Air travel and looting

2008-04-08

in Politics, The environment, Travel

In some ways, engaging with the ongoing debate about air travel and greenhouse gas emissions feels like being among a crowd of looting rioters. People are happily smashing windows, grabbing cameras and iPods. There you stand, wondering what ought to be done.

The easy option is to loot. Your small contribution to the total level of theft and damage will not be recognizable after the fact. Immediate benefits can be secured for yourself, with costs being born by some unknown other person at some point in the future. In choosing to refuse, you accomplish nothing noticeable. Furthermore, you risk cursing yourself in the future for having missed out: for having not gotten ‘while the getting was good.’

The people around you want you to loot. Having a non-looter around is uncomfortable. It draws attention to the way in which the choice to loot is a moral choice, and how it is made on an individual basis. It forces people who are looting to justify their choice somehow – both publicly and in the confines of their own thinking.

The comparison above risks infuriating people and generating accusations of hypocrisy. How can anyone who has flown before say such a thing? It is true that past misconduct damages a person’s credibility. At the same time, it has no bearing on the fundamental rightness of wrongness of the position being adopted. As individuals, we need to consider whether the environmental harm associated with flying is somehow akin to being one tiny node in a million-person mob. If so, we need to question whether it is something we can continue to do.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan April 8, 2008 at 3:49 pm

A similar argument:

“I say we should not be expected to stop eating seafood until there is a clear strategy that will make use of individual efforts — namely boycotts. Asking people to make sacrifices in the absence of organized efforts is asking them to make gestures that are more symbolic than real. That, in my opinion, is essentially religious behavior.”

Alice April 8, 2008 at 7:46 pm

Flying is akin to looting only for barbarians.

For them, looting is the financial basis of their lives. For us, greenhouse gas emissions are a way of life.

Barbarians could never be all of humanity because they needed someone from whom to loot. We’ve done one better. We’re looting from future generations.

Tristan April 8, 2008 at 8:53 pm

I like the analogy. It makes it clear to me that while flying can be justified under some circumstances, that is only because looting can be justified under some circumstances – but only when not looting would deprive you of being a person. i.e. looting for food can be justified because food is necessary for your being a person at all (not being the person that you are).

This does make it clear to me that while you have an unlimited right to be a person at all, you have an only very limited right to be the person you happen to be at any given time.

Perhaps a comparison to fishing off the African coast would be an example of looting which people would react so violently against comparing to air travel?

The counter argument which says acts of individual defiance are essentially religious behavior is deeply flawed. Acts done for one’s own reasons are essentially anti-religious. It is saying one should not act until there is a coherent group that is the religious thinking – acting in groups where you can lose yourself.

….

We are something like Barbarians – our way of life depends on the destruction of others. The game is, at least partially, zero sum.

However, can we fault the Barbarians for being barbarians? Could you actually show up in a Barbarian settlement and make a cogent point, even from your own point of view, to convince them that their entire existence was a mistake, and that they should remake themselves in a new way?

This seems to me unlikely. It seems based on a kind of morality of external standards, and resentment. Morality is justification, which is a verb. It’s something we do. It’s the affirmation of values as absolute (but not permanent). Can you have a moral interchange with a Barbarian? Can you show him he is wrong without appealing to some external recalcitrant standard? In other words, can you condemn those attrocities without appealing to the Christian in you (as it is in all of us)? Alternative: appeal to Life. But life is not “a life” but the reproduction of life, life is a verb. Europe is white because of the Barbarians – it can hardly say they were not a “living force”.

Conversely, however, perhaps we can appeal to life to condemn air travel. But this cannot be because it will produce a change in life, life in a new way, but rather because it actually contributes to the destruction of freedom (freedom is the highest form of life), which it certainly will if the disasters produce fascism.

R.K. April 8, 2008 at 9:53 pm

Air travel is like looting in a situation when you know there can never be official punishment – like looting Baghdad after the fall of Saddam.

In this situation, no choice of yours can even slightly diminish the total level of chaos. The best choice for you – both as an individual and a member of society – is to ‘get while the getting is good.’

Fly to Australia while it is still cheap and easy. Likewise, Japan, Russia, etc, etc, etc.

