One of the best things an environmentalist can do: get on a plane

Plane landing by sunriseThis post is by Brendan May, chairman of The Robertsbridge Group.

Some years ago, Prince Charles got into trouble for accepting an environment award overseas. ‘But he flew!’, they cried. Since then, from what I can tell, HRH has had to resort largely to pre-recorded video pieces or appearing as a hologram at non-British environmental summits. Mercifully, he adds as much sustainability work onto his official state visits as he can. Having seen first hand what his interventions can do to get a green cause moving (sustainable seafood, in my case) I was sufficiently irritated by the furore to write to one of the newspapers that covered the story. I argued that the Prince and others who spend most of their waking hours trying to stop business and government wrecking the planet should not just be entitled to travel the world but have an obligation to do so, building global traction for sustainability efforts.

Why more environmentalists should fly
You won’t stop deforestation in the tropics from a meeting room in the west country. Having spent a large part of my working life dealing with fisheries, forestry and agricultural commodities issues, it’s clear to me that I couldn’t have done much of it without flying. And, without a single exception, all the people I know who’ve done great things in the environmental field have travelled far and wide. We don’t do it for fun, it takes us away from our families, and we see far too many airports and hotel rooms. But we do it because we would achieve far less without it.

That’s my defence of the greens who travel on planes. But I want to go further. I wish more environmentalists would fly. In Britain we see ourselves as a hub of green innovation, the best thinking, the proud host of some of the world’s most sustainable companies, and so on. Yes, we have some good retailers and some great responsible business institutions. But having spent more and more time in the developing world, particularly in Indonesia, my perspective has changed. I don’t think much of the green community in England has seen the size and scale of the problems coming down the track. They may have seen pictures and slogans, and read reports and articles. But many haven’t seen first-hand the changes looming from these emerging economies.

Cloud cuckoo land vs reality
I know it’s fashionable to talk about ‘brand revolutions’ and ‘consumer behaviour change’. But I fear a lot of it is cloud cuckoo land. It’s a reflection of how its proponents would like to live. It bears no resemblance to the reality developing as a result of the vast rising middle classes of India, China, Indonesia and other developing nations.

I’m writing this on a flight from London to Singapore, en route to Jakarta. It’s the fifth time this year I have done this 24 hour journey. When I arrive I will survey the view from my hotel window: traffic jams, vast new construction schemes, the logos of every Western brand adorning the towers and malls. In the morning, it will be hard to get a table for breakfast, as the hotel will be full of people who have come here to do business, trade, or in my case, work on sustainability issues with NGOs and others. Lunch may take place in one of Jakarta’s countless huge malls where, for some shoppers, one iPhone is not enough, they have one for work and the other for pleasure. This is the rich side of Jakarta. Elsewhere, there is poverty, exacerbated by poor land right allocation, poor governance and past corporate misdeeds.

Next week three of my colleagues, all well known environmentalists, will make the same trip but they will visit the jungles of Sumatra as well. They will see the threat to communities and wildlife, and also the solutions and positive progress being made. This knowledge will be used to help shape and articulate one of the most significant business transformations in recent history. I would argue it’s worth it.

The focus of environmental work in 20 years won’t be Europe
When I return to England on Friday morning I’ll catch up on emails and tweets, including invitations to webinars and summits about how UK companies are changing the world, why I should only shop at farmers’ markets and how I can power my burglar alarm using cucumber pulp and worm poo. Well, not quite, but you know what I mean. Given the sensory overload I’ll have just had, dealing with challenges of such magnitude, this can all seem provincial and irrelevant. I know it isn’t entirely, but I think it all represents an incredibly unambitious and largely fruitless mindset when it comes to global environmental issues.

What Britain does matters abroad to some degree: in climate diplomacy, our stance on GMOs and so on. But an awful lot of what happens strikes me as a vast waste of resources. I suspect about 75p of every pound spent on green initiatives, roundtables, conferences, rankings systems, publications and reports in Britain would be more usefully spent grappling with the emerging giants’ challenges from a political and corporate perspective. Britain’s environmental footprint is miniscule in comparison and it will become ever more so in relative terms as growth continues in emerging economies.

When I think of localism I think about Britain as a whole, which is viewed in Asia and elsewhere as a small, albeit significant part of the European Union. But without the EU, it is insignificant on the world stage. The way we bang on about green issues you would think we were a global power house. We aren’t. I’m not the only person who believes the focus of work in the next 20 years will be far away from Europe, in China, India, and Brazil. The UK market for green is saturated, and overstuffed with thinkers and practitioners.

