The sociology of avoiding travel, due to climate change

2009-06-27

in Politics, Rants, The environment

Adopting a personal ethical position where you don’t fly or otherwise travel long distances because of climate change is rather problematic: it has no upside, and a lot of downside. There is no upside because nobody is willing to copy you. Even people who agree that the science on climate change is compelling, that our emissions harm future generations, and that this creates moral obligations are unwilling to give up the opportunity to travel to interesting distant places, as well as visit friends and family members in far-flung locales (like the other side of this massive country). Tony Blair won’t give up his holidays in Barbados, and people with family, work, and school split between different regions won’t give up the option to cycle between them regularly.

The downside associated with making this kind of personal example is clear, and goes beyond sacrificing new experiences, family, and friends. Once you have taken the stance, any abandonment will be perceived by a lot of people as proof that environmentalists are hypocrites, that obligations to avoid highly-emitting activities are weak, etc. While the example of being abstinent isn’t forceful enough to make others equally scrupulous, the counter-example of lapses from abstinence provides rich material to rationalize morally dubious actions.

All this is true regardless of the strength of weakness of the key moral arguments that would underpin such a personal position. They are just undesirable secondary sociological characteristics.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan June 28, 2009 at 12:40 am

“All this is true regardless of the strength of weakness of the key moral arguments that would underpin such a personal position. They are just undesirable secondary sociological characteristics.”

If the rightness of the personal position is justified on consequentialist grounds, then there is no primary/secondary distinction between the moral arguments and the sociological reality of the effects. If what is desirable is the best consequences, then all information about actual consequences is morally relevant, and plays a part in the assessment of the strength or weakness of the moral argument.

Basically, you seem to be adopting an ideal (perfect)/real (imperfect) binary, and devaluing the imperfect reality as secondary and descriptive. This would be appropriate if you thought morality was something ideal (like duty), but if you think it’s about consequences (what are the best outcomes we can achieve), then all the imperfection, the “sociology” of the real world is morally relevant to whether any particular action or position is morally right or not.

Sasha June 28, 2009 at 6:13 pm

I think you err here Milan in assuming that no one will follow suit. People like you and me who have made these sorts of commitments already are on the leading edge; we have made the right decision. Yes, it will probably be a far too slow process till that norm shifts and we are no longer the few. That said, without leading edge, there is no trend or habit to even try to spread, so I’d argue that we’re actually necessary if any positive change is to occur.

BuddyRich June 29, 2009 at 7:42 am

I’ve personally always believed in leading by example. I can’t stand hypocrisy. That said I can understand why someone like Al Gore can jet around raising awareness, seemingly flaunting what he publicly preaches. However, eventually, at least to me, once awareness is achieved, he’ll have to stop the jet-setting if he truly believes in what he raises awareness for.

I can’t possibly know his inner thoughts, but if he truly believed, how could he could come to any other conclusion, given what he has publicly said? This assumes that people are for the most part rational actors (which sadly I don’t necessarily believe).

Of course with a problem like AGW, each individual’s actions actions are just an small part in the overall problem. In that way its like the flu-shot (or any other vaccines). Do you feel morally compelled to get it? It’s really only going to be effective in promoting herd immunity if 90-95% of the population get vaccinated, and at least in Ontario (where it comes at no cost to anyone, except their time), the vaccination rate is only 38%. So do you tell yourself, no I am not going to get vaccinated, because no one else is, and its pointless to get it until more people start tp get it, or do you get it to do your part and start the trend? Its a hard question to answer.

Rightness, wrongness, and morality aside, in personal decisions like this, it all comes down to how you feel about it. It is about personal integrity, and if you can look at yourself in the mirror the next day. Let that be your guide in any decisions you make.

Emily June 29, 2009 at 8:57 pm

“Once you have taken the stance, any abandonment will be perceived by a lot of people as proof that environmentalists are hypocrites, that obligations to avoid highly-emitting activities are weak, etc.”

It is good that you have a semi-public profile to set an exemplary attitude.

Perhaps, more than anything else, long-distance abstinence really tests your patience.

How long will it be before you get a chance to travel a distance to some exotic location? See someone you love? etc.

Abstinence from long-distance travel also requires planning in the long-term. It means a firm commitment to one geographic location, a place to work, play, and love.

Luckily, in Canada there are a number of good locations to take your stationary position.

I think it is possible to be both happy and anchored in one location. It just means that you need to find variety in your locale. Unfortunately, Ottawa makes that seem like a grim prospect.

