Ecological Privilege and the Frequent Flyer Activist

You’re in a hurry, and for good reason. You — or people you identify with — have to catch a flight to somewhere like Cochabamba, Detroit, London, Montreal, or Washington, D.C. You’re off to participate in a mass mobilization, a social forum or a meeting, to protest, to exchange ideas, to investigate, to bear witness or demonstrate your solidarity. These gatherings are a manifestation of, and contributor to, exciting and important efforts of social and environmental justice activists, advocates, analysts and organizers struggling to build a better world.

Given the political and intellectual energy these get-togethers embody and help to spur on, the allure to participate by flying “there” is undeniable. They provide valuable opportunities for networking, debate, discussion, protest, and organization- or movement-building. They also speak powerfully to the willingness and ability of many to expend significant resources to advance weighty causes.

Such long-distance engagement also illustrates the scale of the challenges humanity faces. Indeed, the institutions and individuals who give rise to our most pressing problems typically exercise great mobility and exert their power in a manner that shows little regard for territorial limits. Accordingly, those of us who want to contest what they do often must labor across long distances to enable and strengthen relationships with others. And a common way we from the relatively wealthy parts and sectors of the planet do so is by flying.

The trouble with this is that flying is the single most ecologically costly act of individual consumption, one that requires the exploitation of large amounts of environmental and human resources. In a world of deep inequality, it thus also speaks to privilege — most notably what we might call ecological privilege — and its ugly flipside, disadvantage.

The exercise of this privilege flows from highly differentiated access to the world’s resource base and helps to intensify the planet’s degradation, contributing in the process to all sorts of unevenly distributed social ills. As numerous studies demonstrate, for example, climate change — to which flying contributes significantly — disproportionately harms people of color and low-income populations. Air travel is therefore inextricably part of the making of global inequities along axes such as those of race and empire.

That our decisions to fly have profound implications for the welfare of people and places across the globe illustrates how the movements of people are, among other things, “products and producers of power” — as geographer Tim Cresswell asserts. Those with more power consequently have greater mobility than those with less, while their mobility, in and of itself, helps to enhance their advantage over the less fortunate.

For those of us from the planet’s more privileged portions, acknowledgment of these ties should give serious pause before embracing the air travel that has become standard operating procedure among all too many. It should also compel us to engage political work in a manner commensurate with the ever-more-evident reality of a fragile and threatened biosphere. This requires a radical reduction in activism-related flying.

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Because flying allows relatively quick travel over great distance, it facilitates far more resource consumption than other transport modes. Undoubtedly, many airborne voyagers would forgo trips is they had to use slower, more time-intensive, surface-level travel.

Moreover, the climate-destabilizing effects of air travel — per passenger mile — dwarfs that of other modes because of the enhanced climatic “forcing” it brings about: due to the height at which planes fly combined with the mixture of gases and particles they emit, conventional air travel detrimentally impacts global climate approximately 2.7 times more than that of its carbon emissions alone, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Yet it is striking how little one hears about this from those involved in environmental and social justice work. To many, the link between the problems they decry and try to remedy and their own consumption is seemingly invisible. Take, for instance, a Jan. 7, 2010 article by Orville Schell of the Asia Institute, where he works on, among other matters, climate change. Writing at, Schell laments the Himalaya’s melting glaciers. They are, he writes, “wasting away on an overheated planet, and no one knows what to do about it.” Meanwhile, he mentions that he has “roamed the world from San Francisco to Copenhagen to Beijing to Dubai” over “the past few months”(1) — presumably by airplane.

Such a disconnect is hardly exceptional: a few years ago, a friend who works on climate issues for a progressive international NGO informed me that he and his colleagues had never discussed the ecological costs of flying in relation to their participation in meetings in distant locales.

Critical scrutiny of these costs did emerge somewhat in the context of the Dec. 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. The gathering reportedly generated 46,200 metric tons of carbon dioxide (an estimated 2,000-plus tons of which was due to President Barack Obama’s two Air Force One jets alone), the vast majority of which came from the flights of the delegates, officials, journalists, activists, and observers in attendance. (This is roughly equal to the annual emissions output of 660,000 Ethiopians or, given the profoundly different levels of consumption across the planet, 2,300 Americans — according to U.S. government data.)