Tristan April 9, 2008 at 1:38 am

“no choice of yours can even slightly diminish the total level of chaos”

I suppose I should just take the golden teeth as well.

tristan April 9, 2008 at 1:45 am

I want to suggest there are some real problems with the way this expression is formulated, concerning the way it refers to persons.

“As individuals, we need to consider whether the environmental harm associated with flying is somehow akin to being one tiny node in a million-person mob. If so, we need to question whether it is something we can continue to do.”

Who are we talking when we say “as individuals”? A faceless mob of individuated subjects. A tiny node in a million person mob – differentiated only by the fact of its differentiation at all (individuality without content). Confirmed by the use of “we” in the following sentence.

In moral problems, we cannot think of the person as “one”, as “we”, or in the sense of an abstract “individual”. We must talk about “you”, “me”. There’s a reason why Heidegger refuses to say “person” or “man” in his early period, instead saying “dasein”. It sounds more abstract because it’s German, but the actual intent is to use a less abstract word for the human, what could be a more concrete expression of “youness” than “Being-there”?

My point here is not that we should adopt some oddball terminology from a German phenomenologist – rather that the very relation of flight to looting reveals the fact that we cannot deal with moral problems as abstract individuals – because as an abstract individual I might as well steal the belongings of gassed jews. It’s only as a concrete, actual, situated person where abstract duties become concrete and viceral that moral problems are ever even encountered.

Emily April 9, 2008 at 5:19 am

“The people around you want you to loot. Having a non-looter around is uncomfortable.”

This is especially true. Very thoughtful people I know will roll their eyes at you if you turn off all the lights before leaving their house, or get their feathers ruffled if you talk about air-travel disparagingly.

More than anything, our culture hates perceived kill-joys.

Aren’t we the generation who grew up with Captain Planet and The Smoggies? Shouldn’t we be brain-washed by our hours of mindless TV absorption into saving the world?

Actually, come to think of it, maybe shows like Captain Planet are the reason we hate nature. C.P. is pretty much the world’s biggest ‘5-children morphing into man’ tool ever.

See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpXM9bj-WPU&feature=related

It’s sort of like those really pathetic ‘Kick the Nic’ posters they used to have posted at SkyTrain stations. Every time I saw some kid in tapered baby blue jeans kicking a badly photoshopped giant cigarette in half, I got the urge to buy a pack of Camels and smoke them in one go.

Anon April 9, 2008 at 8:34 am

Often, other people want you to fly because:

(a) they want to see you
(b) they want you to see the world and have adventures
(c) they do not believe in their heart of hearts that climate change is real / a big enough problem to stop flying over

Milan April 9, 2008 at 8:38 am

Emily,

Regarding that video:

“Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, can no longer stand the terrible destruction plaguing our planet. She gives five special rings to five special young people.”

Not only is nature aware and personified, but the best idea she can come up with to deal with humanity’s destructive tendencies is sending magic rings to a handful of adolescents. Frankly, I would expect a lot better from any being with any kind of meaningful power over the earth.

No wonder the planet is getting devastated.

Milan April 9, 2008 at 9:51 am

Acts done for one’s own reasons are essentially anti-religious. It is saying one should not act until there is a coherent group that is the religious thinking – acting in groups where you can lose yourself.

I agree. There is nothing essentially religious about ‘pointless’ sacrifices, though religions do sometimes demand them.

However, can we fault the Barbarians for being barbarians? Could you actually show up in a Barbarian settlement and make a cogent point, even from your own point of view, to convince them that their entire existence was a mistake, and that they should remake themselves in a new way?

I believe that we can fault them for being barbarians, in the sense of killing, looting, and raping. The fact that you or I could not convince them to change their ways does not mean those ways are justified. It just means that they are dependent of violence and very difficult to convince to change course. Much like Tony Soprano, really.

In other words, can you condemn those attrocities without appealing to the Christian in you (as it is in all of us)?

I am not a Christian. Similarly, Christians can be barbarians. The presence or absence of Christianity has little to do with morality. We can condemn atrocities entirely on the basis of human sympathy and a recognition that atrocious acts reduce the welfare of humanity as a whole.

In this situation, no choice of yours can even slightly diminish the total level of chaos. The best choice for you – both as an individual and a member of society – is to ‘get while the getting is good.’

