Thoughts on flying and environmentalism prior to getting on a plane.
19.09.2007 - 19.09.2007
View Work Trips 2007 on GregW's travel map.
I love nature. One of the great things about Toronto is the number of ravines in the city, because in most cases those ravines have been left wild. I can walk out of my apartment building, which is less than 2 minutes walk from the subway and has more than 20 restaurants and pubs within a 5 minutes walk, and be at the bottom of a natural ravine in less time than it would take me to get my first pint at the local sports bar.
The great thing about these walks is that in many cases, even though there are roads, railway tracks and highways running along the edges of the ravines, you seldom can see them, and often can’t even hear them. In my walks, I have encountered numerous wild critters, most often squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons and various birds, but also larger and more impressive creatures like deer, foxes and the occasionally coyote.
The preservation of this nature is one of the reasons why I am a regular contributor to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, an organization that buys and preserves natural lands within Canada. It is also why I often write to my elected representatives in the city of Toronto, the province of Ontario and the nation of Canada to voice my support for higher density housing, more money for transit and support of climate change initiatives like the Kyoto Accord.
In my personal life, I try as best I can to live a life that leaves as little impact on the world. In some places I have excelled. I no longer own a car. I keep my heating and air conditioning turned off unless absolutely needed. I don’t take bags at the grocery store, and have started to look at the places my food is from to determine if I can buy local produce to reduce the amount of carbon it took to get the food to my table. And I have stopped all but a few of the companies I do business with from sending me paper bills, electing to read and pay my bills online every month, saving both the paper and hopefully a few grams of carbon from the lighter load the mail truck has to haul.
I’ve always grown up with conservation as well. My parents used to save up bottles and newspapers in the garage, and my father and I would drive 30 minutes to an old barn north of the city I grew up in to drop them off at a recycling depot, long before blue box, curb-side recycling was introduced here in Canada. My father was also a stickler for turning off the lights and not standing around with the fridge door open. Of course, that may have been driven by equal parts wanting to save the planet and keeping the monthly hydro bill low.
In other ways, though, I’m not as good a conservationist as I wish I could be. I still eat meat, and probably eat more than I should (both for the environmental impact, but also for my health). I eat out a lot, and there you have no control over the ingredients to know if they buy local or have lamb shipped to them from New Zealand. I wish I could compost, but my building doesn’t provide it and it’s hard to put a compositor out on your balcony.
The area, though, where I stray furthest from my conversationalist tendencies is the amount I fly. I fly a lot for work, and when I vacation I tend to get on a plane and fly somewhere as well. Today I’ll be getting on a plane to fly down to Austin, and by the time my return flight lands in Toronto on Sunday, I’ll have flown a total of 59,461 miles and 63 flights this year.
According to the Carbon Footprint Calculator at the Carbon Reduction Institute in Australia, that works out to about 22 tonnes of carbon that have been released into the atmosphere because of me.
Al Gore, who was the narrator of the film “An Inconvenient Truth” about global warming and climate change has come under some criticism of late for his supposed contradictory behavior, flying on private jets and living in a energy gobbling home while preaching to others to change their behavior. I feel for him, because I know what it’s like to struggle with the same issue.
I love travelling. I get antsy if I am in the same place for too long. I have wanderlust, and I have it bad.
I’d love to fulfill that wanderlust in an environmentally friendly way. I’d love to take trains or buses. I’d love to slow down the travel I do to a nice, easy pace. But at the same time, I have to pay the bills. I could take a year off and travel the world, but I’d need to come back to work eventually. My job allows me to fulfill my wanderlust while still making the money that I need to survive, and hopefully save enough up that I can retire early and do that slow method of travel for the rest of my life.
I realize, too, that the above paragraph is nothing but a thinly veiled justification, and re-reading it rings hollow to me. I guess the real truth, as inconvenient as it is, is that I am not strong enough in my convictions to give up what I love.
So I continue to struggle.
I’ve tried to be better about the way I fly. Try and schedule trips to the same place for multiple weeks, so can stay in the same city over the weekends, saving extra and unnecessary flights.
I also, earlier this year, purchased carbon credits for my flights from 2006 and 2007 from
Zerofootprint.net, which is a Canadian company that plants trees to take CO2 out of the atmosphere. By spending enough money to plant enough trees, presumably the amount of carbon that I released into the atmosphere during flying will be gobbled back up by those trees. The total carbon released into the atmosphere will be 0.
I have problems with offsets, though. The carbon from flying is released high into the atmosphere where it can do more damage, and the trees are pulling in the atmosphere down at ground level. As well, I question whether purchasing the offset really plants trees that wouldn’t be planted anyway, or if even without the offsets areas would get forested and reforested anyway.
My biggest issue with offsets, though, is that what I am doing is paying someone else because I am too lazy or stubborn to change my lifestyle. In the Middle Ages, some within the Catholic Church sold Indulgences. An Indulgence allows a sinner to “serve” their punishment for the sins they have committed, thereby clearing themselves of the sins and ensuring that they don’t need to spend time in purgatory after death waiting for the sin to be “purged.” If you’ve ever gone to confession, after you’ve been forgiven for the sin you’ve been given an indulgence – the priests command to say “6 Hail Marys and 5 Our Fathers.”
Back in the Middle Ages though, some unscrupulous priests would exchange indulgences for cash, thereby “purging” the sin without making the sinner do anything to serve their sentence for the sin. It was this in part that led to the Protestant Reformation lead by Martin Luther.
Offsets feel to me like those sold indulgences, a purging of the sin without doing anything to actual deserve it. It’s me saying that I am too important to change, and therefore someone else can by living greener than I am. If someone else does my dirty work, then I don’t have to. A commenter on TV once said that buying offsets is a little like buying a man a hat after forcibly shaving his head, and thinking that everything is alright.
So I continue to struggle.
I’d love to have a conclusion to this entry. I’d love to wrap it all up in a nice little bow. I’d love to either be able to commit to the large scale changes that I would need to make to be a better climate warrior, or at least be able to justify in a real and reasonable way my lifestyle. I can’t do either of those, though.
Instead, I can only close with a quote by someone smarter than I am. Sir William Empson, English poet and literary critic from the 20th century who said, “life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that cannot be solved by analysis.”
So I continue to struggle, and hopefully continue to maintain myself between the contradictions.