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Flying Free

(This article first appeared in Transformations, journal of Psychotherapists for Counsellors and Social Responsibility (PCSR) in the Autumn/Winter 2012 edition and is reproduced with kind permission of PCSR.)



I stopped flying eight years ago. It was a decision that crept up on me. I wasn’t a prolific flyer in the years directly preceding this decision, but I flew enough to feel a sense of dis-ease as I took to the skies, aware of the carbon being pumped into the atmosphere partly on my behalf.


At the recent, annual ‘Meeting at the Edge of the Wild’ UK ecopsychology gathering in Worcestershire I was reminded of my decision when the Saturday night band ‘Seize the Day’ performed their song ‘Flying’ which thoughtfully raises questions about the ethics of flying (you can read the lyrics below.) I was glad to hear this theme being raised in the context of this gathering and appreciated that the song highlights the complexity of this decision. I sensed afresh the part of myself which made that final decision to stop flying as well as the part that loves and misses flying. I feel nervous writing about this theme: I realise that I've kept quite quiet about my no-flying decision and wonder whether it's time to enter into more dialogue?


My reasons for giving up flying followed my wish to engage more fully with changing my 'lifestyle’. Of course, changes at a structural, policy level and shifting consciousness are absolutely vital too, but I want to engage more and more fully with the uneasy realities of climate change and what that means on a practical level, including but not limited to cutting my carbon emissions. When I stopped flying I knew that I needed to do more (note to self - I still need to do more!) I was doing the obvious stuff: recycling, consuming fewer everyday goods and sourcing things more ethically. Since my youth I've been dialoguing - outwardly and inwardly - about challenges we face on a global scale. Those challenges are deepening. Since my childhood I’ve been acutely aware of the tensions created by the threats and reality of airport expansion, growing up a mile away from an international airport, more of which later. It was dawning on me that the next change I needed to make would need to be significant enough that I’d really feel its effect, to acknowledge the need for change in the way I think and act, and then to reflect on those changes.


I loved flying. I loved seeing the earth from the sky: jagged coastlines, oases in the heart of the desert, miles and miles of white fluffy cloud and the welcome green of home after the golden rich red-yellow of parched earth. I loved the exhilaration of taking off and never stopped marvelling at how aircraft, people, and luggage could rocket through the sky, despite the best attempts of various friends and family members trying to explain to me aerodynamics. Bizarrely enough, I also loved airports. I was fortunate in travelling alone to and from sub Saharan Africa in my 20s and 30s so would often find myself drinking Earl Grey tea in a quiet corner of this or that airport at unsociable hours - Schipol in Amsterdam being my favourite. Airports never sleep: 24-7 time zones and heaven for an inveterate, introverted people watcher and tea drinker.


Through my teens I'd become increasingly aware of the destructive effects of air travel: bigger planes and more flights, matching our desire to venture to new lands. Growing up beneath the flight path of Bristol airport, aeroplanes were as familiar to me as the local wildlife. They were so familiar that I didn't really pay much attention to them and found it odd when visitors leapt up to see the evening flight to Dublin going over. 'Planes and concrete became more of a local threat as the runway was extended, and, despite our campaigning, I feel sure will be extended again, most likely covering the ancient common land which was my childhood playground. This ancient common is a special place. It has a Roman fairy ring of rocks, rich ‘wildlife’, atmospheric burial mounds, a lovely view of the Mendips, Dundry Hill and the Chew Valley, stories of King John's hunting ground and the ubiquitous headless horsemen myths. It was particularly special to me because it’s where I built dens, hid, sledged, argued with my brother, ran with the dog, cloud-watched, galloped around on borrowed horses, told the dog my troubles, and later stole away to drink Mendip Magic (cider) with friends amidst much hilarity. It was where people had been grazing animals for hundreds of years and more recently walked dogs and played football.


In a different vein I became horribly aware of the destructive power of aeroplanes when I flew on a work trip to Nairobi on September 12th, 2001. The airports were like grave yards and half the flights were cancelled. BBC World news was, for once, unscreened, less we travellers once again see the terrible images of jet planes plunging into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. I felt haunted that morning by the thought of hundreds of other ordinary folk stepping onto a 'plane twenty-four hours earlier, their lives ending as human bombs. The tragic misuse of the genuine wonder of modern technology and human invention. Humans taking to the skies in outwitting each other on a dramatic, terrifying scale.


So my flying life – well, aeroplane flying at least – came to an abrupt end in 2004. It was a decision a bit like when I became a vegetarian when I was 15: back then I watched a documentary about the treatment of animals for food production and seeing abject suffering was the final straw in a long decision-making process. Why should animals, fellow beings, suffer that much just so I could eat? I stopped eating meat and fish. Now I've stopped flying for not dissimilar reasons. Not flying has had a tangible effect on my life. There are friends abroad – beyond a train trip—even a long one – who I would love to visit again. My work-life is at times limited by my decision not to fly. My life as a Buddhist is limited to the extent that I don’t go to international gatherings or on interesting pilgrimages.


What I've been most curious about since is my internal process in making a decision about my outward actions. My decision has brought me right up against my consuming conditioning; much of it out of my everyday awareness until that point. To my horror I must have imbibed, subconsciously, more of the individualistic, consumerist ethic of my formative years in the 1980s than I care to acknowledge. This was an interesting and uncomfortable realisation, as I don't consider myself to be much of a consumer. I'm not big on shopping and have even managed to curb my book habit in recent years. So it was curious to notice my toddler-like "but if I've got the money I damn well should be able to buy a ticket to Amsterdam" (accompanied by a scowl and stomping foot). I was caught short in seeing how I'd got caught up, unwittingly, in the Western mindset that if you've got the money and the 'leisure' time you can buy the 'experience'. It was pretty humbling and more than a little disconcerting.


