Explorer, author, trail prospector & travel writer

#FlightFree2020: Can Flight-Free Living & Adventure Travel Really Coexist? Let’s Find Out

Today, on this day of New Year’s Resolutions, I pledge to join the Flight Free UK campaign.

Between now and the 1st of January 2021, I will not take a single flight.

I’ve joined the campaign because, as a long-time advocate of adventurous travel and exploration, I can no longer ignore my own hypocrisy.

I have always considered myself an environmentally conscious person, and I generally promote lifestyle choices which are low on consumption and high on experience. Most I know in the adventure world would describe themselves in similar terms.

But the truth is that, on an average year, my emissions from air travel inflate the footprint of my otherwise frugal existence by orders of magnitude.

Whether I like it or not, by any standard measure, my lifestyle is not sustainable.

On a personal level, I am far from the worst offender. One mid-haul return flight per year to visit my parents for Christmas is, if I run it through a carbon calculator, probably within the realms of sustainability. Campaigners have coined the fabulous term ‘love miles’ to categorise flights taken for this reason.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Between me and my wife, we have immediate family members living on four continents. We want to be able to see them sometimes.

And if I scrutinise my work closely, almost every aspect of how I spend my time professionally is somehow tied into the status quo of air travel.

Most obvious are the more or less compulsory engagements for anyone in the travel industry, such as ITB Berlin, which happens every year in March. It’s important for my work that I show up, talk to people, and understand how my efforts sit in the bigger picture.

For the same reason, I should go to the World Trails Conference in Nepal in September. I’ve also been invited to Lebanon to meet some trail people there and see how they carry out their work. And then there’s the RGS Explore weekend London in November, an event I’ve spoken at every year for the last decade, which I absolutely should attend, because I want to contribute to an organisation that has done more to support my professional development than any other.

Oh, and my old schoolfriend of 25 years is getting married in Macao.

See how it goes?

Even this is a relatively restrained list. Make no mistake about the real influencers of the industry – beyond scheduled Instagram posts of human-powered travel and the importance of preserving our world, professional adventures earn most of their frequent flyer miles not heading out on expeditions but travelling to paid speaking engagements at which they will hold forth on the value of human-powered travel and the importance of preserving our world.

One friend told me she took so many flights to speaking gigs and other professional engagements that she lost count, but that it probably worked out to about one return flight a week. This is not unusual.

But the real elephant in the room is this:

As a professional explorer-adventurer-author-trailbuilder-whatever I’m calling myself this year, all of my work rests on the principle of the benefits of leaving home and exploring our shared world.

So far, so good.

Yet by making flying part of this paradigm – for example, by highlighting Ryanair’s new routes to Armenia when promoting the Transcaucasian Trail supporters’ treks, or blogging about hacking credit-card signup bonuses into free business class flights – I am not just contributing to climate ruin, but actively persuading others to help me do so.

By neither acknowledging the impact of flying nor promoting the alternatives, I and many others in the industry are undermining the very foundations of our beliefs. And we are doing it in a way that is increasingly transparent.

These concerns run deeper than aviation emissions. Witness the backlash against Instagram travel influencers and the short-sighted examples they’re accused of setting for others.

If I – as a long-time purveyor and promoter of making adventurous journeys in unknown places – refuse to change, the likely result will be more people flying, not fewer.

I will have enlarged the problem. And I will have done by refusing to think critically and question my own modus operandi – another theme that turns up in talks, articles and social media posts in our field of interest with clockwork regularity.

As a storyteller, my rhetorical skills are finely honed. So I’m sure I could craft elegant-sounding justifications for all of this.

But what if – for one year – a raft of personalities in the adventure space took a cue from their own motivational speeches, did something truly daring, and pledged not to fly?

As a collective, we in the adventure world with a voice and an audience are perfectly positioned to amplify the message at the core of Flight Free UK, which, rather than advocate the end of air travel altogether, aims to steer public discourse towards the (more adventurous?) alternatives.

Not only could we do this without disrupting our work, but by actively incorporating this narrative into the stories we already tell, we will cultivate a nascent conversation in the adventure space that will result in real change.

