Students

Save your insta feed, or the planet?

Ashamed to fly

Flying is comfortable, fast, and cheap. But it also generates a lot of pollution. So some students have decided to stop flying altogether. ‘I take the bus, the train, or I hitchhike.’
By Tamara Uildriks / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

You can try to live as sustainably as possible. Simply abstaining from meat decreaseas your ecological footprint by approximately 1.6 kilos of CO2 a day (according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency). But one flight to Thailand leaves a giant 1,700 kilos CO2 footprint (according to Myclimate). To compensate, you’d have to stop eating meat for nearly three years. And yet abstaining from meat is more common than abstaining from plane travel. Why is that?

Most people understand that flying is bad for the environment and that climate change is real. But how else are they going to populate their Instagram feed with the amazing travel photos that everyone uses to strike envy in the hearts of their followers? It’s just one little plane ride…

Cognitive dissonance

‘In terms of sustainability, there’s this gap between what we believe and what we do’, says Jan-Willem Bolderdijk, who studies this kind of behaviour. He calls the gap ‘cognitive dissonance’. ‘People are social animals. When they see things on social media, they want to copy that behaviour. What we see determines our social norms, and therefore our choices.’

People usually manage dissonance in two ways. Some change their unsustainable behaviours, which is hard. Others trivialise their behaviour or try to justify it so they don’t have to change.

‘There’s a risk of people sticking their heads in the sand if environmental awareness is pushed onto them without a viable alternative’, says Bolderdijk. ‘They want to see themselves in a positive light, but they know that what they’re doing is bad. So they try to assuage their guilt: Why should I stop doing this when no one around me is either?

Alternative

If all you do is tell them how bad flying is for the environment, people just become discouraged, says Bolderdijk. ‘It starts to feel like a lost cause.’ He thinks it’s important to give people an alternative. ‘If not flying feels like an impossible goal, just try to limit it: take the train more often and put a cap on the number of times you’re allowed to fly. And if you absolutely have to take a plane, you can use greenseats.nl or justdiggit.org to compensate by planting trees.’

Behavioural changes mainly have to do with the social norms in your direct environment. ‘We dispose of empty batteries in a special container, because that’s simply what we’re used to doing in the Netherlands. It’s not necessarily because we’re all so environmentally aware.’

Ashamed to fly

One consequence of environmental awareness is that people becoming increasingly ashamed of flying. The Swedish have a word for it: flygskam. Some Swedish politicians and celebrities have stated publicly that people should stop using planes as a means of transport, NOS writes.

Bolderdijk says this shows how important it is for individuals to make a conscious choice to stop flying. ‘There’s a kind of power in it. It’s not easy to be the only one to say that you’re going to stop travelling by plane. And you serve as an example: you’re showing other people what’s possible and acceptable.’

Correction: In the first copy of this article we claimed that with a one way flight to Oslo one produces 1500 CO2. That was a mistake. We changed it to a one way flight to Thailand.

Cora Niemeier

third-year student of psychology, from Germany

‘I’m very environmentally aware: I’m a vegan, I don’t use plastic, and I keep track of how much plastic I produce each month; less than a small rubbish bin. Flying would invalidate all those efforts. It’s completely against my principles, so I haven’t flown anywhere in five years.

I often cancel when my friends want to take a trip by plane, or when my mother wants to take me to the Canary Islands. She thought it was a shame, but I don’t care. I really enjoy the things I do, so it’s not like I’m missing anything. It helps that a friend of mine also refuses to fly, and we support each other.

If you don’t fly, travelling is a different experience: it’s slower and you’re more aware of the distances you travel. It’s also an enriching experience because you don’t travel like a normal tourist. I met so many people while hitchhiking and I’ve had so many interesting conversations.

It’s much easier to get to know people when you’re in a car together: a car provides a kind of privacy that means people open up more easily. People have invited me over for dinner or even to stay overnight, which is great. You get to know a country or culture so much better. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world.’

Dorottya Kosa

MA Euroculture, from Hungary

‘I travel a lot. Last year I travelled eight or nine times: to Israel, Iceland, England, France, Italy, and Hungary. For smaller distances I try to use alternative means of travel, but that’s impossible if I want to go to Israel or Hungary.

I do think climate change is a huge issue and I try to be as environmentally conscious as possible. I try to maintain a vegan diet, I buy as little clothing as possible, and I have a bamboo toothbrush. When I travel I check out the companies’ climate policies and I avoid cheap flights by companies like Ryanair. I often pay to compensate my CO2 footprint.

My trips are tourism: my boyfriend lives in Iceland, and I had a wedding in Israel. I mainly travel to be with friends and family.

I know my life choices don’t compensate for my flying, that I have to try and fly less. But it’s going to be difficult, because I love travelling and there are so many continents I still want to see. If I were to take a really long trip I would take the bus or train.

All those students travelling is a big problem, because they’re all inspiring each other over Instagram. But I’m guilty of that myself: I often post pictures of my trips. Travel in and of itself is great, but we need to change how we travel. We need to raise awareness of this. Maybe social influencers can start promoting sustainable travel.’

Ceciel Nieuwenhout

PhD in energy law

‘I’ve just returned from a conference in Lyon. The train journey lasted ten hours. I often attend conferences. This year I’ve been to Paris, Brussels, Hamburg, and Berlin – I took the train every time. The only place I flew to was Split; taking the train would have taken 24 hours.

I decided to stop flying a year ago. I love travelling and other continents are interesting, but the environmental impact is just too severe. I used to fly a lot, to places I could’ve easily reached by train. I’d go to Poland for a quick weekend away. I’m kind of ashamed of that now.

I’m a vegetarian and I try to consume very little, which means I don’t buy clothing when I don’t need and I use public transport. I’m also on the municipal council, trying to promote sustainability through policy.

It can be a struggle, especially when you tell your friends you can’t join them when they want to go somewhere by plane. I miss a lot of trips. To ensure I can still go with them I only suggest places that are close by. This summer I took a road trip to Vienna, Bratislava, and Prague.

I’ve realised that this way of travel is much more relaxing. Taking the train takes a long time, but you don’t have the same stress you have at the airport, there are rarely any delays, and you have more legroom. I love experiencing the distances that way and seeing the world change around me.’

 

Nederlands