Flights of Peril and Privilege (Part 1 of 3)

October 7, 2019
By Richard Slimbach
Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. 2019. Airplane With Contrails. Image. Retrieved from https://www.c2es.org/content/reducing-carbon-dioxide-emissions-from-aircraft/.

For over 100 years, global educators have sought through a stunning array of overseas study and service programs to move young adults outside the campus bubble and insert them into the social worlds of others, often in faraway places. There they would delight in the discovery of alternative ways of life and experience a gradual liberation from cultural myopia. Returning home with expanded intellectual and cultural horizons, they could hope to draw upon insights from elsewhere to help create a better world.

Paradoxically, the very means by which a rising generation is able to see and understand the world is, today, hastening its ruin. This is because education abroad largely relies on long-distance, fossil fuel-powered, and highly-polluting air travel. Aircraft fly in the sensitive upper troposphere and lower stratosphere where they release a cocktail of greenhouse gases. Besides CO2, the burning of jet fuel releases water vapor, nitrous oxides, sulphate, and soot high in the atmosphere. Contrails and cirrus clouds let the sun through but trap outgoing thermal radiation from the ground, warming the planet.

A recent report (IPCC, 2018) by the world’s leading climate scientists warns that humanity has only a dozen or so years to contain atmospheric warming at a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial era levels, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of floods, drought, wildfires, food shortages, and inescapable poverty for hundreds of millions of people. “Indeed,” writes David Wallace-Wells (2017) in New York magazine, “absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.”

Until fairly recently, the relation of the traveler to the natural world was one of the most neglected areas of ethical reflection in international education. Compared to the ethnosphere—the cultural fabric of existence that connects everyone on Earth—the ecosphere was generally perceived as trivial, merely the stage for acting out highly personalized and short-lived experiences abroad. As such, it posed no particular moral questions or obligations. Although influential professional organizations like NAFSA and The Forum on Education Abroad have formed task forces and subcommittees to consider how education abroad students might journey more mindfully, to date few have questioned the moral defensibility of long-distance educational travel in an age of unprecedented and hugely perilous climate shifts. It would appear that global educators simply accept the proposition that, if there is a trade-off to be had between educational advancement and environmental decline, the former outweighs the latter.

A proper ethical stance on the matter of air travel, whether for personal, educational or professional purposes, is not easy to arrive at. Much of my professional life in global education has involved long-distance air travel, whether to design programs, create institutional partnerships, attend conferences, or visit and teach student groups. Until fairly recently, I was oblivious to the impact of my flying. I viewed flying as an inalienable right and a masterpiece of modernity, the indulgence of which was limited only by time and money. The world was my parish. There were no further considerations.

Only gradually, and reluctantly, did I come to terms with the act of flying as an exercise of extreme privilege. (Fewer than 5% of humanity has ever flown in a plane.) Making flight-free and fly-less commitments seemed like a step too far, an uncrossable bridge. Wasn’t air travel a necessary part of doing my job well? Didn’t my professional identity depend upon flying to conferences or other special events? Wasn’t I already doing enough by adopting a mostly plant-based diet, going car-free at home, buying clothes at thrifts, and enlisting in the L.A. chapter of Extinction Rebellion? I further justified flying by telling myself that the flight is going, with or without me, and that air travel is not nearly as destructive as coal burning plants and the rapacious appetite for oil of the U.S. military. [1] In any case, the onus of responsibility to save the environment was on policy makers and big industry leaders, and not individuals like me.

To be perfectly honest, I also found flying to be a pretty heady experience. When jetting across oceans and lands at 35,000 feet in the air, one can get an incredibly inflated sense of one’s own importance. Being a frequent flyer is almost worn as a kind of badge of honor, a symbol of being one of the ‘winners’ in a cruelly divided world. After all, what truly ‘successful’ person relies exclusively on bus or bike to get around – at least in the United States?

International travel is an important status marker amongst global educators, but also for students. Amongst global service learners, air travel often reinforces, unthinkingly, feelings of social superiority. Flying for 15 or 20 hours, and then touching down in a congested, postmodern slum or rural village with no running water and deep poverty, it’s easy for one to feel indispensable. The urge is less to listen and learn than it is to dispense services and facile solutions. Once we convince ourselves that our work is ‘critical’ to the world, we will go to great lengths to justify travel actions that carry evident harms. We learn to live, however uneasily, with being a climate hypocrite.

