*Disclaimer: This article is not sponsored. My views and opinions only.*
I have been in Zambia for the last six month and had only limited access to the internet. But the big headlines always reach me somehow – mostly through word-of-mouth from the guests who come on safari with us.
Apparently, “flight-shaming” has become a thing in reaction to the climate-change debate. I would like to offer a different perspective on this subject today.
First off: I want to mention that I am one of the faces of an airline marketing-campaign. For some, this might already rule me out to have any form of opinion on the subject of flying. Those who know me however, know that I choose my partnerships carefully and only agree to very little brand deals because, for the most part, I don’t believe in the message I’m asked to spread.
I do still believe in flying though – with restraints. What I don’t believe in is the old narrative of blame and shame, war-thinking, hate and finger-pointing.
My reasons for still supporting (mindful) air-travel are threefold:
- My personal story and background
- Economics in African countries
- Protection of wildlife and biodiversity in Africa
My personal story.
Let’s start with my personal story: Frankly, my whole life as it is now would not have happened if I hadn’t boarded that plane to South Africa five years ago. I wouldn’t have met the love of my life. Would not have trained as a safari guide. Would not have found my purpose in life.
However, my personal preferences don’t count for much regarding the important subject of climate change – we all need to review and adjust our consumer-habits and make drastic changes, so taking personal pleasure or benefits out of flying does not mean anything in this global debate.
But I want to be real here and acknowledge that flying has done a great deal for me personally. I would be a hypocrite if now, all of a sudden, I jumped on the bandwagon of flight-shaming, forgetting where I came from. (Having said this, the author Charles Eisenstein makes a very interesting case about a humans’ tendency to move towards pleasure and joy and what this has to do with flying. I encourage you to read his books which you find in my library.)
Economics in African countries.
The second point, economics in African countries, and the third point, protection of wildlife and biodiversity in Africa go hand in hand:
I have spoken with, and read about, many different Africa-based NGO’s over the last years and all of them share one core-belief: International tourism plays a vital role in a) lifting these countries out of poverty and empowering the rural communities, and b) protecting wildlife and biodiversity.
When it comes to economics, job-creation and empowerment for people, we still need to be careful though, just like we have to be with our personal pleasure: Just because international tourism is important for a country’s economy does not mean that it is justifiable on a global level. One could always argue that every country needs to be willing to make sacrifices and move to more sustainability for the benefit of the super-organism that is our Earth – otherwise there would be no future for all of us combined. What makes the lodge-owner in Zambia more important than the coal-worker in Germany? (Actually, some might say that, after all the white privilege of the last decades, it would only be fair for the African countries to finally get ahead, but that is a whole different discussion entirely…)
I do believe it would be crushing for many African economies if international tourists refused to visit these countries. Many of my local friends and partners in several different African countries have only recently taken the leap and started their own businesses. It is a trend I see happening everywhere – especially in Tanzania, Botswana and Zambia (at least these are the only countries that I dare to make such a statement about according to my personal observations. There might be many more.) These people are the first generation that is benefitting from better education systems and global connections. They are SO ready and excited to finally step into their own power. And not only the small business-owners, but also many of the employees in the tourism sector have gone through excellent training and are proud to show off their country. So, I’m not gonna lie: It would be a disaster for my friends if the international travel community stopped visiting their countries tomorrow. But I understand that I have to set these personal feelings aside.
Protection of wildlife and biodiversity.
The biggest case I make pro-flying is the protection of wildlife and biodiversity in Africa. As it is now, international tourism is the only effective shield that stands between African species extinction and species protection. International tourists literally pay for the animals in African National Parks to be protected. And maybe it is here where my earlier example of the Zambian lodge-owner is assigned to a responsibility that is bigger than just himself and his family after all: Tourism creates jobs and therefore, shows the local communities which still live next door to lions, elephants, and leopards that wildlife has a massive longterm worth. Wildlife is worth protecting because a job in tourism can provide for a whole family. I see this happening after each and every safari I do: As soon as the trip is over, the local guides and staff-members take their tip-money and/or salary, rush to the next bank, and send the money straight home to the family.
This tourist money sends such a strong message. It is, at this point in time, the only effective way to protect and run African National Parks. (Don’t take my word on this though – inquire with any African NGO about the importance of international tourism).
Less tourism = more poaching.
