Flight Shame

How I learned to start worrying about flying

I mean, I am not quite a non-flyer but I do hate flying. I try to avoid planes whenever possible. I hate the waiting. I hate the cramped seats. But most of all, I hate the flying mechanical beasts themselves. I really can’t believe something that big can go into the air and stay up there. Like bees should not be able to fly, I can’t quite work out how aeroplanes stay aloft. It’s making a mockery of God. It makes me uneasy to be inside one. Statistically, I know that I am more likely to die in a kitchen blender mishap, be mauled alive by someone’s pet alligator, or choke on an aspirin, but it seems far more unlikely than dying in a plane. Flying is, of course, on course to kill us, but not in the way my lizard brain believes.

Last year I took six flights. This year I’m aiming to half that number. To get from Tromsø to the UK to see my family it requires six flights. This year I’m taking legs on trains or buses. My aim here is not to give up flying completely but radically reduce what I do. My partner here at The Arctic Agency, Ruth, definitely has rejected air travel and returns to the UK for visits using only bus or train, however.

There is a growing movement of nonflyers. It’s not that they think the planes will come falling out of the sky, but rather that they will stay up there. The motivations are primarily ecological. In my non rational brain, the aeroplane is a death machine because it will fall out of the sky and kill all onboard; in my rational brain I know the plane is a death machine because it spews out tonne after tonne of CO2. In sheer numbers the aviation industry accounts for 2 to 3 per cent of global emissions annually.

As part of our project here we have been explicit about not wanting to incorporate flying into our practice. We are critical of funders, institutions and – yes- even arts professionals who unduly rely on it. I’m personally in favour of the incremental flight tax as advocated by Jason Hickel for example, as a way of cutting down air travel in the age of climate crisis. I heard once a statistic on the Ezra Klien podcast show that the average American takes one flight per year. From my Googling I have the average figure of just under 2 flights per year. It’s such a skewed to the middle and upper class distribution thing that it isn’t even such a regressive a tax in principle. I think flying is brilliant and makes the world a much more connected and exciting place, but there needs to be thinking about the role it plays in climate change more fully.

I am writing this in the days after Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic on a solar powered boat. According to this nifty little calculator embedded on, to fly this distance – London to New York- would require almost a tonne of CO2 emitted and, amazingly and alarmingly, that is the equivalent of carbon emissions from the average person who lives in one of the poorest 56 countries in the world throughout a year.

In our art world, flying to take part in an international exhibition or performance is considered the crowning glory of artistic achievement. What would the art world look like, what opportunities opened, what new paths of creativity, what new modes of connection, what new relationships, what new ways of making would come into being if the focus was on the local rather than the global?

What would this art world look like? What would be lost? What would be gained? These are not questions I would like to answer here but merely plant a flag for further thought for myself to depart from and to let you, the noble reader, imagine a little about the outlines of this new paradigm where flying was less frivolously handled in the art world. 

I am not morally judging anyone as the structures in place allow this type of activity to happen. The more productive avenue is to think about how to gradually re-shape and think about an art world less reliant on flying. Could you just… use Skype? Can we set up people-post networks? Can we make more works on location or remotely instructing others? Can we invest time into a specific location that we as artists are creating within? Now, of course, this is not possible for everyone, but we are wanting to bring a little flight shame to everyone. 

The world of academic science is beginning to take flight resistance more seriously. In 2017, Peter Kalmus, an earth scientist at the UCLA Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science & Engineering, founded a website, No Fly Climate Sci. Its aim is to remodel the world of academia to push for less flying, less travel and more distant collaboration.

Science is a world that relies on conferences and air travel and if the Earth scientists can do it, then perhaps so should we. I mean it would be ironic if the earth scientists were resistant to this. A number of UK academics run the blog detailing attempts to negotiate a world reliant on flying and how to resist the impulse and often need to fly.
In the art world, Ellie Harrison’s The Glasgow Project was built on this attempt to negotiate an art world hostile to one singular locale, as she argued.

In April 2018, the Society for Cultural Anthropology held a virtual conference titled “Displacements,” which it advertised as a carbon-conscious conference. The American Anthropological Association wrote that their aim was to morph the thinking so they can be at the forefront of reshaping the relationship between people and their carbon-intensive lifestyles.

What we like to stress is that, yes, individuals should do what they can to reduce flying. Some flights are needless but some are essential. Taking into account the time it takes to get to an airport, clear security, pick up luggage, get from the airport to the city etc it often is much better to simply get the train in terms of cost and speed. It’s rather pointless to fly, say Edinburgh to London, or even Paris-London, Amsterdam-London etc.

Individual consumer choice is not the only solution and, in fact, if it’s only that then it’s perhaps the worst solution. There needs to be capital ploughed into rail over the next few decades, more investment in electric cars and complimentary electric car infrastructure ( even though these will still produce emissions from brakes, wheels etc), a tax on flights or at least fuel for airline companies may work too. Systemic change is required. If academia is taking it more seriously, hopefully that will spread through meme-like to the art schools too, and into the art world. We have a duty as curators ( as industrial players) to think about sustainability of our planet.