I’m writing this on-board an aircraft heading towards Hawaii, the first leg of a series of flights that I will take in the next two weeks. The full itinerary is Los Angeles – Hawaii – Los Angeles – Sydney – Auckland, a total of fourteen-thousand air miles.
These frequent long-haul flights compel some readers to write me long e-mails accusing me of not taking my environmental responsibility. The authors of these vicious e-mails like to inquire into the depth of selfishness that I must possess to create a nomadic lifestyle so dependent on flying. Have I not heard of global warming? Do I not care about the polar bears? And for God’s sake, what about the children?
I do care. I care an awful lot in fact. If it wasn’t for the fact that polar bears are ferocious killers, some of my best friends might have been polar bears. I consider green issues the second most important issue for humanity. (The first one being the escape from this rock before the sun explodes. Come on people; that thing is a ticking bomb!)
I just don’t think that my carbon footprint is that bad. In fact, I suspect that I’m less of an environmental burden than the venomous authors of the aforementioned e-mails. Let me explain why.
A Nomad’s Carbon Footprints
Let’s start with the big one: my air travel. This sounds like a big carbon issue, but it’s not. My bags and my body together weigh approximately one hundred kilograms. Considering the weight of an airplane, my existence on the plane adds little to the fuel consumption. This is naturally a preposterous argument since the total carbon emission of the flight should be evenly attributed to the passengers, right?
Wrong. The carbon guilt of a passenger should be directly related to the incentive he or she is for the airline to keep the flight alive. Hence the first-class passengers should hang their heads in shame followed by a wretched expression from business and an embarrassed blush from coach. Non-revenue stand-by passengers (flying under the blessing of an Airline Patron) and the staff are no incentive at all for the airlines to keep a flight alive. The airlines earn no money from us, hence the term non-revenue. If the number of paying customers of a particular flight dwindles, then the airline will drop it, no matter how often it is frequented by non-revenue nomads like me. (Oh, and about 25% of an airline’s profit comes from mail, not passengers, so stop sending those damned Christmas cards!)
Almost all of my flights so far have been non-revenue stand-by flights with the exception of a few shorter European flights. My carbon footprint is not null, but it is smaller than most think.
There are two other areas where my nomadic life is surprisingly carbon-light. Let’s talk housing. As a nomad, I don’t have one. I usually live in guest bedrooms of existing houses that would be warmed or cooled regardless of my existence. There are times when I live in hostels, which of course is an economic incentive to keep the hostel warmed or cooled. But on average, the energy bill and the related carbon cost for my housing is low.
Finally, I am a poor consumer. I earn very little and shop accordingly. But as a nomad, I would remain a poor consumer even if I could lay golden eggs for breakfast since I can own no more than I can carry. Ever increasing consumption is by definition not sustainable in a world with finite resources. Remember, the fewer resources spent on the fleeting happiness of the individual, the more resources can be spent by humanity to build space ships with which we can colonize the galaxy.
The Need for Politics
Feel free to forget everything I’ve written so far as it is rather inconsequential. I wrote it only to prevent trigger-happy environmentalists from tripping over their own ignorance and send me any more hate mail. My writing so far has all been concerned with what I as an individual do and don’t do, and it isn’t that important.
Humankind will not solve the environmental crisis by hoping that individuals on a global scale will act unselfishly and sacrifice their own comfort and happiness for the sake of the greater good. Some might, but the majority won’t.
What we need are for our politicians to create global structures that force the prices of products and services to accurately reflect the cost to the future wellbeing of the human race. The market forces will then kick in and drive the environmental costs of production down in order to remain competitive. Companies that can’t innovate new green production methods will be priced out of the market.
If the full cost to the environment was accurately reflected in the prices we pay for products and services, I believe that we would be in for a shock. Perhaps I wouldn’t be able to afford my nomadic lifestyle anymore. And this would be just fine. Honestly. I would still vote for this ‘scheme’ even if it would mean the end of my nomadic life as long as I know that I’m carrying my share of the responsibility along with everybody else. What doesn’t work is to expect this heavy burden to be voluntary.
Expecting environmentally concerned individuals to do more than others to ‘save the planet’ is like expecting socialists to pay more than their required taxes because they are in favour of tax increases. What the environmentalist and the socialist alike should do is vote along their ideals. Perhaps they can even be politically active if they are truly passionate about their cause. That can affect change on the required global scale. Individual actions are laudable, but it is much more important to vote for politicians that will create large-scale change to align people’s selfish nature with what is good for the environment and humankind. (Which if course includes an escape plan from this doomed planet.)