No more international tourism would also mean opening the floodgates for illegal poaching, as there would be less to no money to protect the parks, plus local communities might have no other option to secure their own survival by poaching for a) bush-meat to put on the dinner table or b) for ivory, rhino-horn, pangolin, lion-bones, etc. to be shipped off to far-away countries and make some money.
Why should I still care about wildlife and biodiversity when the world is ending?
A question I asked myself. The common narrative right now seems to be: “If we don’t act now to solve the climate crisis, there won’t be any life left on Earth to care for anyway. Every other good cause doesn’t matter anymore until this is resolved.”
The following quote gives an answer to my question:
Invoking climate apocalypse devalues work that has little foreseeable relevance to climate change. Issues like poverty, homelessness, inequality, incarceration, racism, human trafficking, heavy metal pollution, GMOs, plastic pollution, [wildlife conservation], and so on have a tenuous relationship to atmospheric health. Perhaps we should put all these causes on hold – after all, what will they matter if the planet becomes unlivable? – until we’ve solved the climate change problem. This mentality is mistaken. The issues listed above have everything to do with climate, because the cause of climate instability is everything: every dimension of our separation from earth, nature, heart, truth, love, community, and compassion. If indeed self and world, humanity and nature, mirror each other and are part of each other, then it should stand to reason that climate instability will accompany instability in the social and political climate, and that imbalances in the natural realm will mirror imbalances in the human. Greenhouse gases are but a medium by which this principle operates. A Story of Interbeing motivating earth healing neither contradicts nor depends on the story of saving the world from greenhouse gases. It supersedes it.from “Climate – A new story” by Charles Eisenstein
In short: Every act of kindness, care, compassion and reverence for our Mother Earth matters. Every good cause contributes to the healing of our planet in ways that we can’t even begin to understand.
One could also argue that it would be better for the local communities to farm and stay independent from our Western consumer society which seems to evolve only around money, greed and the accumulation of power and materialistic goods. But farming, I’m afraid, does not protect the wildlife and the Nature. It is the opposite: Farming means more and more encroachment on the Wilderness, means the poisoning of rivers and the soil, means original forests being burned down for cattle farms (look at the Amazon…). Money is still the energy that moves our global society today. But there are mindful ways of circulating it. Money can move mountains – if used correctly. And it is my strong believe that money will become less and less important in our society as we move more and more into a new story of humanity that is all about compassion, love and empathy. (There is a great chapter on money in Arun Gandhis book “The gift of Anger”. A more provocative read and an entirely different, more radical approach to money is discussed in “Sacred Economics” by Charles Eisenstein)
Furthermore, we need to address the fact that mass-tourism is, in many cases, also not helping to protect wilderness-areas. Clearly, eco-tourism is the way to go, small-scale, intimate and up-marked lodges are, I’m afraid, best for the environment. But then we very quickly enter yet another discussion, which is that safaris (and the future of flying?) are only affordable for the rich…
Well, just donate the money then!
Fair enough, we could all just stop flying to these countries and donate the money instead. And while this is a very selfless act and I applaud everyone who is doing this, I don’t believe it would work. Yes, I donate a lot to charities myself. But firstly, I believe in the priceless value it has for a tourist to actually come and experience these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. In order to care about something – anything! – , we need to be moved by it, we need to feel the pain of what it means to lose it, and we need to feel the joy of what it means to live in a world where such beauty exists. I very much believe in the significance of one person. Because this one person takes the values of the African wild home and becomes an ambassador for them. This one person, in my humble opinion, has the power to move mountains. Secondly, it is important to state that the people in these countries really do not want your charity. What they want is to stand on their own two feet and feel their own worth.
I read an article recently, in which the author said that, “while it was cool and hip to fly Christmas-shopping in New York City or go on safari in Africa in the nineties – these are luxuries that everyone who indulges in today should be ashamed of.” Now… I admit that I am not sure if a shopping trip to NYC is necessary. I’m sure someone from the big apple would be able to make a very strong case for it. But to compare this with African safaris is D-A-N-G-E-R-O-U-S. Because with regards to safari-tourism, there is more at stake here than just us humans and our own prosperity.
Every National Park in Africa benefits from international tourism. But let me give you one of the most powerful examples to make my point clear:
The Mountain Gorillas of Uganda.
Up in the highlands of Uganda lies the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to some of the last families of mountain gorillas in the world. There are, give or take, about 1000 of them left in Africa. If it wasn’t for tourism, that number would probably be zero.
