Why (do) We Fly

Why (do) We Fly

The total carbon footprint for my round trip flight to Australia – from New York JFK to Sydney via Beijing – amounts to 3.18 metric tons of CO2 equivalent. The 15 of us who went to Australia arrived on 7 different flights and left on 9, most with layovers. Conservatively estimated, each of those trips emitted 1.69 tons of CO2e. Our round trip flights to Australia emitted about 27 tons of carbon equivalent. According to the EPA, that’s equal to the total annual emissions from 5.7 passenger vehicles or the carbon sequestered by 22 acres of U.S. forest. Yikes.

Of the many experiences and reflections I have brought back with me from Sydney, I also return with inner conflict about the air miles we just logged.  It is a conflict I hold in common with much of the rest of FES. I suspect it is also common across the conservation community at large. An estimated 5,000 participants attended the World Parks Congress from all over the globe, more are currently at the UNFCCC COP 20 in Peru, and many attended other far-flung conferences over the course of the year. We know that our emissions become disproportionately huge every time we fly. As environmentalists, how do we reconcile this hypocrisy?

Of course, we offset. A part of the travel budget for our course went to purchasing carbon offsets for our flights. The conference itself facilitated the offset program. Nevertheless, I doubt our contributions hit the CO2 equivalent of 22 acres of forest. Many of us try to reduce our footprints in other areas of our lives. We bike instead of drive, bring thermoses instead of buying coffee cups, we shop local and less often. But anyone who has looked at an emissions chart knows these actions barely begin to offset our flights.

The question then becomes, was that flight worth it? Acknowledging the two-pronged reality that our communities of practice are global and that meetings tend to work better in person, did we need to travel? In going on that trip, did we do good?

Did we do good at the World Parks Congress? Will we in Lima? I think so, but the questions then become by who and for what? For nature, people, industry? Thanks to several unsuccessful climate COPs and tales from friends, I was disillusioned by the international conference process well before embarking on my trip to Sydney. That has not made me disillusioned with the conservation community. I did hear voices of inspiration, even if they were gems in the silt. I witnessed people in positions of varying power from all over the world who were working hard to push forward the issues they care deeply about, to craft the world that they want to live in. Perspectives about what that world should look like were at times contradictory, but I think we need multiple theories of change and redundancy in our systems.

People who work in conservation get lumped together, but we’re actually a heterogeneous bunch. One that has taken on a huge, ideologically-mediated task: how to ‘best’ negotiate our relationship with the world we inhabit. There are several camps on what that ‘best’ looks like. Those camps lay within and between countries, are influenced by history, and entwined with culture, be it personal, national, and/or tribal. The one trait that unifies the factions is that, in whatever camp we find ourselves – and that can change over time – we’re forcefully driven to make good by whatever its tenants may be. We might disagree on what we’re working towards, but we’re working our asses off out there striving for it. Maybe, hopefully, that makes the miles worth it.


image from: https://farm1.staticflickr.com/150/430176399_a3645b6b67.jpg