Flight Shaming, Personal Action, and Climate Catastrophe

October 10, 2019

Above, Travel guru Rick Steves imposes a carbon tax on his tour business.


I, from time to time, as part of my mission to communicate global climate change in a comprehensive and convincing manner, fly in airplanes.

I also watch television, use a computer, drive a car, and occasionally take a hot shower.

But as George Monbiot observes below,  “The big polluters’ masterstroke was to blame the climate crisis on you and me.

While everyone should consider whether any flight actually necessary, it’s important to be aware that the low hanging fruit for climate action is still coal, oil, and gas, in that order.  In the meantime, while carbon free flight is further off,  we’re a lot closer to disruptive technology in the airline industry than most people think.

I would add, we’re not in this predicament because scientists fly to remote areas to do research, go to conferences, or, to be sure, because Grandmothers fly to see their grandchildren, or honeymooners visit the Caribbean.
We’re here because we’ve been using huge amounts of coal, oil, and gas for 200 years, and the companies who control that production recognized 50 years ago that there were problems on the horizon, but chose a deliberate policy of concealing, distorting, fogging, obfuscating and confusing the settled science on that issue. And for that, they will be remembered as history’s greatest villains, leaving the Hitlers, Husseins, and Genghis Khans forgotten in the dust.


George Monbiot in The Guardian:

Let’s stop calling this the Sixth Great Extinction. Let’s start calling it what it is: the “first great extermination”. A recent essay by the environmental historian Justin McBrien argues that describing the current eradication of living systems (including human societies) as an extinction event makes this catastrophe sound like a passive accident.

While we are all participants in the first great extermination, our responsibility is not evenly shared. The impacts of most of the world’s people are minimal. Even middle-class people in the rich world, whose effects are significant, are guided by a system of thought and action that is shaped in large part by corporations.

The Guardian’s polluters series reports that just 20 fossil fuel companies, some owned by states, some by shareholders, have produced 35% of the carbon dioxide and methane released by human activities since 1965. This was the year in which the president of the American Petroleum Institute told his members that the carbon dioxide they produced could cause “marked changes in climate” by the year 2000. They knew what they were doing.

Even as their own scientists warned that the continued extraction of fossil fuels could cause “catastrophic” consequences, the oil companies pumped billions of dollars into thwarting government action. They funded thinktanks and paid retired scientists and fake grassroots organisations to pour doubt and scorn on climate science. They sponsored politicians, particularly in the US Congress, to block international attempts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. They invested heavily in greenwashing their public image.

These efforts continue today, with advertisements by Shell and Exxon that create the misleading impression that they’re switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In reality, Shell’s annual report reveals that it invested $25bn in oil and gas last year. But it provides no figure for its much-trumpeted investments in low-carbon technologies. Nor was the company able to do so when I challenged it.

A paper published in Nature shows that we have little chance of preventing more than 1.5C of global heating unless existing fossil fuel infrastructure is retired. Instead the industry intends to accelerate production, spending nearly $5tn in the next 10 years on developing new reserves. It is committed to ecocide.

Good example of the “if you use technology and are concerned about climate you must be a hypocrite” ruse, here from climate denier Piers Morgan on “Good Morning Britain”

But the biggest and most successful lie it tells is this: that the first great extermination is a matter of consumer choice. In response to the Guardian’s questions, some of the oil companies argued that they are not responsible for our decisions to use their products. But we are embedded in a system of their creation – a political, economic and physical infrastructure that creates an illusion of choice while, in reality, closing it down.

We are guided by an ideology so familiar and pervasive that we do not even recognise it as an ideology. It is called consumerism. It has been crafted with the help of skilful advertisers and marketers, by corporate celebrity culture, and by a media that casts us as the recipients of goods and services rather than the creators of political reality. It is locked in by transport, town planning and energy systems that make good choices all but impossible. It spreads like a stain through political systems, which have been systematically captured by lobbying and campaign finance, until political leaders cease to represent us, and work instead for the pollutocrats who fund them.

In such a system, individual choices are lost in the noise. Attempts to organise boycotts are notoriously difficult, and tend to work only when there is a narrow and immediate aim. The ideology of consumerism is highly effective at shifting blame: witness the current ranting in the billionaire press about the alleged hypocrisy of environmental activists. Everywhere I see rich westerners blaming planetary destruction on the birth rates of much poorer people, or on “the Chinese”. This individuation of responsibility, intrinsic to consumerism, blinds us to the real drivers of destruction.

21 Responses to “Flight Shaming, Personal Action, and Climate Catastrophe”

  1. a-rogers Says:


    Reading Rick Steves book “Travel as a Political Act” is close to my heart. When we go to new places, places not always in our comfort zone, and meet new people, we broaden our own perspective and learn that we are all connected. There is no “them” as an enemy. My travels to Cuba and Vietnam opened my eyes, especially when the Vietnamese asked:”why is the US still fighting the war?” ann (sorry, I don’t do FB)

    • greenman3610 Says:

      agree that travel is crucial if we are going to work together as a global community.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      In general, the personal lifestyle responsibility of most people in this discussion comes down to: have less money.

