Why it is a privilege to pledge for ‘Flight Free 2020’

After many articles about flight shame, the flight free movement has gained momentum in 2020, especially in the Netherlands with around 23.000 people pledging to not fly this year. And I’m all for it. Air travel is one of the biggest polluters of the travel industry and I support the idea of reducing it 100%. But at the same time, we need to realize that being able to pledge for a flight free 2020 is partially because we are in a privileged enough position to do so, here’s why…

My attempt to fly less in 2019
Last January I as well decided to try to fly a lot less in 2019. I was trying so hard to minimize my impact on the environment but I was still getting on an airplane seven times a year. I realized this did not make any sense as my flying behavior was negating all my other efforts to contribute to a more sustainable world.  I thus decided I would try to fly a lot less, or maybe even not at all. I did not succeed. I did cut my emissions in half. But due to several circumstances (flooding, extreme long travel times, or extremely high price differences), I still did fly four times (two return trips) this year and started 2020 as well with a flight from Bilbao to the Netherlands. Even though I made many other trips by train and with that saved around 400kg of CO2, at the same time my CO2 footprint from flying was still 350 kg. And I actually have many resources to draw from that should make going flight free relatively easy (e.g. many vacation days, remote working options, middle-income salary). So if I’m already having a hard time, how is this for people with less of those benefits?

Both being able to fly and pledging flight free are huge privileges
One thing that is very important to realize is that both being able to fly as well as saying you will stop flying (but continue travelling) are huge privileges. Did you know that 85 – 90% of the whole population probably has never ever set foot on a plane? This number already shows what a huge privilege it is to be able to fly. Even more so, it is a privilege to have been flying for years but then switching to alternative modes of travel that are more sustainable. This assumes you have both the time and money to do so. This is, of course, a great thing. If you have those privileges, why not use them for the better? But what about people who never flew in their lives before and now get the opportunity to do so for the very first time? What about families that only have money for one vacation that lasts one week and want to make the most out of that by going to a sunny destination? Not everyone can afford to take four weeks off from work, nor does everyone have the opportunity to work remotely. All those things are privileges that are sometimes being taken for granted.

Yes, you can visit destinations that are closeby, but this is an easy thing to say if you have been to many exotic destinations already. When Germany is all you have seen the last couple of years, a flight to the Canaries or Bali might be just what you want for a change though. And yes, you can reach Spain or Italy by car from the Netherlands, but you need to be privileged enough to have one in the first place (and also it is not always the more sustainable option). Sure, even far away destinations like China are accessible by train from Europe, but this will cost at least €1400 and two weeks’ travel time for a return trip.  I mean, that sure as hell is not for everyone. Hitchhiking for months from North to South America seems amazing, but again, not everyone can afford to just drop everything and travel for such a period of time.

Flight Free 2020?
Great if you have committed yourself to fly less or not at all in 2020. I highly encourage that, if you are in a position to do so. But if it is hard for me already, imagine how hard it must be for people that are in a less privileged position. The aim of this piece was to nuance the debate about the flight free movement. Sustainable travel is not all that black and white. Claiming that it is ‘easy’ or ‘affordable’ to quit flying are based on assumptions that are not a reality for everyone. They are highly dependent on your geographic location and personal position. From this position, reflect on the things yóu can do and with that inspire others. Don’t tell others they should not fly when you do not know where they are coming from. This leads me to my own resolution for 2020: I will try for another year to fly less (or who knows, not at all) and hopefully inspire you by doing so!

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