On an individual level, this is true. This is a big part of why the problem of climate change is so pernicious. We are still in the era where having flown all over the world is responded to with respect and envy from most people.

My point here is not that we should adopt some oddball terminology from a German phenomenologist – rather that the very relation of flight to looting reveals the fact that we cannot deal with moral problems as abstract individuals – because as an abstract individual I might as well steal the belongings of gassed jews. It’s only as a concrete, actual, situated person where abstract duties become concrete and viceral that moral problems are ever even encountered.

I don’t see why this is terribly relevant to thought experiments. If we could only think about moral questions in concrete and visceral circumstances, we would never have time to formulate a good answer.

Very thoughtful people I know will roll their eyes at you if you turn off all the lights before leaving their house, or get their feathers ruffled if you talk about air-travel disparagingly.

This has confused and annoyed me a lot recently. People who understand the seriousness of climate change not only continue to fly, but try hard to talk me out of not doing so. While I cannot promise I will never fly again, I can say that I won’t be doing so as often or trivially as I am often encouraged to.

@Anon,

I realize that a lot of people think in the way you describe. They need to be convinced of the reality of climate change and, if possible, of the moral relevance of their own actions.

Tristan April 9, 2008 at 10:10 am

As usual, I feel completely un listened to.

“The presence or absence of Christianity has little to do with morality.”

This is absurd. Christianity defined the scope of modern morality. Never had the west been so unified under a single cultural force. Certainly many people are no longer Christians, but the moral landscape they operate on owes much to Christianity.

What I mean by “being a Christian” is exercising moral judgment by imposing an external standard which is beyond any particular individual. There’s a reason Nietzsche calls this “slave” morality, it’s because it doesn’t have any individuals in it, only a horde. As an individual you can’t impose universal edicts on others because you have no ground on which to do so, to suppose this ground is to suppose something like God.

“I don’t see why this is terribly relevant to thought experiments. If we could only think about moral questions in concrete and visceral circumstances, we would never have time to formulate a good answer.”‘

This seems a bit silly. We only have to deal with moral questions in concrete circumstances, so it’s a bit strange to say we don’t have time to make moral deliberations about the questions we do have to answer.

What I’m advocating is a moral position where one chooses one one’s own, for one’s own reasons, and deliberates well (i.e. not hypocritically). It seems to me all we can do (and I mean this in a pragmatic sense), is encourage others to do the same. Imposing an external moral standard on them gives no motivation whatsoever except for taboo or the force of law. On the other hand, if you encourage people to deliberate well, as this post does, you show them why as the kind of people they are they cannot avoid the right moral action. And in a certain sense, you don’t get to know what the right moral action for them is in advance, it’s really up to them to find out. (This is not relativism, there are right actions, but right actions can not be determined outside of deliberation in concrete situations. You still might be able to make intelligent inferences and guesses at what it would be, but you don’t get to know.)

Milan April 9, 2008 at 10:18 am

Tristan,

That approach doesn’t seem very robust or durable. Given even moderately strong incentives to violate their own ethical beliefs, a lot of people will do so. Perhaps more people than society can handle.

That is why we sometimes need to make external determinations about what morality is, and put the force of law behind it – as with carbon pricing, or restrictions on the emission of toxic waste.

I think you give Christianity too much credit. Morality existed in pre-Christian societies, and exists now in non-Christian ones. It is possible to be Christian and moral, Christian and immoral, non-Christian and moral, and non-Christian and immoral. As such, it doesn’t seem like Christianity, in and of itself, is an important factor. Furthermore, there are plenty of Christians who have behaved in staggeringly immoral ways. Think of the people who planned the Children’s Crusade as a means of acquiring (Christian) children to sell into slavery.

Tristan April 9, 2008 at 7:37 pm

Yes, morality existed before Christianity, but not as external standard for the sake of the least well off. “Geneology of Morals” remains the definitive text on the “Christian” nature of state morality in our age.

“Given even moderately strong incentives to violate their own ethical beliefs, a lot of people will do so. ”

I do not mean that what you ought do is what a situated individual will do. Rather, what a situated individual OUGHT to do. My point is we can only grasp the ought by actually finding ourselves in a situation where an ought is given! Oughts asribed to ideal subjects are purely abstract and why should we expect people to follow them?

