View in browser
facebook twitter instagram youtube linkedin

Episode 5

“As the world focuses more on our carbon footprint, how do you get round the 'travel' issue? We're a global family and I'm increasingly concerned about all the long haul flights.” - Caroline


Nobody reading this article will be unaware that air travel is bad for the environment. Only climate change deniers would argue against a correlation between human behaviour such as taking flights and the critical position our planet is in right now.

Yet this was not common knowledge or a cause for much concern until recently. I scrunched across a cold, deserted shingle beach to think about this and sip hot coffee*.

I cannot remember when was the first time I boarded a plane and thought to myself, “I’m really excited about visiting X: it’s a shame that my visit there is contributing to destroying it.” But it was certainly only within the past six or seven years.

I have three problems regarding Adventure and Flying:

  1. I face a moral conflict in that flying harms the wild places I cherish.
  2. I face a personal dilemma because I’d love to visit New Zealand and Antarctica, and what difference will it honestly make if little old me doesn't hop on a plane there?
  3. I face a professional conundrum because my career would be more successful if I flew to more awesome places.

And three possible answers:

  1. If my actions cause harm, I should stop.
  2. If I’m not part of the solution I am part of the problem. The lazy excuse of being too small to make a difference is perhaps what some random school kid might have debated on the day she decided to skip school in order to protest outside the government in a little country where only 0.133% of the world lives....
  3. What are my priorities? What is success? What is enough?

It is an inconvenient truth that those of us who love exploring the wild places cause the most harm.

So what am I doing about it? 

I have always loved flying off to new and exciting places. I still adore it. Wanderlust has been a constant throughout my life. 

But the connection between flying and my attitude to climate change has evolved through several different stages in recent years.

  1. Ignorance. Flying off to Tamil Nadu marks me out as a curious lover of the world!
  2. Ignoring. I have learned that flying to New York is harmful. But I have always been desperate to visit NYC and I cannot wait! Oh well, I’m mostly trying to encourage people to go nice places and do good things. Anyway, adventure is my job - I have to fly. More beer please!
  3. Guilt. This is really dumb for me to be flying all the way to Hong Kong in Business Class just to give a talk even though it’s fun, well-paid, and good for my ego.
    (Similar feelings began bubbling with brand campaigns I did for an airline and a 4x4 company. These days I decline work like that.)
  4. Guilt + Offsetting. I really do want to visit my friend living in a hut on a Swedish island. So I’ll make sure to plant loads of trees to offset my emissions.
    (There are actually lots of problems with offsetting.)
  5. Action. I need to decline most invitations for overseas talks. To take the train to talks in Europe or trips to the Alps. And stop flying.
    (Mostly! I haven’t kicked the habit entirely. I’m done with Business Class though (sadly!).)
  6. Action + Discussion. This article is the first step I have taken towards not only changing my own behaviour, but also inviting other people who love travel to think about their own.

I don’t what number you are at on a scale such as this, but I’d challenge you to read The Uninhabitable Earth and There is No Planet B, calculate your personal footprint and not feel moved to step up a number or two. 

I certainly know that I could do more, such as pledging to go Flight Free.

It is certainly easier for me to reconcile not flying when I already have a memory bag stuffed with the sounds of Jeddah, the humidity of a midnight train in Pakistan, the swirl of Northern Lights or the kerosene lamps and star-filled blackness of a night in a mountain village in Bolivia. 

I have already travelled a lot (and damaged a lot). It’s certainly not fair for me to fill enthusiastic young adventurers with a sense of flygskam, or 'flight shame'. 

So I am not writing this for anyone excited about a rare big adventure or a cherished holiday. These musings are purely my own. Although I would like people who claim to be both a professional adventurer and a lover of the landscapes we play in to read it and formulate their own conscious conclusions.

Adventurers like me often justify the hypocrisy of damaging the wild places we love by resorting to the David Attenborough argument that “No one will protect what they don't care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

There is truth to that, certainly: I came to feel bad about flying once I learned about the fragility of the places I treasured. It is comparable, I guess, to the overview effect experienced by astronauts looking back at Earth and appreciating its vulnerability and value.

I have an audience and some people read the words that I write. And yet I do not honestly believe that taking myself off to the Arctic will achieve anything of real use. Flying to Spitzbergen to Instagram some polar bears will cause more damage than good.
Calling the adventure a mission to raise awareness of climate change would be nothing more than an excuse to justify my behaviour to myself.

(It’s similar to claiming an expedition is for charity. I have occasionally tried to raise money via my trips, but I've never declared them to be 'for charity'. That has only been a beneficial spin-off rather than my deepest motivation.)

I know that my biggest way of having impact on the world is via my writing and encouraging people to ask themselves questions. But how can I do this without preaching or being a hypocrite? Positive solutions such as local microadventures are more effective and less annoying than proselytising from a position of imperfection!

So how can I make the planet better through my writing? I'm aware that the online platform I have built has the potential to create more good than me surrendering flying to a cool adventure somewhere. Answers on a postcard, please! (Or hit ‘reply’.)

Of course, flying is not the only way that we harm the planet. 

We do so every day through out diet, our lifestyle, our homes, cars, kids and voting choices. I also harm the planet every time someone reads one of my blogs and is inspired to jump on a plane. (Go on a Microadventure, folks!)

I’m sipping a coffee whose environmental impact somewhat sours the taste when I think of it, and writing this on an energy-guzzling laptop that will end up in landfill one day.

I would love to travel more. But my frustration at not flying decreases over time as I discover how exciting it feels to travel to the Alps by train, watching out of the window for the first glimpse of mountains and snow. 