We risk losing the global perspective
Local issues are important of course, but I think the green community in Britain risks losing its global perspective if it doesn’t travel a bit more. All the debates about HS2, Gatwick vs Boris Island, fracking and the like feel very significant when in Britain. From the vantage point of Asia or the United States, they become peripheral. If you don’t believe me, get on a plane. If those with the power and skills to change the world don’t travel round it with a sense of urgency, there’ll be little left to talk about. The big challenges aren’t on Britain’s railway infrastructure, they’re in the cocoa plantations, mine shafts, oceans, and the tropical rainforests of the rapidly developing world.

Postscript: When I landed for a stopover in Singapore, I sat down to finalise this post. I got chatting to a man who turned out to be an oil field worker from Pekanbaru in Riau Province, Sumatra, which I visited in May. He wasn’t on his way back there though, he was taking his wife and seven month old son to Los Angeles on holiday. What was he most looking forward to, I asked? ‘I’m going to Vegas as well!’ came the reply. It was a useful snapshot of reality. And even if we’d be right to stop him, we couldn’t. It may be the green movement that needs the ‘behaviour change’ if it’s to be anything other than a quaint parish talking shop.

Twitter: @bmay


  • Changing behaviour for the good of the planet is going to happen. People become more environmentally aware as they travel and become more affluent. I think encouraging everyone to do their bit (Personally and professionally) and supporting networking will overcome the negative impacts on our world. I agree that flying is necessary and even your Oil Field Worker has the potential to change the world for the better! .

    • Is there any evidence that “people become more environmentally aware as they travel and become more affluent”? Would be great if its true!

  • A challenging post, but one that misses the big picture.
    Population growth and increased mobility is scalable; to an extent that the impact of our individual decisions (like flying to Singapore 5+ times a year) becomes increasingly significant. Evidence shows that the collective impact of behaviour change can have a huge impact and I certainly wouldn’t dismiss as provincial, irrelevant and fruitless (unless I was just after a reaction).

  • Ultimately about how it all balances out..processes and habits, aspirations and responsibilities, local/global perspectives, exploiting the environment and conserving it, this is a complex web of costs and benefits and it is probably down to those with access to large scale “balance sheets” to really demonstrate how to save the planet. However, if saving the planet went viral…! The skies the limit! So maybe taking in the “big picture” depends on what your focus and processing power can handle? As an unemployed person and Mother I strive to overcome the limits to my impact for good and believe that anything is better than nothing.

  • I totally get what the writer is saying and agree with much of it. I would say that the point about championing local issues is that they need not be provincial. A large part of the challenge will be to create workable model for what the future might look like. If we can create economically vibrant, environmentally sustainable communities people will notice, and we can help them notice. If lots of other people do it, it creates a new type of city.

    Completely agree though that the scale must be ambitious and inspirational. Less jam-making (come on Transition Towns) and more community utilities, on-site power and technology clusters.

  • Oh yes, British people should travel to the colonies and civilise the heathens. Completely agree, that will make the world a much better place.

    Seriously: If you fly to help the locals build a movement, I can see the point. Flying in a foreign expert can be motivational for local activists. But I don’t think this post really explains how flying will stop mining accidents from happening.

  • I think it’s up to the individual to consider whether they really believe their own work is influential enough to be allowed to be an exception, taking account of the large scale constraints and recognising that not everybody can be an exception. I certainly don’t think my own work is important enough to warrant being an exception (I am a climate scientist, and I believe it is important for me to demonstrate that I act consistently with my interpretation of the evidence).

    I also think that in the long term anyone who does choose to fly will have to identify how their work can be done without the flight emissions, and create a believable path towards that work (if it is important) being done in a lower carbon way. Maybe this guy needs to move to Jakarta permanently (and not fly back to the UK regularly)? Maybe he could train someone in Jakarta to do the things he flies there for? In 2050/2100, if emissions are genuinely reduced, you cannot expect to have the luxury of being able to decide for yourself whether your flight meets whatever ethical standards you set for yourself. These flights will simply not happen. We need people to be working on ways of making sure that the excellent environmental work that is done, at the moment in a very polluting way, can still be done in a lower carbon world.

    • Very well argued Erica. It is a challenge to find ever lower impact ways of operating. They key is whatever is effective as there are probably different ways of measuring success..