      Almost all attempts to become less harmful fail when one is gripping a high income. If you spend less on meat and gas, you spend it on something that while maybe not as damaging, is still quite damaging because it happens in a civilization in which most things are done in the most damaging way possible. Extraction, exploitation, externalities are all preferred methods in our political-economic system, so everything we do harms everything.

      If you save instead, you fuel through M1/M2/+ multipliers all the worst projects of humanity. If you invest ethically, the multipliers are still at work in the distant realms your money reaches, turning money into destruction. Have less money.

      This will be much more practical in a society that takes care of its members even a quarter as well as pretty much every band and tribe ever did, for thousands of generations. Security in the form of guaranteed income (a trust fund for the 99%) universal health care, access to land and nature, workable retirement, and other strands in the safety net, will allow us all to live much more happily with much less.

      And working less does less damage and leaves us more time for slow food, gentle leisure, and slow travel.

  2. jimbills Says:

    After “have you got a tv?”, would be, “have you a phone?”, and “have you a computer?”, and “do you use any sort of petroleum product in your daily life?”, and “how did you get here?”, and on and on.

    To live in a modern industrial society requires some level of interaction with that society. What people like Piers Morgan really want is for people like the Extinction Rebellion to just go away – be so green that they are living off wild clover in the countryside, staying away from the rest of humanity, essentially shutting up, and letting people like Piers live the life they want:

    It’s good habit to limit resource and energy use wherever possible. But for perspectives about climate change to be heard in a modern industrial society requires interaction with that society – and that includes owning a tv.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      old enough to remember that auto companies had a lot to do with the fact that most of us cannot go to school, hold a job, or buy food without access to a car.
      So there’s that.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        I was surprised when I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had the backstory of the old trolleys being ripped up in L.A. That may have been the only way most people would have known about that.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Yes, it’s important to remember that one of the main results of our doing what the CEDs and ARFs and HHLs (climate and ecology deniers, anti-renewable fanatics, and high hog livers) keep trying to get us to do, is that they feel guilt and shame in our presence and try to get us not to do those things. Having been forced into unconsciousness, guilt, and shame by manipulative, secretive families (acting as agents for a manipulative, secretive society and religions of the same bent) they have no idea how to deal with those emotions and so take them out on those who force them to confront the feelings. A huge part of the fanatical resistance to acknowledging the dire reality of the ecological crisis is the black hole of splitting, denial, and projection that has formed around those emotions and realizations.

  3. Peter Scheffler Says:

    I think this is a good argument. But I’m confused. The quote from Piers Morgan (at least I think it is, there’s no link to the original) actually seems to support the argument, not try to rebut it. Can you enlighten me?

  4. Reblogged this on The Most Revolutionary Act and commented:
    We’re not in this predicament because scientists fly to remote areas to do research, go to conferences, or, to be sure, because Grandmothers fly to see their grandchildren, or honeymooners visit the Caribbean. We’re here because we’ve been using huge amounts of coal, oil, and gas for 200 years, and the companies who control that production recognized 50 years ago that there were problems on the horizon, but chose a deliberate policy of concealing, distorting, fogging, obfuscating and confusing the settled science on that issue.

  5. redskylite Says:

    Agree with the sentiments of the Monbiot piece and respondents, but we (civil society) could have made a big difference by voting for parties who recognize the problem and intend to do something about it. Too many times we did not, and the window closes.

    Still far too many people equate Climate Science with politics, and vote for ignorant parties who do not care about the problem burning fossils are causing.

    We can and should vote and empower governments that intend to act, and ignore the lure and money from fossil fuel business interests. We the people have the power to do this and are not blameless. Nor are the independent media, who we rely on for facts that affect our well-being.

    “To be truly ignorant, be content with your own knowledge.”
    ― Chuang Tzu

    Half a century of dither and denial – a climate crisis timeline:

    Fossil fuel companies have been aware of their impact on the planet since at least the 1950s


    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      My hydrogeology professor told us about the problem of getting state legislators to do something about archaic groundwater laws in Texas even though they agreed they needed to be fixed. He told us that was when he learned about the political version of NIMBY, NIMTO: Not In My Term of Office

  6. dumboldguy Says:

    More yasa-yada-yada and navel gazing—-more finger pointing and “what abouting” and excusing the inexcusable (along with some of Jeffy’s usual wordy commentary).

    Flying is a significant contributor to GHG emissions, is projected to increase substantially, and is mostly frivolous, i.e., tourism related. Anyone who flies around the world to “explore foreign cultures and get to know people better” is full of S**T and a hypocrite. Stay home and get to know the people in your own culture, especially the poor and neglected and the rich and entitled who are holding them down and destroying democracy. Seek justice at home and you will contribute to climate justice for the planet.

    (Or let’s keep navel-gazing until Mother Nature comes up to bat and destroys half or more of the humans on the planet—that will lessen the impact of consumerism and run-amok capitalism nicely. Maybe the survivors will “get real” about what needs to be done.)

