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Does flying really benefit us?

Flight Free UK Director Anna Hughes takes a look at whether our flying habits really are beneficial to us or the world.

FlightFree UK
10 Jan 2019 3 min read

The picture shows a map spread on a wooden table. Surrounding the map is a mug of coffee, a magnifying glass, a camera and a sunhat. The picture is intended to depict travel planning.

"We have a responsibility to keep on flying… there’s a benefit to the world. Flying increases our understanding of other countries and cultures."

~ Roger Bray, travel and aviation journalist.

This statement by Roger Bray was made during a BBC Radio 4 interview for the New Year's Solutions in January 2019, looking at whether or not we should keep flying.

Mr Bray's argument was a resounding yes: we owe it to the world to keep exploring. Discovering other countries and cultures is vital to the understanding of our fellow man.

Mr Bray might well be right, but flying is not necessarily the answer. We fly more than ever, yet it seems we’ve never understood each other less. Rather than break down walls, we build them; rather than extend our hand to those from other countries, we turn our back. Around the world, groups are gaining popularity that focus inwards rather than seeking to work together. On the face of it, this is not a world in which different cultures and countries are understood. Getting away from it all on a beach holiday where we tan and drink cocktails probably isn’t going to help.

"We fly more than ever, yet it seems we’ve never understood each other less."

In his statement, Mr Bray might be confusing ‘air travel’ with ‘travel’. Not flying doesn’t mean not travelling. There are many ways in which to access other countries that don’t involve aeroplanes, and those countries don't have to be halfway around the world to count. Most European countries are within easy reach of the UK by boat or train; it’s perfectly possible to travel further afield this way, too. Our Brexit-ridden politics shows that perhaps understanding our neighbours might be in order – and this understanding comes down more to mindset than frequency of flight.

"Not flying doesn’t mean not travelling."

The process of flying is wholly disengaging: we are plucked from one place, transported in a sterile tube, then plonked in our location. We have no idea of the landscape that connects our origin to our destination. We have no concept of how the resulting culture relates to everyone along the way. We arrive in a new place and are inescapably alien. We have no idea how far it is. A map on a screen is not the same as feeling the ground beneath.

My mother hated aeroplanes, so as a child I never flew. Yet I had visited Denmark, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria by the age of twelve. Seven of these were on a single trip, in the process of driving to Italy. I knew where all these countries were, how they all connected, what they looked like. I got a feel for them. I learned to count to ten in ten different languages. None of this would have happened had we flown.

Yes, we have a responsibility to understand our fellow man.

But that certainly does not mean we should thoughtlessly fly. Because the stark fact is, it would be irresponsible of us to keep flying with the frequency we do. Flying is the single worse thing an individual can do for the environment; even if you live in an eco-minded way, one flight can wipe out all other savings. Climate scientists are warning that we have less than twelve years to take meaningful action to turn things around, and if we don’t, we are heading for irreversible and catastrophic climate change. Extreme weather, floods, drought and famine will become the norm. We won’t be able to sustain our human race, to say nothing of the natural world. There won’t be any beaches to lie on and tan, or coral reefs to swim through. We only have to look to the Maldives and the Great Barrier Reef to know that this is actually happening right now.

"Flying is the single worse thing an individual can do for the environment."

The next decade is critical. The world that Roger Bray would have us fly all over will be gone, to all intents and purposes. It’s up to all of us to prevent that from happening, for the sake of our children and our children’s children. Because if we don’t act now, there won’t be a world left for them to enjoy and explore, with all those countries and cultures to be understood.

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