  • I profoundly disagree with the author. I gave up flying around 12 years ago because I had come to realise the scale of harm the practice was doing. I realised that we need “to think global and act local”, that means reducing environmental damage where we live – and in our own lifestyles. I realised that if the UK was to ever provide leadership in the world, on the greatest single threat humanity faces – climate change – then we need to reduce activities such as flying. The one thing we all know to be absolutely true is that, if we encourage everyone else on planet earth to fly and drive and have big plasma screens, we will suffer the runaway greenhouse effect and the death of billions of the world’s very poorest people. The last thing we need are more eco-types traveling the world wringing their hands at the destruction of the Amazon. Watch it on the Nat-Geo channel or YouTube ! Then act. Write to your MP and ask him to support a reduction in the aviation industry and double APD tomorrow !

  • The first hand, face to face can not be improved upon unfortunately.Also despite budget airlines It is likely that economics will always restrict flying to the elite anyway..I wonder whether it is already too late to stop Climate change.

  • I’ve just run a workshop in London with people flying in from 5 eastern European nations and sure enough I’ll be going to the next one in Slovenia next year. I’ve worked with NGOs from Portugal to Kazakhstan and too often the non-flying options are limited. And for training and skill-sharing we need face-to-face, but let’s not delude ourselves that any travel in a good cause is CO2 well spent. As others have observed I don’t need to see the rainforest to act (and we can’t fly to the Antarctic ice cap but plenty of people act on that…)

    There’s the thin end of a wedge being hammered in here. Is that flight REALLY necessary should be the first point for any journey planning: are we really sure the webinar, skype etc. won;t crack it?

    For a bit of light relief on this see the Flying video (‘don’t take my wings away’)

    • In 2013 there are still efficiencies to be made and ever better tools at our fingertips for Eco practitioners. I would still jump at the opportunity to visit these places and envy/admire those I see doing it for real, as would many adventurous souls…sorry just being honest.

  • That’s a completely deluded view. I think that people that are already making the trips are trying to justify their travel in their own minds. I know someone who works at the Environmental Change Institute, Oxford who tried to justify flying to Sydney to give a paper on carbon reduction. He argued that he and all academics see long distance air travel as compensation for low salaries. Everybody likes to believe that their own work or job is particularly important and justifies the trip.

  • It would be helpful if the specific impact of every flight on the environment was pointed out to air companies and passengers so they could appreciate your concerns fully, but it is still not evil or illegal to fly and people who live in Australia or other countries should not be cut off from the world.

    • Just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t make it immoral or possibly even “evil”. A number of bodies have attempted to put a figure on the number of people being killed per annum by climate change. Around 10 years ago the WHO put a figure of 150,000 on deaths caused by the increased spread of disease. Around 5 years ago the Kofi Annan institute said deaths from disease and extreme weather events had reached around 300,000 per annum. This year the DARA International group put the figure at around 400,000 per annum. So, if you think that killing people for fun or convenience is immoral then it follows that living a luxury, energy intensive lifestyle is immoral and/or evil. I appreciate that this makes for uncomfortable reading but that is where the science and human core moral beliefs (‘thou shall not kill’) lead us.

      I argue that bodies like The Green Alliance ought to be more responsible and demand the steps that are necessary to both avert the runaway greenhouse effect and cut the numbers being killed each year (e.g. government policy to reduce aviation, encourage holidays within home nation, vigorous attack upon weekend breaks/fights to other nations, advanced broadband to facilitate video-conferencing, etc.).

      • That sounds like the harsh truth but we might need to sleep on it for a workable solution to a complex situation. If we take a responsible approach but wars and politics seem to mess up the best plans… I have just been away for a few days on a narrowboat it was fab, but I encountered still some environmental issues…feeling guilty when I was hoping to relax!..

  • Interesting post, Brendan. One thing that I struggle with a bit is:

    “I suspect about 75p of every pound spent on green initiatives, roundtables, conferences, rankings systems, publications and reports in Britain would be more usefully spent grappling with the emerging giants’ challenges from a political and corporate perspective.”

    I’m not convinced of this yet. I would start by asking do you think the same could be said for the U.S.? Without question, Britain has made meaningful steps in efficiency that America is years away from. Moreover, I think that cultural norms of English residents are closer to a sustainable model than ours across the pond.

    I have a few colleagues that travel to the developing world in order to help guide them towards a mode sustainable path and it’s a great service, but at this point the U.S. has so far to go in making material changes that I wonder if the overseas effort is the best allocation of time for driven, capable stewards of the environment. In my mind, the developing world is going to evolve and expand towards the models that it has to work towards and what we have now are basically traditional, Western, industrial paradigms. It seems hard to give the developing world a sustainable direction when we haven’t even figured out how to (or harnessed the conviction to) make it work in the First World.

  • flying and environmentalism, an oxymoron if ever i heard one

  • We are in a world full of them…!

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