Sarah April 9, 2008 at 10:12 pm

I say again, we need a Don’t Fly This Year movement based on promoting government action to reduce emissions and encouraging individuals and businesses to make substantial emissions reductions in the areas where they are capable of doing so without great incovenience. Flying, I think, provides the best example of an individual change which could have a substantial effect on one’s footprint without making your everyday life unliveable – for instance, the online calculations I’ve done suggest my 2 return flights last year consituted 70% of my carbon footprint & I know people who make a lot of (largely un-necessary) business flights for whom it constitutes over 90%.
An individual non-looter has little influence; a coordinated group of non-looters can form a Neighbourhood Watch.

tristan April 10, 2008 at 1:28 am

Milan,

It’s unclear to me why you’re trying to oppose my main point, since your argument relies on it:

“The people around you want you to loot. Having a non-looter around is uncomfortable. It draws attention to the way in which the choice to loot is a moral choice, and how it is made on an individual basis. It forces people who are looting to justify their choice somehow – both publicly and in the confines of their own thinking.”

This is an example of how a situated individual’s situation actually compels him or her to act morally – you must act morally because others demand it of you. The others, as moral agents, demand to be confronted with the need to justify their actions. This need is presented by the one who chooses not to loot – he makes it apparent that you are not actually determined by your drives. The one who chooses for himself on principle lets others realize that they can also choose on principle rather than fall into the drives.

Tristan April 10, 2008 at 1:33 am

I think another thing the looting example does is it makes it apparent that the point is not to pick some amount of CO2 emissions and emit only that amount. Rather, recognize unnecessary pollution for what it is (unnecessary), and refuse to participate in it. The numbers can be an incentive, but the moral action itself is outside numbers, the moral action is “no”.

It’s quite unclear to me what I ought do.

Tristan April 10, 2008 at 9:53 am

“we would never have time to formulate a good answer.”

The hybris of your thinking is to think it would be possible to always formulate the right answer ahead of time and in abstraction of the concrete circumstances of deliberation.

Elsa April 10, 2008 at 10:05 am

Air travel differs from looting because the amount you ‘steal’ is trivial. No matter how alarmist you are about climate change, taking one flight is equivalent to stealing a thimble.

Tristan April 10, 2008 at 10:18 am

“the amount you ’steal’ is trivial”

The amount you steal in regular looting is trivial as well, because if you don’t steal it someone else will.

. April 11, 2008 at 2:09 pm

Implosion of the Airline Industry

Whether peak is upon us or not, sustained high oil prices are providing a preview of a post-peak airline industry. Most airlines are losing money like mad. Northwest and Delta are merging. Aloha Airlines went bankrupt. Frontier has declared bankruptcy. Beyond the bankruptcies of some smaller carriers, Richard Branson is predicting that one of the majors will go bankrupt within 18 months.

It’s an ugly situation, and I don’t see it getting better any time soon.

Sasha April 11, 2008 at 2:33 pm

Don’t make me quote Margaret Mead here…
Social changes happens as individual choices accumulate and become norms. Governments do not tend to enact policies without rising or existing social norms on which to base them. I think the “wait until policy says so” argument holds no water whatsoever. The only way something like a policy limiting air travel is likely to occur is because individuals start not flying because of climate concerns, and the idea slowly catches on to the point that it has enough political cache to become policy.

Top down social change is mostly myth. Join Margaret’s small group of committed individuals and be the change you want to see in the world
– else expect not to see it. I for one am thinking three times about any planned air travel, and for only the same reason I don’t drive: not because my government told me not to, but because I know it’s the right thing to do.

Milan April 11, 2008 at 3:16 pm

The hybris of your thinking is to think it would be possible to always formulate the right answer ahead of time and in abstraction of the concrete circumstances of deliberation.

Expecting perfection would be hubristic, certainly, but all policy development relies upon the consideration of both future situations and hypothetical alternatives. Everything from banking regulation to identifying priority areas for climate change adaptation requires hypothetical thinking.

The only way something like a policy limiting air travel is likely to occur is because individuals start not flying because of climate concerns, and the idea slowly catches on to the point that it has enough political cache to become policy.

I agree – and raising the moral question in the first place is the only way to provoke people into thinking about changing their beliefs and behaviours.

