Could 'Flygskam' Change the Way We Travel?

CC BY 2.0. T.CSH

The Swedish word, which translates to 'flight shame', is driving interest in climate-friendly trains, longer stays, and frequent flier taxes.

'Flygskam' is the latest Scandinavian word to become popular, thanks to social media. But this time it's not about cozy, cuddly, relaxing feelings, but rather pinpointing that icky feeling you get when you board a plane, knowing how terrible it is for the environment. Thus, the literal translation from Swedish: flight shame.

The anti-flying movement is gaining traction in Europe, thanks to a few key influencers. Björn Ferry, a 2010 Olympic biathlete, has replaced air travel with overnight trains across Europe. One news outlet reports that his boycott of air travel has triggered "a huge movement of like-minded travellers in the Scandinavian country – a really remarkable fact, considering how the Swedes are one of the world's most frequent flyers: they fly seven times more than average Europeans."

Another famous non-flying Swede is young activist Greta Thunberg, who insisted on taking a 32-hour train ride to the World Economic Forum in Davos, a stark contrast to the private jets that delivered 1,500 leaders to the same climate summit.

Accompanying the rise in flight shame is 'tagskryt', or train bragging, where train journeys are glamorized and made to look trendy on social media. A Facebook group swapping tips and stories about train travel has swelled from 4,000 to almost 90,000 members in the past 16 months, and Sweden's rail lines have seen a significant surge in sales. Reset reports,

"Interrail tickets were also more popular in Sweden in 2017 than they have been for a long time; around 50 percent more tickets were purchased than in the year before. By comparison, bookings for air travel fell by three per cent."

Meanwhile in the UK, Green Party leader Sian Berry shared in a recent interview that she hasn't boarded a plane since 2005 and that she'd welcome the introduction of a frequent fliers' tax. She described it: "One way of reducing demand for air travel is a frequent flier levy, that would allow everybody to take one flight a year for no extra tax, and then it increases a lot... One flight a year seems fairly reasonable to me."

The Guardian interviewed a number of people who are adhering to personal no-fly resolutions, such as the environmental sociologist who had to take a month off work to travel by train to China to do climate research. (It took him two weeks both ways.) Several families described vacation destinations that took several days to reach by train, but were positive experiences overall. The key is to learn to enjoy the journey, to think of it as part of the trip, rather than expecting to be dropped into a foreign place.

I can't help but think that it's easier to make a no-fly pledge when you live in Europe, a continent that's fortunate to be covered with intricate train lines. Here in vast Canada, it's pretty much impossible to get anywhere by train, unless you're moving from one major city to another (and we only have a handful of those). But then, the rise in flygskam could be a good incentive to improve and develop train lines everywhere, diverting money that would otherwise be used to expand airports to this new, more climate-friendly purpose.

While I'm not yet at the point of being able to swear off air travel completely, I have been thinking long and hard about how to balance it better in my life. I don't claim to have perfect solutions, nor do I assume what works best for other people, but I have cut out meat from my diet since returning home from Turkey last month in an effort to offset my desire to travel. I've also been thinking about how to take longer trips, after noticing that the European tourists I met in Istanbul were there for several weeks, compared to the Americans who stayed for only 2-3 days. There was a stark contrast in the way different cultures approach their vacations, and I think we could all benefit from the lengthier, slower-travel approach that treats a trip like an annual project, rather than a long weekend getaway.

Last words go to Maja Rosén, a Swede who stopped flying in 2008 and recently decided not to stay quiet any longer when friends brag about flying. She told the Guardian,

"People don’t realise that what they do as an individual is so important because it affects those around them. If you keep flying, all your friends will as well. You contribute to the norm. But if you decide to give up flying or take a flight-free year, that makes others reflect."

It's time for us all to reflect.