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Thoughts on health, happiness and sustainability

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It’s hard to avoid flying

As futile as it might seem, I try to live an environmentally-friendly lifestyle and to minimize my contribution to climate change. I’ve written before about the many things that I try to do but that I can’t avoid the fact that my travels by plane make any good things that I do seem somewhat irrelevant.

The solution, therefore, should be simple: I should just stop flying.

Or at least it should be simple, but in reality it has been incredibly difficult.

Vineeta and I have close relatives in India, Australia, and the US. Deciding not to fly at all would mean that, unless they visited us (which is no better for the environment), then we would see them rarely, if ever again. It doesn’t matter how much we want to protect the environment, the truth is that we are not prepared to make that sacrifice.

Rationing my flights

Instead of stopping myself from flying entirely, I decided to ration myself to no more than one air trip per year.  It might sound like that should easy, but I was shocked to discover that for the previous few years I had been averaging three air trips per year.  This change would therefore mean that I would be cutting my number of flights per year by two-thirds.

This really focused my mind on saving my flights for trips that seemed really important.

The easyJet generation

In some ways, it’s been easier than I expected, because it’s made me realize that most trips by plane are completely unnecessary.  However, it has also made me really aware of the amount of peer pressure that our generation faces to fly. Friends are constantly suggesting that we “go for a weekend away” or that we “must visit” the place that they have just returned from, or that we should visit them in their home abroad. In fact, the problem that we have as the easyJet generation is not only that we’ve developed a lifestyle in which we can go anywhere we want, as often as we want, quickly and cheaply, but that this lifestyle has led us to have friends and relatives all over the world who we then want to visit.  This causes us to fly more and meet more people abroad who we then want to fly to visit again.

Cheap flights may have started out as a luxury, but for many they may now seem like a necessity. The more we fly around the world, the more our lives become dependent on our ability to fly around the world.

Could it be a good thing?

In the first few months of this experiment, I certainly felt that I was missing out on visiting lots of exciting places.  This self imposed rationing of flights, as well intentioned as it might be, did seem like a little bit of a drag.

17 months have now passed without me going on a plane, and I don’t have any plans to go on a plane any time this year, yet I am actually feeling really happy about it.  It turned out that once I got use to the idea, I started to see that flying less could actually be really enjoyable.

Not only have I spent less time being made to feel like a criminal in airport security and jamming my knees against the economy class seat in front of me, it has also opened my eyes to the many wonderful places that we can visit in the UK and Western Europe.  Places that can be just as pleasurable to visit but are easy to ignore when you’re surrounded by people showing off about the wonderful times that they recently had in places like Turkey and Thailand. For example, I’ve discovered that Flanders in Belgium (a place that we had previously ignored) is an absolutely wonderful place, with stunning modern and historical architecture, a strong design scene, amazing multicultural food, a progressive subculture, and incredibly friendly people.

A garden in the Ghent city center
A garden in the Ghent city centre

I’ve also rediscovered my love of travelling over land. I grew up with family holidays in Europe where we would travel by car to places in France, Italy and Austria. As a child, one of my favourite things about those trips was the journey. We would see the landscape, the architecture and the food change, and we would arrive with a real sense of how far we had come. Despite allowing us all to travel to many more places, I never felt that holidays by plane were as satisfying as travel over land. You go to a soulless airport and then suddenly pop up in a random location on the planet, with no context of where you are.  I had gradually forgotten this over time though, but rationing my flights has helped me to remember what I love so much about travelling on the ground.

It’s easy to fly less

Rationing myself to a maximum of one air trip per year has been a challenge, but now that I’ve got past the withdrawal symptoms, I’ve realized that I am in fact happier that I can enjoy the journey of every trip once again and that I am finding wonderful places to enjoy closer to home, which is actually quite liberating. It’s a win/win for me and the planet.

It suspect that next year I will take a flight to visit some family abroad, but by that time I will have gone over 2 years without flying. I’ve found that it is hard to not fly at all, but that it is really easy to fly less, and it actually feels good.


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