A rich western businessman sips champagne as he cruises at 35,000ft and looks down at an archipelago below populated with subsistence fishers. In a few years these coastal communities will be washed away by a massive tropical storm. The intensity of this storm will have been influenced, in some part, by the carbon dioxide that pours from the aircraft’s engines.
Few activities touch as many environmental nerves as flying. Some argue it’s an elitist behaviour that blights the lives of those unfortunate enough to live near an airport or in areas destined to be affected by climate change. That while flying may not be wrong per se, every effort should be made to limit the apparently never-ending growth in aviation demand. That’s certainly Greenpeace’s position:
Firstly, we don’t want to stop people from flying. We do want to prevent the number of flights from growing to dangerous levels – the growth in aviation is ruining our chances of stopping dangerous climate change… The main cause of this massive growth in the UK is the proliferation of short haul routes – often unnecessary domestic ones.
So what are we to make of the news that Pascal Husting, international programme director for Greenpeace, flies to work from Luxembourg to Amsterdam a few times a month? That’s right: Greenpeace, an organisation that includes people who break the law and risk their liberty and personal safety to protest against short haul flights and also senior management who fly short haul commutes to work.
At this point you may suspect Pascal is really working for The Telegraph or Daily Mail, newspapers currently in the process of cranking up their outrage levels to 11 in reporting this story. The truth is rather more mundane. Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo explains:
Pascal has a young family in Luxembourg. When he was offered the new role he couldn’t move his family to Amsterdam straight away. He’d be the first to say he hates the commute, hates having to fly, but right now he hasn’t got much of an option until he can move. He wishes there was an express train between his home and his office, but it would currently be a 12-hour round trip by train.
Aware that this explanation may not be sufficient, in a blog post the head of Greenpeace UK, John Sauven, reasons:
For me, it feels like it gets to the heart of a really big question. What kind of compromises do you make in your efforts to try to make the world a better place?
I’ll assume that those concerned with this decision conducted a cost-benefit analysis. Sure, Pascal’s flight would generate a certain amount of carbon emissions, but this would be more than offset by his performance for an organisation that, overall, seeks to make significant reductions in emissions. Presumably senior Greenpeace staff didn’t believe that this could be a publicity liability in terms of how this decision would be perceived. Yes, there may be a bit of sniping from the usual reactionary press, but once you look at the bigger picture and necessary compromises then no reasonable person could object.
Well I object. Agreed, I’m not particularly reasonable. And to be clear here, I don’t necessarily object to Greenpeace staff flying in order to do aspects of their job. Similarly I don’t object to the IPCC holding meetings that involve many thousands of air miles or Al Gore travelling the world to highlight the dangers of climate change.
I object to the reasoning on display here that appears tone deaf to how it will be received by others. This reasoning, with perhaps some judicious use of doublethink, is intended to explain away the apparent contradiction of a Greenpeace campaigner commuting via short haul flights so as to better campaign against short haul flights.
What this takes for granted are Greenpeace’s many supporters and staff and their contributions, fund raising and activism – running marathons dressed as cows, baking cakes, shaking tins in the pouring rain, not to mention lashing themselves to oil rigs or draping banners over the tailplanes of short haul airliners. What options did they have when deciding to get involved in environmental issues? What risks and hardships have they faced in being true to their values?
Have you heard the one about the Greenpeace executive flying to work? The only escape from this joke will be one which involves some serious soul-searching, and a sustained effort to build a collective sense of responsibility and solidarity with all of the staff, activists and donors that make up the organisation.