Travelling to talks in Paris or Amsterdam by Eurostar is far preferable to the grim experience of airports. 

Neither of these examples are significantly slower than flying, either. (They are, however, usually much more expensive than flying which is ludicrous.)

And my absolute favourite way of beginning an adventure is sitting with a friend, a map and a beer in the buffet car of the Caledonian sleeper train as it pulls slowly out of Euston station bound for the Scottish Highlands.

Adventure does not have to depend on flying. The biggest adventure of my life was a magic carpet ride around our planet by bicycles and boats. 

A significant transformative adventure experience in my life was walking a lap of London and learning to look differently at the landscape I lived in.

Forcing constraints onto adventures can actually make them more interesting. 

One of my richest travel experiences was the “world tour” of Yorkshire I took by bicycle. I spent a month exploring the backroads and bridleways and towns of the county I grew up, chatting to people along the way about what living adventurously meant to them. 

It was an experiment to compare the feeling of crossing continents to crossing a county. I knew more about cycling in the Yukon than I did about cycling in Yorkshire, the place where I had grown up and still feel to be ‘home’. 

Could I find adventure close to home? 

Could I find anything new and feel like I was exploring? 

Could a small place satisfy my curiosity and wanderlust in the way that far-off lands have always done? 

Yes, yes, and yes! 

I wish that I could have spent two, three, four months cycling around that small corner of my small country tucked away in one small corner of a small continent (on a small planet in a small solar system…). For the world is like a fractal. 

You get one impression by looking at the whole. Zoom in and you glean a comparable wisdom. 

There are similar experiences and lessons wherever you choose to seek them. 

The closer you peer, the more there is to see.

I could seek sponsorship to climb the 7 Summits. Or I could travel round Scotland climbing the Munros. And after that, smaller still, the Corbetts, Grahams, Donalds and Marilyns can provide thousands of new adventures. 

There are more than 8000 rivers in the UK - do I honestly need more than that? Such abundance, such scope for adventure on my doorstep! (Learning to be astonished by curiosity and looking more closely is one reason I’ve always enjoyed Annie Dillard’s writing, by the way.)

If I cycled every street in London it would, in its own way, be as fascinating a travel journey as cycling an equivalent 10,000 miles from my front door to Asia. (Turn around and pedal home again and you'll save yourself a flight here as well!)

Matt Green once walked across America, but then thought, "Instead of seeing a million places for just a minute each, I'm going to spend a million minutes exploring just one place. By the time I finish walking every block of every street in all five boroughs, I'll have traveled more than 8,000 miles on foot — all within a single city." 

There is a short running film on YouTube that encapsulates beautifully the rewards of exploring locally and thoroughly. Every time I watch Of Fells and Hills I love it a little bit more. It encapsulates so many of my thoughts and yearnings for life, adventure, and localness. 

One line in the film says, "There's a point where we're trying to see more and more throughout our lives and it just ends up getting diluted.” 

And the concluding thought is very powerful: 

“In the end I think that a single mountain range is exploration enough for an entire lifetime.”

(I made my own attempt at catching similar sentiments in the landscapes of the John Muir Trust in Scotland - another memorable adventure that didn’t need a plane.)

*

When I reflect on the state of the planet I feel a mixture of sadness, anger and hopelessness. We have wrecked the place we love! 

But there is now a blanket awareness that the Earth is in trouble, a general acceptance that we have caused most of the problems, an increasing demand for change, and the beginnings of individual and collective action. So there is room for hope as well.

In conclusion, my current position on the conundrum of loving travel but wanting to minimise the harm I cause is that I have mostly given up flying. I don’t feel in a position to flygskam anyone though because I still do fly occasionally to places that thrill me, or for jobs that pay really well (I offset all of my flights, and for work that requires a flight beyond Europe I donate 50% of my fee to environmental organisations. My hope is that this results in more good than harm coming from my actions. 

As Bernard Moitessier said, 'If you wind up making more than enough for your reasonable needs, you can always spend part of it on things that don’t hurt anyone, like planting trees.')  

My concern for the planet clearly has both a price in terms of pieces of silver and also a selfishness threshold. I’m not proud of that.

But, to end on a positive note, I have learned to relish embracing the constraints that not flying imposes on choosing adventures. It has developed my mindset of exploring closer to home. And I am very much learning that “In the end I think that a single mountain range is exploration enough for an entire lifetime.”

This Episode Powered By
Black Coffee

Quick Practical Question

  • Q: How do you manage to maintain sufficient and regular sleep pattern on long expeditions?
  • A: Rowing across the Atlantic Ocean was an exercise in dealing with sleep deprivation. 2 hours rowing, 2 hours rest. Repeat 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until you bump into land.
    But pretty much every other trip I've done involves getting far more sleep than I do in the real world. Remove emails, commutes and the TV from your life and suddenly there are ample hours for sleep, even if you have a continent to cross by day!
Want To Ask Me Anything?
Click Here

If you've enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in some other things that I do:

🚪 The Doorstep Mile - a newsletter to help you live more adventurously every day.
⌂ Shouting from the Shed - an occasional newsletter of things I find interesting.
🎧 Living Adventurously - my podcast.
📕 Read one of my books.
☕️ If you'd like to support this newsletter you can buy me a [virtual] cup of coffee to help fuel the work. Thank you!
Alastair Humphreys

Apt 19020, Chynoweth House, Trevissome Park, Truro, Cornwall
United Kingdom

facebook twitter youtube instagram website

You received this email because you signed up on my website. If you're not interested you can leave immediately:

Unsubscribe