Top down social change may be mythical when you are talking about voluntary choices. What top down policy does do is alter the options and incentives presented to people making choices. Without top down policy, we would probably never have gotten rid of DDT, leaded gasoline, or ozone depleting CFCs. You do need public support for these policies to emerge and endure, but top down regulation is critical wherever people face a major trade-off between their own utility in the near term and the welfare of distant others across the long term.

Mark April 13, 2008 at 6:58 pm

Milan – I haven’t read all you have written on this subject, so perhaps you have explained this at length elsewhere, but I have to say I don’t understand the obsession with air travel. It makes up something like 3% of world CO2 emissions (though perhaps contributes more to warming due to altitude of emission).

Why the particular focus on one, small aspect of the CO2 mix? Surely there are other choices you could make which are at least as significant. My personal take is to be a vocal supporter of nuclear power. (I was going to suggest not eating meat or not owning a car, but I realized you have already ticked these boxes…)

Milan April 13, 2008 at 8:31 pm

Mark,

A few reasons:

1) It may be a small part of world emissions, but it is a big part of the total emissions of most people who read this blog.

2) There is no sustainable alternative to flying. It isn’t obvious whether my laptop is powered by a relatively clean hydroelectric dam or some evil palm-oil powered diesel station. When it comes to flying, it is always unsustainable.

Milan April 13, 2008 at 9:08 pm

Also, flying is almost always voluntary and optional. It is arbitrary whether one is born in France (nuclear power), Quebec (hydro), Los Angeles (natural gas), or West Virginia (coal). It is not arbitrary whether one chooses to fly across an ocean for a vacation, wedding, or conference.

. July 10, 2008 at 3:10 pm

A strong case can be made that nations who exceed their fair share of safe global greenhouse gas emissions violate the human rights of others. How a “fair share” is determined is an ethical question beyond the scope of this post but a matter that will be the subject of future posts. Yet, without doubt some large emitting nations are beyond their fair share of global emissions no matter what distributive justice theory is used to determine any nation’s fair share. This can be concluded with high degrees of confidence because global emissions need to be reduced by large amounts ( between 60 and 90 percent) to prevent catastrophic warming and some nations are emitting much higher levels of emissions than other both on a per capita and total tons of emissions basis.

According to human rights theory, if climate change caused harm violates human rights, all governments have duties take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within their jurisdictions to that nation’s fair share of global emissions. Further, according to human rights theory, all persons whose rights are violated by climate change may demand protection from those nations who are exceeding their fair share of global emissions for as long as greenhouse gas emissions interfere with basic human rights.

If climate change can trigger human rights responsibilities, the duty to reduce national emissions to any nation’s fair share of global emission is not diminished because of justifications that have sometimes been used by some nations for not reducing their emissions such as cost-benefit analysis or the fact that not all nations have agreed to reduce their emissions.

For this reason, if climate change damages interfere with human rights, the international; debate about national responsibility should be limited to what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore, understanding climate change as triggering human rights violations should transform the subject of future international climate change negotiations even if no existing human rights tribunal has jurisdiction to provide a remedy for climate change caused damages. This is so because very strong moral claims can be made that climate change interferes with human right enjoyment even if existing human rights regimes prove to not be viable remedies for climate change because of legal initiations of these regimes.

. September 29, 2008 at 1:58 pm

AskMetafilter
If you believe in climate change, is it wrong to drive or fly?

If you believe climate change is real, bad, and man-made: does that mean it’s wrong to take a flight or drive a car? Are there any reasonable excuses?

. November 30, 2009 at 5:02 pm

“Were we not to take bold action, the worst impacts of the climate crisis would unfold over many generations, escalating in their destructive power decade by decade. But we cannot wait for the full fury of the crisis in order to mobilize a response, because by then it would already be too late to stop the process that we have set in motion.

By that point, the generation that finally realized that humans have been condemned to an endless degradation of their prospects for the entirety of the lives of their children and their children’s children would be entirely justified in looking backwards at us in our time as a criminal generation that they would curse endlessly as the architects of humanity’s destruction.”

Gore, Al. Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis. (p. 27 paperback)

. February 14, 2011 at 6:31 pm

The Misconception: People who riot and loot are scum who were just looking for an excuse to steal and be violent.

The Truth: You are are prone to losing your individuality and becoming absorbed into a hivemind under the right conditions.

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