    • jimbills Says:

      Give up your computer and internet, and your car, and your tv, or else you too are a hypocrite. That’s what people like Piers Morgan are saying, when it’s really just a BS argument to get them to just shut up and go away.

      Here’s the image of the day:

      That girl was a ‘hypocrite’ because she wore clothing made from oil and she had to have driven or had someone drive her to the event. Greta Thunberg is a ‘hypocrite’ for traveling all over the world in her protests. Peter is a ‘hypocrite’ when he travels around talking about wind power, and for using the internet to broadcast his thoughts and concerns.

      Everyone should just stay home, walk to their jobs and neighbors houses, and let the world do its thing. They don’t need to hear us, or see us. We should just badger our neighbors, and that will fix things. Just stay home.

      And how would we even have those homes? We need money to have them. To get that money, we need jobs. To get those jobs, we need to interact with others in this effed up society, have decent hygiene and clothing, a good reputation from others who are unlikely to have the same concerns as we do, and so on. We probably need a computer, and a phone, and a car.

      I know you see the issue here. And I don’t hold up Rick Steves as any sort of environmental hero (and he doesn’t do that himself). There is rationalizing of questionable practices taking place here. Most to all of us would be guilty of multiple cases of using energy and resources when we didn’t need to do so. But all this ‘hypocrite’ BS is just a means for people who don’t care a bit about climate change and the environment to get people who do care about it to shut up and go away.

      And yes, we absolutely should lower our own personal footprints where we can.

      Also, everything on any internet forum can be called ‘navel gazing’. Of course we are doing that. You are, too.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        “….everything on any internet forum can be called ‘navel gazing’. Of course we are doing that. You are, too”.

        True only to a point—-I do far less Navel gazing than many (if not most) on this site.

        An aside—-was cleaning up the old magazine pile, and looked through the publications from The Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and the National Parks Conservation Association, three of the many groups I belong to and support. They are all full of ads for “tours”, many of which are run by the organizations themselves. Seems a bit hypocritical to be promoting carbon-emitting travel to faraway places if you’re trying to save them.

        • jimbills Says:

          Agree with your points here.

          There is a ton of congnitive dissonance taking place within the environmental community regarding their own personal actions. It’s only excusable in that humans are humans and are rarely to never in full possession of their own impulses. “I want to go there, therefore I excuse it.”

          However, this is used as a club by arseholes who have enormous footprints to get people who care about the environment to shut up and leave them alone. Are the people who care perfect? Not at all. But they do care, and they at least are trying to get society to do something.


    • Gingerbaker Says:

      “Flying is a significant contributor to GHG emissions,”

      No, it’s not. Not even close.

      Globally, total aviation is about 2% of GHG-eq emissions. Considering there are 4 billion passengers every year and millions of cargo flights, the contribution of a single person taking a single trip is almost zero.

      And most commercial flights are also moving cargo, not just people.

      And commercial airline flights – the ones you are complaining about, only make up 1/3 of US aviation:

      The National Air Traffic Controllers Administration states that:

      “On any given day, more than 87,000 flights are in the skies in the United States. Only one-third are commercial carriers, like American, United or Southwest. On an average day, air traffic controllers handle 28,537 commercial flights (major and regional airlines), 27,178 general aviation flights (private planes), 24,548 air taxi flights (planes for hire), 5,260 military flights and 2,148 air cargo flights (Federal Express, UPS, etc.).

      That one tourism trip hardly even matters to that individual person’s carbon footprint – it’s supposedly equal to 1.6% of a person’s annual carbon footprint, about 1/25th the difference of having one less child would have every year.

      So rethink your travel shaming. There are better strategies to lower GHG emissions, even for individual people.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Ginger Bakers cognitive dissonance regarding nuclear power is exceeded only by that produced by his mindless love for aviation. Does he have any toes left to shoot off?

        He talks about ” the contribution of a single person taking a single trip is almost zero” and “That one tourism trip hardly even matters to that individual person’s carbon footprint….”

        A single person’s TWO WAY flight from London to NYC produces 4320 lb of carbon emissions, and a flight from London to Perth and back produces 13,874 lb—-a “tourism ” trip to OZ from NYC is not “supposedly equal to 1.6% of a person’s annual carbon footprint” but to ~32% of the average American’s 43,600 lb annual footprint. The NYC-London jaunt is about 10%. Do the math and get your facts in order, GB


    • redskylite Says:

      That is good advice, especially for local stimulation of economies, I don’t see the critical need for people to travel to meetings, symposiums etc. in the days of excellent and advanced internet software and communications.

      Meanwhile we can hope that speedy advances can be made to air travel using bio-fuels, hydrogen and electricity, in place of fossils.


      Climate change: Big lifestyle changes are the only answer:

      “Here, the report says policy-makers need to focus on the 15% of the population that are estimated to take 70% of flights.

      It calls for an “Air Miles Levy” to discourage what it calls “excessive flying”, something the Committee on Climate Change has already proposed.

      The idea is to penalise frequent flyers, while not raising prices for people taking an annual holiday.

      It says air miles and frequent flier reward schemes have to go and passengers need to be given much more information about the emissions generated by flights.”


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