It's so easy to think greenhouse gases come from "other people," but when I learned that a flight across the country polluted roughly one year of driving, I could no longer tell myself flying wasn't that big a deal.
So I told myself I would not fly for one year. I returned from my last trip March 23, 2016, so today marks day 365.
Everyone loves travel, so I probably lost most readers who don't want to sacrifice seeing the Great Barrier Reef before it dies, or acknowledge what's killing it.
But this article isn't about deprivation or sacrifice. The opposite, actually. It's about celebrating life.
It's about what I discovered when I declined to do something that for hundreds of thousands of years of human existence was impossible until barely over a century ago. Then luxury became taken for granted. Now people feel entitled to it, future generations be damned.
Leadership, responsibility, and empathy
One of my life's great discoveries is that as I matured, I grew to like responsibility and accountability. As a child, I avoided them.
But growing up, I found that the more I took responsibility for my actions and how they affected others, the better my life, especially my relationships.
Likewise, as a child I cared mostly about how my actions affected myself. As I grew up, I learned that considering others' feelings--empathy--improved my life. I don't claim to be the Dalai Lama. I have a lot to learn. But I've come a long way and have learned to look to take responsibility for my actions based on how they affect others.
I look at my polluted world and wish past generations had polluted less. I can't change the past, but I can choose my actions.
And, frankly, your behavior is your business. I'm not writing to suggest what anyone else should or shouldn't do.
What I discovered
Everyone loves travel. I love travel. So doesn't not traveling worsen my life?
The opposite of not traveling isn't sitting a room staring at the wall. In my case it's community. It's discovering local food. It's finding joy and reward inside instead of out there.
It's recognizing that billions of people who never flew were perfectly able to create happiness for themselves without flying and I can too.
It's enabling. It reduces your dependency on others. It leads you to learn about yourself and learn that you can find as much about yourself and your community that you can in the Musee D'Orsay or jungles of Costa Rica.
It's about finding diversity in your neighbors. Someone twenty years older or younger than you may have lived as differently from you as anyone from any other culture.
I learned to summarize the mainstream dependence on travel based on self-reinforced denial and irresponsibility in a few words:
Most of us value learning through experience over lectures and passively reading or watching videos.
Why? Because through experience you learn viscerally. Through practice you develop skills. Talking about experience or reading about others' experiences gives you passive, intellectual information, but it rarely changes you.
Until you act on it.
What I learned through this experience, I can't convey in words. What I write next will create push-back from most of you, but in a few may generate curiosity to try something comparable.
The biggest thing I learned was how entitled people felt about what used to be a luxury. And it mattered so much to me because it revealed how entitled I was.
I don't like spoiled people. Spoiled people don't see themselves as spoiled. But how else do you view someone who feels
"But my friend went to Rome. How can I not go to Rome now? I want to go! How can I live without trying the food there or seeing the Coliseum? If they went, why can't I?
That's the value of experiential learning. You learn about yourself.
What is personal leadership about if not learning, motivating, developing, and creating desired outcomes?
The most common responses to learning about a year without flying were
- "The plane was going to fly anyway."
- "That would be impossible for me."
- "Planes don't pollute that much, do they?"
To say that the plane would fly anyway should be especially repugnant to business people steeped in the laws of supply and demand. The self-serving logic prompting their response belies their denying and suppressing what they know--that is, the opposite of self-awareness.
To consider not flying impossible twists what people long considered impossible by the laws of physics into a personal belief. Of course, anyone can live without flying. What entitlement does that speak of to call it impossible?
Who wants to be entitled? What do we think of others who feel entitled to what others consider luxuries?
How much does flying pollute? It pollutes more than carbon dioxide, but looking only at that, based on MyClimate.com, here are the results of one round-trip flight between New York and Los Angeles, flying coach:
Flying business class:
Here is New York/Paris, coach:
New York to Shanghai, round trip, business class would put you over the bottom bar--that is, one trip would put you over a year's total CO2 for a European. A year! ... to say nothing of an African, or someone living decades ago.
Wow! Who knew that one trip could put you that far over one person's allotment to keep within what we want our leaders to hold our nations to?
Once I knew, I could never say I didn't, at least to myself.
Tough to blame politicians for not regulating what we ourselves don't!
If, say, you have children and you want regulation to protect them from the rising sea levels predicted to submerge billions of homes, wars over resources, and so on, you have to realize that however much we call politicians leaders, in democracies they follow the people.
If we don't change, they won't follow.
By learning to live as full, rich, and enjoyable a life in one place as I did traveling, I took a step in that direction. I found it improved my life. I don't feel I sacrificed a thing. No sense of deprivation.
I love where I live. I love my neighborhood and community. I hope you love yours too. In fact, I love it more for not feeling I have to escape or leave it for my happiness.
The bottom line--my most important lesson--was this:
No matter how much of the world I visit, I'll still miss nearly everything. Since I can't see everything, it's better for me to learn to create the best life I can with what I have, which means developing the social and emotional skills internally to create the best life I can.
Then, when I travel, I'll get more out of it.
I expect to travel again. When I do, I'll respect my effect on the world of future generations--your children and grandchildren. More importantly, I'll value the experience more.