I interviewed five people who care about climate, yet, like many of us, they take actions not backed by their beliefs. I wanted to gently pull back the veil on the inner tensions with which many of us contend.
Some of the five I spoke with are decision-makers in sizeable organizations with ecological mandates. Some are Mennonite, some not. Two work internationally. Four are women, one a man. Canadian Mennonite has chosen not to identify them.
While this article addresses people who stress about climate, feel free to keep reading even if you are chilled about it. Please know I have examined the best arguments I could find among the climate sceptics. I was not ultimately convinced, except that climate activists are too often self-righteous.
Three of the five people I spoke with identified air travel as the key cause of enviro-angst.
For one, the waste stream from her home topped the list. The fifth said air angst is second to the stress of a recent purchase of a family vehicle large enough for tall teenagers and cheaper than the out-of-reach electric options.
One person flies about once a month. Another, about double that. Another, only once a year, as a concession to maintain family harmony. What goes into their decisions to fly?
The once-a-month flyer mentioned the constant need to weigh a range of demands: family, the value of in-person contact for work relationships, and, always, time pressure. Ground is slower than sky. Trains are slow, infrequent, often off-schedule and expensive. More travel time means less home time with family and less work getting done.
One decision-maker spoke of not wanting to turn down an invitation from Indigenous leaders to be present at a significant event, and of the irreplaceable value of face-to-face contact when establishing relationships with collaborators in different places and cultures.
Another spoke of the difference between in-person and online board meetings: “I can’t quantify it, but I can tell you that in-person meetings make a tremendous long-term difference to our relationships, and therefore to our ability to carry out our mandate. Once established, the relationships can be carried fairly well online, but you do need to come back together from time to time.”
In relation to personal travel, one person spoke about “the heart part”: Sometimes the emotional pull to be present for significant times in the lives of distant family members trumps all.
Most people noted the debate over personal action versus systemic change. Individual emission reductions are inconsequential—yet integrity is not—when working for broader change.
These people are not saying that pro-flying factors fully justify air travel, just that they are realities that cause stress and force tough decisions. They all have unresolved tension, like many of us. As one person freely confessed, “None of [the off-setting factors] really let me relax about this.”
How do these people process their guilt, fear, shame and paralysis, to use their words?
One person plants a tree for every thousand kilometres of air travel. Most spoke about integrity in other areas of their lives. Some said flying allows them to work on systemic change, again not claiming this as full justification.
One person said of her climate grief, “There are times when I shut it off. . . . I can’t think hard about it all the time.” Still, she believes, “we need to lean into the emotions,” by talking about them and processing them.
“I am worried that the angst can immobilize us, because the level of imperfection is so high,” one person shared. “So I have been trying as much as possible to say to myself, ‘How can my feelings shift my behaviour, even if it is just an incremental shift? . . . If I can’t stop flying, can I reduce it?’”
One person spoke of the value of reaching for any relational or spiritual resources available, including contemplative practices, to avoid paralysis and brokenness.
One person said, in relation to the weight of her seemingly unavoidable—although fastidiously minimized—contribution to the landfills that will stand as lasting monuments to our society’s excess, “There is just an acceptance. . . . I just live with angst.” Perhaps that is the price of our First-World existence.
The danger in writing this article is that I just offer more tools for readers to add to their justification kits. So I must state that, for all the good reasons to fly, there is one good reason not to: We’re cookin’ the place. My point is not to judge the justifications, although it is tempting. My point is that there is value in talking candidly, collectively and compassionately about tough decisions and the angst they bring.