Tales of trying to fly less

Photo by Andrew Fysh

I’d like to tell you a story about why I am travelling by ship today.

It starts with a woman called Kim Nicholas. Kim grew up in the sunny fields of California’s wine country. She seems like she would have been a precocious child, the kind who has an insatiable curiosity that sometimes got her into good humoured mischief. This curiosity probably piqued most at the sight of natural phenomena and it was in the natural world that Kim seems to have found guidance to her most challenging of questions.

But unlike many adults whose interest in nature fades (once they move to the concrete jungle in search of tasks to occupy their time and fund an expensive lifestyle they are told they want) Kim’s didn’t. Taking inspiration from the world around her, Kim decided to study the impact of climate change on winegrowing in California. She then sought out a professorship in Sweden to continue this important work but also broaden her scope to look at the impact of climate change on food systems.

It was in the winter of 2014, when my path crossed with Kim’s. I had been hired to run social media for the inaugural gathering of science advisors and Kim was along to participate and also chair a conversation about early career scientists at a side meeting. I can’t remember the exact moment we were introduced to each other, but it didn’t take long for us to establish a profound mutual respect and admiration for each other. We made friends on Facebook and endeavored to stay in touch.

One of the first posts of Kim’s that struck me was a photo of her beaming with a beanie on, her red curls struggling to be contained by it. She was hold a boarding pass in one hand and had a train just visible behind her. The text accompanying the picture said: “Flying less has made me more thoughtful about how I spend my time, finding new ways to appreciate the beautiful world around me at a slower travel pace. It’s also made me find creative ways to make work, work with fewer air miles.”

I was intrigued. The idea of low carbon travel had been bouncing around in my head for some time. I had recently calculated my ecological footprint and air travel, by far, was my greatest personal contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. But like many of us, my intellectual conviction had yet to materialize into a change of behavior (mainly because flying less seemed inconvenient).

So I asked Kim about it — why she decided to fly less and what impact that decision had made on her life.

She told me that she decided to fly less because after critically examining the way she lived her life, she realised that it was a small change she could make to reduce her impact on the climate. So she committed to taking one flight for work and one flight for pleasure per year.

She told me about an inspiration of hers, Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK, who famously downsized his life (moved to an apartment), got rid of his refrigerator and only travelled overland to conferences (he caught a train from London to China which took 10 days!).

But most interesting to me, was the unintended impacts this decision had on her life. Choosing to travel by road meant she could do large stretches of uninterrupted writing and reading, which were difficult to do back in the office. Choosing to travel by road meant trips took longer so she was more discerning about whether the trip was a good use of her time. Interesting connections, stories and friendships emerged from travelling with people who had time to cultivate conversation.

Basically, flying less meant Kim learned to slow down and smell the roses.

Kim’s everyday leadership inspired me to give the flying less idea a proper crack. So in 2016 I made a public commitment to experiment with changing the way I travel and therefore experience the world.

My first test was a trip up to Sydney to visit my husband’s family. Because it is a 12-hour train ride, we spent far longer up there than if we had flown. So flying less gave me more time to hang out with people I love.

My second and most interesting test was a last minute work trip to Canberra. I was asked to help with a two-day conference, which normally would have seen me fly up the day before and leave the day the conference finished. The playbook for most business travel: rush in, deliver the thing, and rush out. I spent ages agonizing over the bus and train schedule, thinking I would have to decline the work because the 10-hour journey would be just too long to justify.

But then, I got creative.

I realised that I could spend the week working from Canberra (I am lucky enough to be a freelancer so I can work from anywhere with an internet connection). I then realised that a friend with whom I was attending a musical festival that weekend had just moved to Canberra. So instead of driving alone for three hours from Melbourne to Wangaratta to go to the festival, I could hitch a ride with her from Canberra instead. It also just so happened that my parents were at spending the weekend at their holiday house only a few hundred kilometers away from the festival. So instead of catching the train alone from Wangaratta back to Melbourne, I was able to spend an extra day hanging out with them and then driving back down to Melbourne together. This experiment taught me that flying less meant slowing down, appreciating a place and spending time with people I love.

So now I am on my third test — catching a boat from Tasmania back to Melbourne. I don’t yet know what this trip will teach me, but what I do know is that flying less has unleashed a creativity and connection with my community and place that I didn’t think it could or would have. It’s made me a happier and healthier (less rushing = less stress) person.

I can’t thank Kim enough for encouraging me, in a fun and gentle way, to try flying less.

“After listening to the great farmer poet Wendell Berry deliver a lecture on how we each have a duty to love our ‘homeplace’ more than any other, I asked him if he had advice for rootless people like me and my friends, who live in our computers and always seem to be shopping for a home. “Stop somewhere,” he replied. “And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.” From The Obstacles We Face are not Just External in the Nation.

Follow #flyingless and Kim Nicholas for more great low carbon tales.