When I decided to take this job at The Correspondent, I committed to do something I said I’d never do again: I got on an aeroplane.
I still feel horrible about it. I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again.
Now that flight shame is mainstream – 1 in 5 air travellers in high income countries now admit to flying less because of climate change, according to a recent poll – my stance isn’t as radical as it was a few years ago. That’s a good thing, because it means that at last, decades too late, we’re finally waking up.
Flying to Amsterdam to meet my new colleagues at The Correspondent was the first work-related flight I took since my 2013 vow to quit flying because of the climate. It gave me a lot of time to reflect about exactly what I would (and should) do for the climate going forward.
On the way back, our plane was routed high over Greenland, to avoid a hurricane that was crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction.
I sent some text messages back to the rest of the team:
[12:58 PM, 9/11/2019] Eric Holthaus: Flying over Greenland right now and wow, it’s emotional
[12:59 PM, 9/11/2019] Eric Holthaus: I can see the glaciers and mountains.
[1:12 PM, 9/11/2019] Tanmoy: Oh man.
[1:12 PM, 9/11/2019] Tanmoy: This is so meta.
And then, just as I was six years earlier, I was overwhelmed with emotion.
[1:16 PM, 9/11/2019] Eric Holthaus: It feels mostly just like weight. Weight of the ice, and how enormously vast it is. Weight of the extremely brief moment of flying in an airplane on a sunny day at the peak of the melt season. Weight of all of society moving full speed ahead while this enormously important thing is happening in this quiet and stunningly beautiful corner of the world.
Being absolutist about anything is a recipe for failure
To convince me to cross the ocean, The Correspondent had assured me that my emissions would be offset ten-fold, in line with their company policy for all air travel. Now, I firmly believe that the entire business model of carbon offsets is basically bullshit. The ethics of paying someone to leave their land, plant trees, and make sure they’re not cut down for 100 years so you can take a weekend vacation is morally repugnant. That was not what convinced me to come.
Now that I have young kids, I’ve learned that being absolutist about anything is a recipe for failure. I aspire to a vegan diet – I don’t buy animal products at home – but I make exceptions when I’m with family and friends if the decision would greatly inconvenience the group.
I’m caught in an internal battle of good vs. perfect. In practice, that means putting myself in an environment where I can produce the kind of clear truth-telling that’s on the right side of history.
But I’m not special. My flight across the Atlantic caused real harm that is irreparable in my lifetime. My own kids, some day, might never forgive me.
As climate advocates, we are not putting on a show
My writing style is sometimes exasperated because I can see the clarity of the science, and I can see the clarity of the ethics of how we should treat each other, but I still deeply feel these internal conflicts – like whether or not to fly. And I see everyone around me (including myself) essentially forgetting the gravity of this moment. I often write so bluntly just to remind myself that this is real. I am in a battle with myself, and the stakes are enormously high.
When I get particularly overwhelmed, I lapse into activist language. I become impatient in my writing, I cut corners, I try to "tell without showing”, as my editor told me last week. And I think the facts and truths we are bringing to light are profound enough to stand on their own without the absolutism that traditional journalism might demand. I need to remind myself of that. Especially on climate change, especially right now.
That’s why the public criticism of people like Greta Thunberg is so grating to me. This is not a public performance. As climate advocates, we are not putting on a show. We are not doing this so you can applaud and feel good that “the kids will save us.” There is real physical harm being done by humanity’s delay in tackling this crisis, every single day.
I still feel like flying is not OK, for any reason, ever. But in this case, what got me on the plane was the promise of telling the truth in a messy, broken-hearted way.