Shannon Smy’s song “Flying” on Seize The Day’s CD “The Tide Is Turning” is a heartfelt plea. In it she tells us about a friend who uses air travel reluctantly, for economic and personal reasons. She sings:
He knows flying is a climate crime
But he doesn’t have the money and he doesn’t have the time.
When it’s cheaper to fly than to park at the airport,
What would you do? What would you do?
That term, “climate crime”, is a brilliant way of referring to the way our behaviour is threatening our environment, and I can’t help wondering why, when I first heard the song a few years back, I’d never come across the term “climate crime” before, and have not heard it anywhere outside this song. Why? Surely climate change has been a topical issue for many, many years now, and there is very little disagreement about anthropogenic warming, outside the fossil fuel industries and those who profit from them. But it seems we are still, in the main, turning a blind eye.
I have been lucky, in that (a) I dislike flying for various reasons and hence would not consider it unless desperate; (b) having worked on the railways, I have an alternative mode of travel. This is not just because of the admittedly generous availability of free tickets for international travel even for “retired” railway employees like me (though these facilities are now restricted to a few countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, and the “reduced” rates I pay for tickets in other countries are probably not substantially less than others would pay by going through a booking agency). No, I think the main legacy of my career on the railways in this respect is that it has made me feel comfortable with rail travel and so it seems to me the natural way to go – and not just because travelling by train to a holiday is really a part of the holiday.
I realise that others are not so lucky, and some have little choice about having to fly for business reasons. The friend mentioned in Shannon’s song flies because
His lover lives 400 miles away –
So far by ferry, bus and train
It takes all day …
Now, notwithstanding the question why two lovers would be living 400 miles apart (possibly due to economic reasons connected with work, or not being able to move house, or some other reason) I don’t think anyone would want to deny them the ability to travel to see one another, and to do so relatively cheaply. It seems they are an example of people who are punishing themselves because they are conscientious enough to acknowledge the consequences of burning fossil fuel. If global warming is affecting them, it is surely hitting the wrong target: surely people who use air travel regularly to attend meetings or conferences, or simply for a quick holiday, are the ones who should really be being squeezed here? After all, it is not just lovers we may wish to go and see, but relatives. Here Shannon can speak truly form the heart:
I always thought I’d be by my sister’s side
When she gave birth to her first child;
I’d love to see my grandma again
Before she goes … all the way …
Now they live so far away –
Australia and the USA.
What the hell will I say if they need me?
What would you do?
Later in the song, in a talking interlude, she presents the statistics to back up her anguish: Official sources say that we need to reduce our CO2 emissions to between 1 and 2.5 tonnes per person per year, if we’re to stabilise the atmosphere … One return flight to Sydney, Australia, produces 10 tonnes of CO2 per passenger.
Why don’t other people always think about these things before jetting off on some escapade far less justifiable than saying goodbye to your grandma or holding your sister’s hand in childbirth? Or rather, why aren’t “the authorities” making sure people ask those questions by deluging us with propaganda? After all, it has been shown that people can change their habits if subjected to enough graphic reminders of the dangers of not doing so – look at smoking for instance (though the health risk there is far more personal and visualisable than that from climate change). Why is it always the conscientious, concerned people like Shannon who end up beating themselves up over this?
But then she weakens her own case by admitting, in the next verse, that
I discovered so much of who I am
Sitting in deserts in the sand,
Nothing and no-one to get in the way, no bills to pay;
I love lying in the sun and swimming in warm sea,
I don’t want to think about all the places I will never see.
When living is hard and flying is easy,
What will you do?
What will we do?
The song is in danger of turning into a sort of NIMBY argument along the lines of “I acknowledge the dangers of climate change and mankind’s role in causing it, and I think something needs to be done about it, but please, don’t let it change my own lifestyle”. The song’s chorus is a litany of promises to do what she can:
I will recycle,
I’ll use my bicycle,
I’ll walk into town,
I’ll turn the heating down …
As these promises are piled on top of one another, she gets more and more distraught, and even mixes up other topical issues that are not directly linked to climate change:
My clothes are ethically made,
I drink my tea fair trade …
At the end of each chorus is the plea:
Don’t take my freedom away
Don’t take my holidays
Don’t take my time away
Don’t take my wings away
and the song ends with her clearly at the end of her tether:
Doesn’t anyone get a break these days?
The song is slightly odd, though, because it seems to be a response to the constant nagging about carbon footprints that we all ought to be subjected to, but in practice, most of us are not. Shannon, being a member of a very political, activist folk group, is probably constantly surrounded by fellow eco-warriors (and warriors against all sorts of injustice too – don’t pigeonhole them) who are probably aghast at her global wanderings. But why aren’t we all constantly nagged about such things? Why don’t we hear more about “climate crime”? Some of the people I mix with in academic circles think nothing of jetting off for a one or two day conference; I once worked with a physicist who was actually commuting weekly from Germany to the UK by air. These are the guys who need to be nagged; though of course they are not a large group of people on a global scale (thank goodness!) – it is maybe the businessmen (and the odd businesswoman) we need to get through to. But then again, we also need to get through to people who go for short breaks by air … and this leads us back to Shannnon and her holidays.
But of course there is something that can be done without cutting people like her off completely from her family and her holidays: flights could be rationed; people could be given a personal carbon limit. Of course, from the data Shannon quotes, she would exceed such a limit with one flight; but perhaps the mitigating actions she takes could be offset against the limit, or her flight to Australia could be saved up for from several years’ carbon credits (not that her grandma, or the planet, can necessarily wait that long though). The truth, sadly, is probably that there are many, many people out there who are much further over the limit than Shannon would be if she went to Australia once a year; surely it is those people who should cut down first.
In an interview from which excerpts were used in the film The Age of Stupid, George Monbiot says: “It’s staggering to see how passive we’ve been about it, how little we’ve done to try and stop it. Where’s the direct action? Where are the vast protests? We’re fast asleep, we’re sleepwalking into this catastrophe”. But there are a few signs of an awakening. There are some good organisations lobbying for change, such as the Aviation Environment Federation and Airport Watch. And a few months back a group of particle physicists I used to work with circulated an email in which they excitedly proclaimed that it was now possible to get from London to CERN by train with only one change, and clearly some of them were thinking of switching from air travel to the train. I couldn’t help pointing out to them that this has probably been possible for at least 10 years, and probably ever since the Eurostar started running, with possibly one additional change. But hey, it’s a start, isn’t it?