It is important to not deprive yourself to the point of making life unliveable. You are making a large sacrifice by not traveling long distance – make sure that you don’t let that wear you down, and find someplace closer to get out that desire to rove. You are very close to maybe the most beautiful city in Canada. Take a week in Montreal, and enjoy the life there. Or what have you.

alena June 29, 2009 at 9:49 pm

I would never consider you a hypocrite if you chose to fly because you felt a passion or a need to be near someone that overrode your social and other obligations. Life is filled with difficult choices and compromises and they are not black and white. It is our duty to live our lives to the fullest and to do as much good as we can. There are many different ways to do so and it is not our place to judge others. We are tempted to do so, but all I really want for you is to live a full life. I will honor your choices, but I will come to see you wherever you are because you are a treasure in my life.

Milan June 30, 2009 at 2:10 pm

I think it is possible to be both happy and anchored in one location. It just means that you need to find variety in your locale. Unfortunately, Ottawa makes that seem like a grim prospect.

I agree. Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver would all be better.

Vancouver would be the very best in terms of family, friends, and climate. That said, it is the most isolated, which is a problem for someone who wants to avoid long-distance travel).

Toronto has the major benefit of being home to a certain U of T student. I have a lot of family there, and there are lots of job opportunities (though no federal government policy jobs).

Montreal might be the more interesting East Coast city, but it has the least going for it overall.

Perhaps the solution is to find a job in Toronto and settle there, perhaps with one last trip to Vancouver to settle my affairs, while waiting for lower carbon forms of transport to emerge…

Emily June 30, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Perhaps the solution is to find a job in Toronto and settle there, perhaps with one last trip to Vancouver to settle my affairs, while waiting for lower carbon forms of transport to emerge…

A certain U of T student would be happy to have you in close proximity.

Milan June 30, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Of course, the whole “waiting for lower carbon forms of transport to emerge” takes us back to the question of ‘how green is green enough?’

For instance, would taking a hypothetical electric train (with a hypothetical 250kg of associated emissions) be acceptable, while taking a bus (maybe 400kg) or a plane (perhaps about a tonne, though the altitude adjustment remains a source of uncertainty) not be?

That if you take the train four times more often than you would fly? All this arithmetic continues to occur in the absence of a good moral framework.

Matt June 30, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Milan, I was thinking of how your desire to travel internationally conflicts with your desire to not use fossil fuels. It would be incredible to sail the world, and not completely outside the realm of possibility. Perhaps you should learn this skill.

Milan June 30, 2009 at 3:07 pm

I think the only way I could ever afford to do so would be as a paid crewmember on someone else’s yacht.

That said, such a thing isn’t entirely impossible, despite my total near-total lack of nautical experience.

Milan June 30, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Here is an idea for an ethical framwork, based on a personal carbon budget.

. November 10, 2009 at 9:47 am

Auden nIcarus

So we can’t fly anymore: we just need to
be like those old men in Breughel’s Icarus
what were they thinking anyways, sort of bored – oh
they had better morepractical things on
their minds: Auden seemed to think those old men had the right
idea he always liked that kind of seasoned
disenchantment.

And ah hope that we can carry on some kindof
peace while our children are trying to blow
bubbles in the turning ocean currents.

. January 13, 2010 at 2:45 pm

“Psychologists suggest that people make constant trade-offs in social settings between, on one hand, insisting on their notion of truth and, on the other, the cohesion of a group. Sometimes truth and virtue require dissent and rebellion. Other times the survival or security of the group takes precedence and requires solidarity. If Socrates the free thinker belonged to a team, a club, a firm or a country today, he would never compromise his values, but he might well compromise his group.

Stone concluded that Socrates was on the biggest “ego-trip” in history. He probably was. And yet Athens would soon regret having convicted him. His trial was an overreaction, a betrayal of Athenian values just as torturing terrorist suspects or wiretapping Americans after September 11th were betrayals of American values. Democracies do betray themselves. Challengers such as Socrates exist to test society in its commitment to freedom and, if society fails the test, to remind it of the virtuous path. “

. February 11, 2010 at 1:52 pm

“At a recent dinner at Oxford University a senior researcher in atmospheric physics was telling me about his coming holiday in Thailand. I asked him whether he was concerned that this would make a contribution to climate change (we had, after all, just sat through a two hour presentation on the topic). “Of course,” he said blithely, “and I’m sure the government will make long haul flights illegal at some point”.

To be honest the conversation had not just idly strayed into the topic of holidays: I had deliberately steered it in this direction as part of an informal research project- one you are welcome to join. Previous experimental subjects include a senior adviser to Nicholas Stern who flies regularly to South Africa (“my offsets help set a price in the carbon market”), a member of the British Antarctic Survey who takes several long haul skiing trips a year (“my job is stressful”), a national media environment correspondent who took his family to Sri Lanka (“I can’t see much hope”) and a Greenpeace climate campaigner back from scuba diving in the Pacific (“it was a GREAT trip!”).”

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