When, on January 1st, I and many others committed to not flying for a year, none of us imagined 2020 would see 90% of air traffic disappear and the biggest reduction in aviation emissions since the invention of flight.
Perhaps predictably, smug people on Twitter soon began making sarcastic jokes about how everyone might as well sign the pledge, call the campaign a success, and finally shut up about the whole thing. Campaigners responded with the observation that unless more of us freely choose to quit our flying addiction, we will likely see a post-pandemic aviation boom. In short, #FlightFree2020 has become more urgent, not less.
These conversations continue to be regurgitated ad infinitum. So, after waiting a few weeks to see if I have anything to say on the subject and realising that I don’t, I’m now going to write about something different – and, dare I say, more interesting.
Since this year began, I’ve been thinking a lot about the inherently troublesome nature of pledging to tackle one tiny part of a huge and complex problem.
Let me take a few of the closest examples.
About three metres away from where I am writing these words, a gas-powered heater is warming the living room of the house in which I live. It’s mid-May, the early morning sky is a cloudless blue, and there’s a thin sheen of frost on the neighbour’s roof.
Until about three weeks ago, when the last snow fell in the mountain town of Dilijan, I had this heater running almost continuously in order to keep my 60-year-old uninsulated house inhabitable – not comfortable; inhabitable – through a winter in which the mercury dropped below -20ºC.
If I walked into the kitchen and turned on the hot tap (which I won’t because I’m very comfortable in my writing chair), I’d hear the familiar roar of the gas-powered boiler mounted on the wall just next to my head, followed by a pleasant gush of hot water from the tap caressing my delicate fingertips.
Since January 1st I have spent 69,815 Armenian drams (£117) on burning natural gas in these ways in order to provide basic heating and hot water in my home. At 139 drams (23p) per cubic metre, that’s 502m³ of gas, which will have released 1.2 tons of CO₂ into the atmosphere.
Let’s move a little further away from my comfortable writing chair, open the front door and look outside, where we’ll see a Land Rover Defender called Georgina parked outside. She’s a beaut. She’s indispensable to the work I do here in the Caucasus.
Since January 1st I have driven 3,914km in this vehicle. It burns, on average, 10 litres of diesel for every 100 kilometres driven (roughly 25 miles per gallon for the Brits). I know this because I use a fuel tracking app to keep detailed records. And I have burned around 391 litres of diesel so far this year while working on the Transcaucasian Trail, releasing just over 1 ton of CO₂ into the atmosphere.
These are just two ways in which I am not proactively reducing the environmental impact of my lifestyle in the way that I am through #FlightFree2020. It requires no complex calculations to show that I am directly responsible for releasing 2.2 tons of CO₂ into the atmosphere since the start of the year. The sources are in full view every day. I could continue to roam around within the sphere of my life and work and easily find more.
A common criticism levelled at single-issue campaigns is that they are reductive. They cherry-pick. They ignore the broader problem. They are often hypocritical. The unspoken implication is that this makes any such campaign pointless.
It is a criticism usually made by people who are looking for ways to justify continuing to do nothing.
And it is a flawed criticism. Every effective person has learned that the first rule of solving big problems is to break them down into smaller ones and tackle them individually.
That’s exactly what #FlightFree2020 is – a strategic decision to take a planet-sized issue and, by putting a box around the scope and the timeframe, make solving one small part of that issue achievable.
This still leaves the broader problem, of course. Having successfully not flown in 2020, and with the likelihood of being able to do so the lowest it’s ever been, I honestly think that the next step for me is not to waste words on trying to foretell the future or pontificating about ‘what it all means’, but to take that idea of reducing big problems to an achievable scale and tackle other parts of it too.
Just to return to those closest and easiest examples, I could, right now, commit to:
- removing the gas heater and replacing it with a log-burner or other more sustainable heating solution,
- insulating this Soviet-era pile of woodworm and crumbling plaster disguised as a house,
- removing the gas boiler and replacing it with a roof-mounted solar hot water heater, and/or
- driving dear Georgina back to Coventry and thanking Land Rover profusely for almost five years of support for the Transcaucasian Trail,
by the end of 2020.
In fact, that is exactly what I am going to do.
These are the closest and most visible and therefore the easiest and most achievable ways in which I am now extending the principle of #FlightFree2020 to other aspects of my life. If I look harder, I’d find other things to fix as well.
Because surely encouraging people to think differently about the bigger problem is the true unspoken goal of any single-issue campaign?