My flying-free decision has encouraged me to look afresh at how I journey through life. Not just how many actual journeys I take and my mode of travel - although that's in my awareness more consciously—but my attitude to what constitutes a life well lived. I am reminded of one of the 'precepts' or training principles I took up as part of my ordination as a Buddhist. This invites stillness, simplicity and contentment in the face of the gravitational pull of intoxication and sensory overwhelm. I've reflected on it repeatedly in watching the way I approach life and in witnessing how many everyday 'leisure' pursuits are designed to stimulate and increase our sensory pleasures, fuelling our thirst for consumption and acquisition, acting with a blindness to other species and their needs, compared to our wants. The mainstream pleasure-seeking invitation takes place in a beautiful vacuum of air-brushed photos and wall to wall blue sky with little mindfulness of the consequences of our actions. Our craving costs the earth.


For me not flying has been a reality check - an unexpected reality check - in practising this precept and in particular in appreciating the particular resonance and relevance it has for the times in which we are living. I sometimes feel sad that I no longer visit places which are only accessible by plane. Very often that sadness leads to a fond remembrance of the places I've visited. Fortunately my imagination is alive and well and I can fill in the gaps in remembering - and take flights of fantasy! There’s a freedom in living simply.


I am struck by the simple beauty of my immediate environment. It's easy to overlook the city as grey shabbiness. I recently returned from a marvellous holiday in the wilds and noticed how I saw my home city with new, fresh, tourist eyes. The walk to the park, the colour of houses in Bristol, the tone of the brick work, flowers that pop up in unexpected places. It was a useful wake-up call in how often I rely upon the tape-playing story in my head ("I wish we were moving to the country...") rather than engaging with the vivid colours and textures right in front of me at any given moment.


Relationally I find that friends telling me about their latest fly-away holiday plans apologise about flying, or announce it rather defiantly, or enter into a long spiel about the reasons they need to fly. These responses baffle and sadden me. Why apologise to me, rather than the nearest tree, or sky? I didn't give up flying to stand in judgement of those who fly. I gave up flying to bring home to myself the need for transition in the way I live and the way I am. Going forth from the romance of flying reached the spot in nudging me towards more integrating of inner and outer transition and a greater recognition of all that lives— not just human lives– in a way that other 'going forths' might not have done. Realigning with emerging realities.


In one sense giving up flying is, of course, tokenistic, or could become tokenistic if I did it in the spirit of carbon-offsetting, feeling smug and counting my reward points, continuing in the consumerist groove. I'm acutely aware on a daily basis of how much there's still to do in reducing my own carbon footprint and nurturing the spirit of transition in dialogue with friends and colleagues. And the question of whether or not to fly is but one issue amongst many.


In the words of the 'Seize the Day' song: “What would you do? What will we do?” On an individual and collective level, how do we muddle through figuring out how to engage with climate change, loss of biodiversity, desertification, polarised local and global inequalities etc etc etc, whilst keeping contact with a still, creative, communicative place inside ourselves?


We're a stunningly inventive, resourceful and destructive species. We're full of bright ideas and strategies and the many amazing aspects of humanity. But sadly we’ve largely lost sight of other Life On Earth. Perhaps the tide is changing in how at least a growing minority of us humans are starting to remember our place as one amongst many interdependent and interrelated species.



Lyrics from ‘Flying' by Seize the Day



I have a friend, who lives in Bantry Bay,
His lover lives 400 miles away,
so far by ferry, bus and train it takes all day

He knows flying is a climate crime,
But he doesn't have the money and she doesn't have the time,
And when it's cheaper to fly than to park at the airport.
What would you do? (x 2)


I will recycle,
I'll use my bicycle,
I'll walk into town,
I'll turn the heating down,
I'll fill my kettle halfway,
Listen to everything else you say...
But don't take my freedom away,
Don't take my holidays,
Don't take my time away,
Don't take my wings away..

I always thought I'd be by my sister's side,
When she gave birth to her first child,
And I'd love to see my Grandma again before she goes all the way.
Now they live so far away,
Australia and the USA,
What the hell will I say if they need me?
What would you do? (x 2)



Official sources say that we need to reduce our CO2 emissions to between,
1 and 2.5 tonnes per person per year if we're to stabilize the atmosphere.
The government, on our behalf, consumes between 1 and 2 tonnes per year
On street lights, hospitals and fighting wars
1 return flight to Sydney Australia produces 10 tonnes of CO2 per passenger

I discovered so much of who I am,
Sitting in deserts in the sand,
Nothing and no-one to get in the way, no bills to pay.
I love lying in the sun and swimming in warm sea,
I don't want to think about all the places I will never see,
Living is hard and flying is easy...
What will you do?
What will we do?


I will recycle,
I'll use my bicycle,
I'll walk into town,
I'll turn the heating down,
I'll wash my car with rags,
I'll never use plastic bags,
My clothes are ethically made,
I drink my tea fair-trade,
I'll offset my carbon debt,
By planting trees in Tibet,
And every 3rd world home will have an energy saving light bulb all of their own!
I'll fill my kettle halfway,
Listen to everything else you say...
But don't take my freedom away,
Don't take my holidays,
Don't take my time away,
Don't take my wings away...


Seize the Day’s website





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