To Fly or Not To Fly: How I Approach the Sustainability Dilemma

Source: SkyTech Europa

The severity of the environmental crisis is something more and more grow concerned about. With these concerns, several life changes and dilemmas rise, choosing to fly across the world being one of them.

By Yasmin Ayture

Within the field of psychology, it has long been known that individuals’ attitudes and values do not always match their behaviours. Most of this research relates to environmental psychology, whereby a number of studies have found that even individuals with the most pro-environmental attitudes do not always practice sustainable behaviours. This is something I have dedicated my dissertation to because I find fascinating the fact that learning about sustainability and possessing knowledge about its importance are apparently not sufficient to bring about behavioural change, especially not significant changes in lifestyle. 

As someone who has completed the Global Graduate Award in Sustainability and tries to make all my assignments about sustainability in some way – whether from an environmental, economic, or social perspective – I was confused about why I continued to engage in many unsustainable behaviours. When considering the self, it is bewildering to consider that behaviours and choices are being driven by factors other than our attitudes and intentions, like invisible barriers constraining our decisions. So, when I reflected on how sustainable I am in practice compared to how often I write about sustainability, I was shocked but remained open-minded and interested to explore the reasons for this “attitude behaviour gap.” 

The most common example of this phenomenon is people choosing to fly despite widespread public awareness of the airline industry’s contribution to climate change. Researching more about the “flying dilemma” for my dissertation (wanting to fly for personal benefits but feeling guilty for doing so), I was encouraged to question how many times in 2019 I had flown myself, with the answer being a rather uncomfortable six times. I felt guilty and unable to abate the resulting “cognitive dissonance” (mental stress caused by an inconsistency between belief and behaviour) because I could not even try to convince myself that that was acceptable, considering I am someone who claims to really care about sustainability. This is where it became really difficult because my next question was: will I be able to stop flying? The question is yes, technically, there is nothing forcing me to ever fly again – the only thing that would stop me from fulfilling this is the idea of missing out. Namely, knowing that I could never go anywhere too far overseas unless I had enough time and there was the necessary infrastructure to travel there and back via train. Mostly, the thought of not flying creates the fear of sacrificing memories, experiences and adventures, and brings about worries of impracticality and challenge.

However, some trips that I went on this year were, albeit unintentionally, sustainable and prove that great exploration can be done without flying – such as travelling via train from London to Glasgow, travelling to 5 countries in Europe via train and bus (which also had a carbon offsetting option), and going to Belgium via coach. These trips demonstrate that sustainable alternatives do exist and are viable options, but the possibility of saying “I will never fly again” still feels so drastic that I have not been able to say it yet, to myself or to anyone. However, I am intent on ridding this experience of guilt and encouraging conversations about the real, and perceived, difficulties of making such lifestyle changes. Once there is space for sympathy in the dialogue, there is suddenly more room to deeply question what it is that is believed to be “sacrificed” when decisions such as not to fly are being made.

The findings in my dissertation, and my opinion more widely, are that unsustainable behaviours are born out of the dominant economic system in the UK – capitalism and sustainable behaviours being fundamentally incompatible. This has been found in a multitude of studies, with many economists and academics working on what it means to pursue sustainable growth, and sometimes even interrogating the need for economic growth altogether. So, flying being a behaviour widely practiced in UK society cements it as a social norm, which consequently justifies the decision to fly for some people, since everyone else does. It is undeniably comforting to practice the behaviours of wider society, not only to feel a part of something bigger, but also to subconsciously feel a degree of existential certainty too: upholding behaviours underpinned by our society decreases our innate fear of death because it provides stability, according to Terror Management Theory.  

It is clear that within a single decision – to fly or not – lies a plethora of deeper angst and considerations, both conscious and subconscious, about what will be forfeited if we do not board the plane. Further still, for each person there will be particularly idiosyncratic “pull factors” inclining us to fly, perhaps for some people the need to fly to visit relatives or friends, or for others not being able to afford more expensive alternatives. The complexity of making these choices should surely be pondered both in solitude and with others, so that we can get closer to thinking about the kind of life we actually want to live. If this is the last generation who can live this way, flying multiple times a year, driving everywhere, amassing a multitude of possessions including more clothes than is needed, what was the point all along if those who come after us have to pay the consequences? Reflecting on the impermanence – and literal inability – for this lifestyle to be sustained encourages me to want to live a life that is more “right”, for surely the right way to live cannot be one that is unsustainable. If this was the case, homo sapiens would not have survived for so many years living relatively benign lives, particularly with regards to the climate, up until the industrial revolution. The complication is endless and the debate multifaceted, because a return to a wholly basic way of living is not suitable, realistic or the answer – because humans chose to develop, had the desire to build (tools, communities, countries), and would only do it all over again if we returned to the beginning. 

For me, I hope I will stop flying. I believe it is something I will try, but I feel that this is a lifestyle change too significant to decide upon too quickly. If I choose this, then I hope that the people I go on holiday with do not mind accompanying me on very long train journeys. It is clear that although possessing knowledge about the importance of sustainability is not sufficient to elicit relevant lifestyle changes, a degree of knowledge is required to be able to explore and question what is normal, what underpins our lifestyle, and ultimately to ask, whose lifestyle are we living? The matter of class is also inextricable from this contemplation, or at least education levels and awareness of living within a system, because those who do not recognise neoliberalism as an ideology (as it often isn’t viewed as, due to being so pervasive) are perhaps less likely to be aware of the choice available to deviate and live differently than appears normal in wider society. 

Whilst the debates, research and enquiries continue, the need for practical changes remains vital. I was therefore relieved that when reflecting on my own behaviours it was clear that I had successfully made some sustainable choices too. I only buy new clothes when I need to – although I should go to charity shops more to support a society based on reusing and repurposing items; I do not drive and always choose public transport when in the UK; I have started to do plastic-free food shops, although this is harder than it should be; I give unwanted possessions to charity; I ask for my hot drinks in ceramic mugs in coffee shops or I bring my own reusable flasks for takeaway drinks; and most importantly, I contemplate and think, acknowledging and questioning why I make certain choices. 

Yasmine Ayture is a final year Tourism Management at the University of Surrey.

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