "flight shame."

It's all adding up to fewer passengers at airports, as Swedes clamor to train and bus stations instead. (And if you happen to like the train, you can take pride in the newly minted term "tågskry," which literally translates as "train brag.")

Local flights, in particular, are feeling the flygskam. The number of domestic passengers dropped 5 percent in October after dropping 15 percent in April, compared with the same months last year.

Look who's leading the charge

Greta Thunberg holds a microphone during a Fridays for Future protest in Hamburg
Greta Thunberg, seen here at a Fridays for Future protest in Hamburg, Germany, in March, started the student protest movement. Adam Berry/Getty Images

What's more, one in four Swedes surveyed cite the environment as the biggest reason for keeping their feet on the ground. It also helps when celebrities like opera singer Malena Ernman publicly declare they won't fly again.

And who wouldn't be swayed by the passion of her daughter, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg? The famed climate activist hasn't set foot on a plane since 2015. In fact, when Thunberg toured Europe earlier this year, it was by bus. Her round-trip journey to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, involved more than 60 hours on various trains — a jarring contrast with the record number of private jets ferrying wealthy attendees in and out of the forum. Her transportation choice to get to New York for the Climate Action Summit? Zero-carbon yacht. She'll also be riding by yacht to attend the U.N. Climate conference in Brazil, in December.

Her persistent nudging has spawned another trend, too. In what's been dubbed the "Greta Thunberg effect," growing concern about the health of the planet has spurred a spike in the purchase of carbon offsets, or credits that offset the negative impact of a trip by investing in a project that removes a similar amount of emissions.

Organizations involved in carbon offsetting have seen as much as a fourfold increase in investment from those who want to mitigate their carbon footprints, reports The Guardian. (The concept isn't without controversy, but it's one of the few options available and it's gaining ground.)

What's the impact?

sunset landing in Brussels Zaventem Airport
If people are willing to reduce their plane travel and embrace flygskam, could it change the industry?. Guido Benedetto/Shutterstock

So can environmental shaming really threaten the industry and change people's behaviors? Rickard Gustafson, chief executive of Scandinavian Airlines, seems to think so. In an interview with a Danish newspaper, he said he was convinced the flygskam movement was hurting air traffic.

Even more worrisome, at least for the industry, is the possibility that flygskam spreads its wings beyond northern Europe.

At an airline summit in Seoul earlier this year, the Swedish movement proved to be a major talking point among industry leaders.

"Unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread," Alexandre de Juniac, head of the International Air Transport Association, reportedly warned attendees.

Could flygskam soar across the ocean to North America? We could certainly use the inspiration — especially considering the vast distances trains can take us on a continent thoroughly stitched together by railroad tracks.

And even though cars aren't innocent when it comes to greenhouse gases — according to scientists, cars and trucks account for nearly a fifth of all U.S. emissions — they're getting dramatically cleaner. Even today, cars are a better environmental bet than planes.

As The New York Times points out, Americans merely have to take one round-trip flight between New York and California to produce about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases their cars generate in a year.

Of course, there's one niggling detail about the movement that doesn't get so much attention. How much vacation time do northern Europeans get? Would you be comfortable asking your boss for a month's vacation so you can take a bus to Belize?

Just tell her it's not for you. It's for the planet.