But the voicing of concerns about such matters was isolated and, in places like the United States, almost non-existent — at least as indicated by media coverage.

Ironically, an organization critical of efforts to regulate carbon emissions, “Americans for Prosperity,” raised the issue. Trying to discredit U.S. student activists who had disrupted one of the Tea Party-allied group’s climate-change-skeptic sessions in Copenhagen, it posted a video on YouTube titled “Eco Hypocrites Fly in Jets Across Atlantic to Attack AFP.”

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Given Americans for Prosperity’s climate-change-denial politics and the fact that its representatives had also flown to Denmark, it is difficult to take seriously its accusation of hypocrisy. That said, it forces the question of how one justifies an oversized ecological footprint — as Grist, the online environmental magazine put it in relation to flying to Copenhagen — “to help save the planet.”(2)

What is striking about the Grist piece (May 17, 2009) is that it merely mentions ships as a low-impact alternative to flights, but only after saying that flying “is pretty much the only option” for non-European attendees. More importantly, it didn’t even raise the option of not going to Copenhagen — and pursuing other courses of action to advance a climate justice agenda in relation to the conference. To give one example, how about organizing in one’s hometown during the gathering and pressuring elected officials from the area to actively support a strong international agreement?

This is not to say that no one should have gone to Copenhagen — or to call for the end of all gatherings that involve long-distance travel. Nor is to say that no one should ever fly. For some, attending meetings in far-flung locales is absolutely necessary. But for many their attendance is not vital to the cause’s advancement. Moreover, some who would normally fly can get there by other means. And, of course, perhaps the in-person gathering need not take place, and would-be participants can figure out other ways to communicate and collaborate, and to further their political agenda.

In other words, there are alternatives to what has become the default option. But for great numbers of us, consideration of such alternatives doesn’t happen — in large part because flying is so easy and inexpensive, at least in the financial sense.

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Not having to seriously consider alternatives to the dominant ways of doing things is one of the beauties of privilege — for those who have it at any rate. According to a 2008 study by researchers at Britain’s Exeter University, supporters of “green living” — those who try to live lightly by, for example, rejecting bottled war, biking or walking whenever possible, recycling and composting — are the most likely to engage in long-distance flying.(3) These relatively wealthy folks are also as resistant to changing their high-flying practices as those skeptical of climate change science.

This demonstrates how privilege is structured into the social order in such a way that it is invisible to many, or comes to be seen (at least by its defenders) as the natural or acceptable order of things. There are important questions that privileged people simply don’t ask or don’t have to answer. Here’s one: how do you justify the appropriation of an unsustainable and socially unjust share of the biosphere’s resources in a manner that concentrates benefits among a minority, and detriments in those associated with a disadvantaged majority?

In posing such a question, I am mindful of Derrick Jensen’s warning (Orion, July/August 2009) against thinking that taking shorter showers will change the world. Those working for ecological sustainability and justice, Jensen argues, must not retreat into a comfortable focus on individual consumption and avoid the very necessary and hard struggle against powerful structures and institutions that drive much of the destruction of the biosphere.(4)

At the same time, we should also avoid the trap of making a simple distinction between the individual and the collective, agency and structure. The work-related flights of social and environmental justice advocates add up in significant ways. A roundtrip flight between New York City and Los Angeles on a typical commercial jet yields an estimated 715 kilos of CO2 per economy class passenger, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. This results in what is effectively, in terms of climatic forcing, 1,917 kilos, or almost two tons, of emissions.

Opinion varies as to what is a sustainable level of carbon emissions per capita were the “right to pollute” allocated equitably among the world’s human inhabitants. What they all suggest is that flying and a sustainable lifestyle are at fundamental odds.

The London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) posits two metric tons per person at present as the cut-off. But if we project into the future and assume a need to cut global emissions by a whopping 90 percent vis-à-vis 1990 levels in the next few decades to keep within a safe upper limit of atmospheric carbon, the IIED asserts we must achieve 0.45 tons per capita. Either way, that New York-L.A. flight at best effectively equals the allowable annual emissions of an average resident of the planet or exceeds it manifold.

