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Three ways to feel less guilty about frequent flying

Feeling guilty about your frequent flying? It may not be all about you… Image sourced from

If you are worried about the impact of your flying on climate change but keep flying anyway, you might be addicted. At least, this is the finding of recent research from the universities of Bournemouth and Otago. We think this diagnosis may be misplaced.

It is true that people are now flying more frequently than at any other time in history. According to the World Bank more than three billion air passengers were recorded last year, up from 1.1 billion in 1993. This global expansion has been driven by deregulation of the airline industry, globalisation of labour, cheap fuel, intense competition and the emergence of budget carriers.

Indeed, the phenomenon of the “frequent flyer”, a term originating from airline loyalty schemes in the 1980s, is now global. There are currently more than 100 million registered frequent flyers.

This reliance on air travel is destroying the biosphere as we know it. Air travel already accounts for 3-5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and is growing at 5.3% per year. Aviation related greenhouse gas emissions are forecast to make up 15-40% of total global emissions by 2050. Any serious attempt to mitigate further planetary warming must therefore include a reduction in global air travel.

It is ironic those demographic groups most aware of the environmental damage produced by flying (such as tertiary educated, affluent, middle class people) are also the group most likely to be frequent flyers. A convenient explanation for this “knowledge-action gap” is that frequent flyers are addicted to flying with parallels to other addictions to alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling and internet porn.

Recent research has started to uncover the same symptoms in frequent flyers as those experienced by behavioural addicts including guilt, suppression and denial. Yet if frequent flying is addictive to the point that people do it regardless of the psychological and environmental consequences, then how do we go about reducing the amount of global air traffic?

1. Learn to love climate change

An easy response may be to plead with consumers to fly less, through a heightened sense of “guilt tripping”. This focus obscures the real problem - it is not that people fly, but that our global economy has become dependent on flying.

It is central to the economy as we know it. Frequent flying is a crucial form of mass consumption, so ubiquitous that it is hard to purchase even groceries from the supermarket without amassing “food miles”. It is essential to the tourism industry, and is important form of consumer self-identity and status.

Flying has become entwined with our identities.

In the words of George W. Bush immediately post 9/11:

“… one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

The ideological message here is clear: the appropriate role in a time of crisis is to buttress the capitalist world order by expressing consumer identity and preference – particularly by flying. So should we place our faith in consumer capitalism and “get on board”? Better yet, do we join the growing ranks of those who are apparently unconcerned about global warming, a group which now comprises 25% of the U.S. population (up from 12% in 2001).

But if this “learn to stop worrying and love the climate apocalypse” scenario holds little appeal, then think not about individual flying guilt, but about the structure of global capitalism that produces frequent flying as one it its many fetishised forms of consumption.

2. Get therapy

Portraying frequent flyers as behavioural addicts is itself a political move to get industry off the hook. If an environmental social-global problem can be transformed into an individual-psychological one, then the consumer rather than the industry carries the can. The point is for you to worry – better to have a cohort of pathologised consumers at the mercy of the pernicious tendencies of their own psyches, than an industry which is forced to actually do something about it.

This is the purpose of carbon offsets, that handy tick-the-box option when you purchase air tickets. By offering this option, the industry reminds you that global warming is your fault and then ingeniously invites you to manage your guilt. Carbon offsets exist to place the blame at your feet and then ameliorate your guilt-tripping.

In reality they do little to mitigate the carbon emissions of civil aviation. Instead, carbon offsetting allows concerned consumers to offset their guilt and blame other “irresponsible” consumers for climate change. Meanwhile, the air travel industry continues to happily expand.

But if the offsets don’t work for you, and you still have that sense of nagging guilt, then you can always do what other behavioural addicts do: meditate, get counselling, join a 12 step program, or take drugs. Naltrexone, for example, is commonly used to treat opiate and alcohol addiction and is currently being trialled on Australian problem gamblers.

Or for the more serious behavioural addict, deep brain stimulation, the implant of a pulse generator that stimulates targeted nuclei in the brain, has been suggested as a possible future treatment for addiction - like a lobotomy but without the knife. More grist for the mill.

3. Get politically active

If these options don’t work for you, then think about the systemic production of the frequent flyer and imagine novel forms of appropriate political resistance. The real challenge is to think about frequent flying in a way that reduces atmospheric pollution without focusing on individual responsibility or addiction.

Sure, we could talk about choosing to stop flying, but this is at odds with the emergence of the frequent–flyer economy, its reward of everyday consumption with flights to enticing locations, and the promise of more and more consumption.

Political action may be the only viable response. It seems that Australia’s short-lived carbon tax had little or no effect on domestic passenger travel. Given the fate of this modest carbon price, a more radical political movement will be required if we are to avert climate catastrophe.

A longer version of this essay was published this week in the Annals of Tourism Research.

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