Not that global educators don’t care deeply about the global climate crisis. We do. And yet most of us have substantially worse-than-average ecological footprints. On one level, this is simply a function of affluence: consumption of all kinds tends to rise with income level (unless one imposes strict limits). On a deeper level, however, one’s self-perception as a ‘global citizen’ easily translates into an official obliviousness to the damaging impacts of air travel. After all, aren’t cosmopolitans expected to be busy flying all over the world to schmooze at conferences, set up programs, and give talks? Aren’t we supposed to speak authoritatively about all things international precisely because of our wide-ranging travel experiences? At home we may habitually carry a hydro flask and canvas grocery bags, chastise SUV drivers, and even swear off junk food. But then, several times per year, we crisscross the continent or fly off to Ghana or Vietnam or Argentina. Flying enjoys a kind of exceptionalism. We might hope that lifestyle restraints at home adequately compensate for airborne emissions. They don’t. The average global educator, for all her climate consciousness, ends up having a far larger carbon footprint than a Midwest farmer who drives an F150 but doesn’t fly anywhere.

That’s because, minute by minute, mile by mile, nothing that we do causes greater or more easily avoidable harm to the planet than flying. A round trip from Los Angeles to Paris, or from Boston to Quito, emits 3 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. That’s 10 times what an average Kenyan emits in an entire year, and roughly equivalent to driving a Honda Accord 8,000 miles (333 gallons of gasoline). Flights cast a long, unsustainable shadow over all other planet-saving efforts. [2]

Unfortunately, scientists and engineers haven’t yet figured out how to power commercial aircraft by solar panels, batteries, biofuels, or hydrogen. In fact, air travel is the only source of emissions that is growing internationally. Although next generation planes will produce less CO2 by virtue of more efficient engines, enhanced aerodynamics and lighter materials, there are no major technological fixes on the horizon. What we do know is this: As the world’s middle class expands, along with their ability to travel, passenger numbers are set to double by 2040. Carbon emissions from aviation will rise along with them—by about 300 percent by 2050. United Nations projections show aviation becoming the single biggest emitter of CO2 by 2050 if the predicted cuts in energy generation and agriculture materialize. In other words, air travel is on track to become the biggest impediment to reducing carbon emissions.

Recently, a group of scientists revealed a deeply disturbing fact: A round trip transatlantic flight emits enough carbon pollution to melt about 3 square meters of sea ice (Newman, 2019). Such revelations are good at illustrating the gravity of our moment in history. But most of us don’t need dramatic impact calculations to conclude that transporting tens of thousands of students thousands of miles from their homes to destinations abroad is clearly incompatible with a stable climate. But the conundrum gets even more baffling: how to ethically reconcile the impacts of carbon-intensive educational travel, not just with the stability of the earth’s climate, but also with the negative effects of climate disruption on the very peoples and places that our work seeks to illuminate.

Clearly, with the onset of rapid and potentially devastating climate change, the rights and benefits of human travel need to be somehow balanced with the rights of the biosphere. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Swedish climate activist, has grasped the severity of the moment and simply doesn’t fly. Neither does Rob Hopkins, founder and figurehead of the TransitionTown movement. On the other hand, acclaimed author and environmentalist Bill McKibben continues to fly around the world in an effort to build the 350.org movement. Thunberg, Hopkins, and McKibben are all persons of great moral conviction and courage. In common with most global educators, they are comparatively well-off persons hoping to use their social influence to raise awareness and catalyze positive change. For McKibben and others like him, this involves connecting to distant peoples and places by flying.

Humanity urgently needs to stop burning fossil fuels, and the international education community has an important part to play in changing social and professional norms. We can fully support climate change mitigation and adaptation without compromising our educational mission through a complementary set of substantial, sustained actions.


Richard Slimbach only allows himself one domestic flight for one conference each year. This year he’s attending the 6th GSL Summit at Clemson University, from Nov 3 – 5. Join us there; register now.  

Read more about the ethical dilemma in global education and air travel in Part 2 of  Slimbach’s Flights of Peril & Privilege here.


Richard Slimbach, raised and educated in California, is currently Professor of Global Studies at Azusa Pacific University. He created Azusa’s Los Angeles Term and Global Learning Term programs, and co-created the Transformational Urban Leadership program (focused exclusively on the planet’s one billion slum dwellers). A graduate of UCLA (Ph.D. in comparative and international education), he is the author of Becoming World Wise (Stylus, 2010) and The Art of World Learning (Stylus, 2019). He lives with Leslie, spouse of 36 years, and their two children (Justus and Destinae) in Monrovia, California.


Notes

[1] “The US military is the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world. Every year, American armed forces consume more than 100 million barrels of oil to power ships, vehicles, aircraft, and ground operations—enough for over 4 million trips around the Earth, assuming 25 mpg.” (See Union of Concerned Scientists. (n.d.). The US military and oil. Retrieved from https://www.ucsusa.org/clean_vehicles/smart-transportation-solutions/us-military-oil-use.html) 

[2] Simple calculations by Hugh Hunt of Cambridge University reveal the true cost of flying per person. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrCX_mawAmk&feature=youtu.be


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2018). Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industriallevels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.). 

Newman, A, (2019, June 3). If Seeing the World Helps Ruin it, Should We Stay at Home? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/travel/traveling-climate-change.html

Wallace-Wells, D. (2017, July 9). The Uninhabitable Earth. New York magazine. Retrieved From http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html

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