Because this is already happening. I am not trying to position myself as the leader of a movement. Al Humphreys’ coinage of the term microadventure has exposed the potential on our doorsteps for an experience that mimics that for which we travel far. The rise of bikepacking has, it seems to me, filled a similar void by encouraging adventurous cyclists to seek out local opportunities. This year’s edition of the UK Cycle Touring Festival will focus exclusively on journeys made without flying.

It all comes at an appropriate time. In the course of a single year, ‘flight shame’ has become a mainstream phrase. The aviation industry has never been under less scrutiny for its remarkably unregulated emissions. Words that were losing their meaning have been reinvented; warming has become heating, change has morphed into crisis.

Reducing our personal CO2 emissions is now part of the zeitgeist, and staying on the ground is – for most of us – the single most effective way to do it.

For UK-based folk, the practicalities should be pretty simple. Engagements anywhere in Europe can be reached by train; websites such as RailEurope* make it incredibly easy to do so. The wealth of information at Seat61.com extends the range considerably.

Sometimes, getting somewhere will take a little more time and ingenuity. But we’re adventurers! This is what we do. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Right?

And it’ll probably be more costly. But we’re not paying! (It’s the line on the invoice just below the appearance fee.)

And perhaps, very occasionally, we will simply have to say no, because flying really is the only practical way to get there. Sorry – maybe next year.

Some may decide their business model depends too much on air travel, that it will be easier to stay quiet. Believe me: your collective silence on this issue is being noticed. You will be called out on it, and with increasing frequency.

But I alone cannot tackle one problem in isolation, you might say; it is part of a deeper systemic issue with the way we live!

May I kindly remind you of your favourite motivational tropes? Ignore the naysayers! Focus on putting one foot in front of the other! Sail away from the safe harbour! Be the change!

It will be too hard! I will not be able to do it! What if (the thing I’m most afraid of) happens?

The first step is always the hardest. The perfect circumstances don’t exist, so do it now! Why not listen to a TED talk about overcoming self-doubt, taking a leap of faith, and having the courage to begin?

Heading home from an event after being publicly accused of flying there to talk about human-powered travel, I wrote an email to Anna, the director of Flight Free UK, to tell her I was in.

I didn’t allow myself the luxury of time to consider the consequences. I did not tell my wife; nor did I think about how it would affect my work, hobbies, passions, or my ability to spend time with loved ones. I simply said ‘yes’.

I remembered that we are clever rhetoricians, excellent at justifying our actions. Time would have allowed me to delay, avoid or ignore.

Flight Free UK is not preaching a zero-travel policy in which everyone stays at home. In truth, I don’t think it’s even about getting people to stop flying. I think it’s about encouraging us to think about the impact of unconsidered and unrestricted flying, to seek out alternatives, and perhaps to scrutinise our lifestyles to see if there’s another, better way, with an eye cast towards a future in which we’d all like to live.

Yes, there is probably a scenario in which a moderate amount of flying works out to be sustainable.

But nobody ever changed anything by being moderate.

So this year I’m going to be a fundamentalist.

Over the course of 2020, I am going to take every aspect of my life and work and see what I can do to eliminate flying from it.

And here on this blog, I’m going to tell you what happens when I try.


6 responses to “#FlightFree2020: Can Flight-Free Living & Adventure Travel Really Coexist? Let’s Find Out”

  1. TOM RENNIE avatar

    Excellent article. For the first time, my cycle ride along the Loire valley will be accessed by rail from Penrith to Nevers. (& Return,)

    1. Fantastic, Tom! Let us know how you get on with the rail connections!

    1. Thanks Al! Have you considered doing this for a year – 2021, perhaps? 🙂

  2. Great post and decision, Tom, I admire your honesty. I have tried to build my career as an author and as a person advocating outdoor life («friluftsliv») here in Norway with as low ecological footprint as possible. That quickly ruled out flying and driving a car and has made me having to turn down writing certain reportages, but rather that and be poor than living a lie and be a little less poor 🙂

  3. I’ve found that giving up flying for fun (alright, not that long ago …) makes the world feel bigger and more interesting as distances open up again between the places where we cycle.

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