Such numbers have led analyst and activist George Monbiot to conclude in his book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, that “most of the aeroplanes flying today be grounded.” In addition to meaning the end of distant holiday travel “unless you are prepared to take a long time getting there” (e.g. by bus, train or ship), it also means “most painfully,” he says in reference to himself, the end of airborne travel to “political meetings in Porto Alegre.”

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Part of the problem associated with challenging ecological privilege is that, like all systems of structural violence, the myriad costs and injuries associated with it are rarely visible to the beneficiaries in any sort of immediate, tangible, easily accessed way. Of course, there are rare occasions when the costs of the typically out-of-view extraction and production of the carbon-based fuels that drive modern transportation become horrifically visible: when we see, for instance, images of oil-soaked pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico, or view and listen to video of inhabitants of the Niger Delta’s ravaged villages who have the misfortune of sitting atop lucrative oil deposits.

But in terms of the consumption of petroleum, the resulting harm is cumulative over time and space, its effects socialized and delayed, while the benefits (getting from point A to B quickly) are individual and immediate. So phenomena such as increased desertification, biodiversity loss, drought, or rising sea levels — and the attendant human and non-human dislocating and destructive consequences — seem distant, and unrelated to “us.” They become what anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes calls “the violence of everyday life,” or what writer Rob Nixon characterizes as “slow violence.”

Raising the issue of air travel’s ecological footprint, and the environmental and social hazards associated with flying, does not make for comfortable discussion. My experience is that some respond defensively, many engage in verbal acrobatics or make jokes as a way of deflecting the conversation, or some simply ignore the matter and change the subject. At the same time, a small but not insignificant number acknowledge the need to greatly reduce that footprint. Yet few actually follow through in terms of the ethical and ecological implications of that acknowledgment.

It seems that too many environmental and social justice advocates think they should be exempt from reducing their aviation-related footprint because their work is important. They continue their airborne ways because they don’t see “realistic” alternatives, and, perhaps, more importantly, because they can.

It is not that the exercise of privilege can’t be put to good use, but such action always and inherently also brings about injury. So the question we have to grapple with individually and collectively is, does the resulting good compensate (at the very least) for the harm, while laying the groundwork for eliminating the system of privilege and disadvantage — what ultimately, from a social and environmental justice perspective, has to be the goal of progressively minded folks?

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As someone who has engaged in more than my share of activist-related flying over the years — to go to protests and conferences, to participate in national and international meetings of organizations I have been involved in, to lobby government officials, or to give lectures — I appreciate the many positives associated with long-distance travel in furthering a transformative politics. It has allowed me to connect and collaborate with old friends and colleagues on important matters and make new ones, and to learn a great deal — in addition to have a good time and to visit interesting places.

Yet, in looking back, I have to admit that most of it was unnecessary. Given the heavy socio-ecological costs involved, I could and should have pursued far more environmentally sustainable alternatives that would have involved my staying put physically, while still being in position to connect with people afar and advance the struggle. (As Bill McKibben argues in his book Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough Planet, Internet-related communication can and must serve as the substitute “trip” for the jet travel that climate change and falling oil supplies no longer permit.) And if it was so important that I go “there” in person, I should have, and could have in most instances, taken the time to travel slowly and on the Earth’s surface.

Obviously, social and environmental justice advocates are hardly among the principle forces bringing about the planet’s degradation. But what we do matters — for better and for worse. As Monbiot points out, “well-meaning people are as capable of destroying the biosphere as the executives of Exxon.” So, if for no other reasons than the necessity of “walking the walk” and the demands of a biosphere under siege, we need to hold ourselves to a much higher standard in terms of how we conduct ourselves.

By challenging our own ecological privilege and working to find less environmentally destructive methods of connecting with others, we lessen our complicity in racism, imperialism, and other malignant “isms” that disproportionately harm peoples and places on the national and global margins. We also show others — activists, friends, and family members who fly unhesitatingly — that not only is another world possible, but also some of what needs to be done to bring about that world.

JOSEPH NEVINS teaches geography at Vassar College. His most recent book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008). He can be reached at




(3) If you would like to see the actual study, please write to