But it is because of the invention of the gorilla-treks in Bwindi that the numbers have recently actually started to stabilise and even rise. Having done the trek myself, I was able to see what is being done here and I was positively surprised by the whole experience. The people who work with the National Parks are so proud of the work they are doing. You can actually see where your good money is going (a gorilla-trek is not cheap: 750 US-Dollars to be exact). The Park Rangers speak perfect English and really know their stuff, the official buildings are well maintained, many people from the local villages are being employed by the park – rangers, porters, trackers, not to mention the employees of the lodges in the area, drivers, guides, and souvenir shop owners. On top of that, the gorillas are treated respectfully (only one hour a day is reserved for tourists – the rest of the day the gorillas are left alone).
Traveling up into the mountains on slippery dirt roads, one thing becomes blatantly obvious when looking at your surroundings: If it wasn’t for the gorilla-trekking and the employment-opportunities it creates, things would look a lot different here. You can literally see human encroachment happening in real-time when visiting Bwindi: The tea-plantations and farms surround the bottom of the hills like a destructive army, while only the mountain peaks are still covered in dense vegetation and original rainforest. If it wasn’t for the iconic primate, and the magic especially the sight of a silver-back holds for international tourists, these mountain-tops would be gone as well.
But the gorillas merely serve as a key-species of this ecosystem. The entire thing is so much bigger than just gorillas. There is a chain happening here:
- Tourists pay money to trek gorillas
- Locals are employed and feel the need to protect gorillas
- Tourist money is used to run the National Parks
- Gorillas are save
- Gorillas act as an umbrella to protect the entire ecosystem
- Countless other species of mammals, birds, insects and plants are protected as well
- The original rainforest (the lungs of our Mother Earth) is preserved
I could make equal cases for elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and even shoebills in many other African National Parks, but I believe you get my point….
Now, what do we do with this information?
The sword of Damocles is still hanging above us. Flying is still the scape-goat of the whole climate-change debate. Here are the things I personally do:
I try to stay up to date with recent developments, but I’m also very careful with what I read. I consciously choose which news I compensate and I question what I read. The best books I can recommend are “Climate – A new Story” by Charles Eisenstein and “Wir sind der Wandel” by Paul Hawken (Sorry, not sure what the English title is). The whole debate of climate change evolves around so much more than just flying and there is a lot more amazing stuff that can be done apart from merely cutting down fossil fuels. (Not advocating the use of fossil fuels here – just saying there is much more than meets the eye).
First off: I am more than willing to pay more for my flights and encourage all my guests to do the same. Naturally, I compensate every flight I take. In the past, I did this through Atmosfair – an organisation that uses your donations to support climate-positive projects such as tree-planting-initiatives. While Atmosfair is awesome, it is also worth considering to compensate directly through the airline you book with (careful though, airlines tend to not compensate for everything, unlike Atmosfair. So it might be wise to compensate through both).
Why compensate directly through the airline? Because you, as the consumer, have a lot of power. You need to show the airline that you are willing to pay more in order to support the planet. The airlines need facts, they need numbers they can work with. If you only compensate through Atmosfair, you give the airline nothing to work with and, being a cooperation that needs to stay competitive, it is much harder for any airline to justify decisions favouring costly environmental-friendly technologies in front of board-members and investors, when there is no data to support that you, the consumer, would still (or especially!) be willing to book with them if they became green.
By the way, Atmosfair holds the opinion that the only thing that is actually worth compensating is indeed air-travel because air-travel is the only thing that has real potential of improvement. Atmosfair states that there is no point in compensating meat-eating or petrol-powered car-travel because these two cannot be improved with time (they would just need to be phased out and be replaced by e.g. a plant-based diet, bicycles, electronic cars). Air travel can be improved through e.g. Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAP) or carefully selected flight-routes. So what you are doing by compensating is, you are buying time for the planet until the next stage of air-travel happens. It is for this reason that Lufthansa has recently launched their own compensation-platform called “Compensaid” which can be used for all airlines and all flights worldwide. The difference in Compensaid is that they not only give the option of planting trees to compensate, but actually buying SAP to support the future of air travel. Planting trees is cheaper, but takes longer to have an effect on the climate. Buying SAP has an immediate effect on the climate, but is more expensive. (Important: We still need to watch the development of SAP and biofuel carefully, as it is a very new invention)
3. Being mindful.
Mindfulness goes a long way when it comes to air-travel. What it means is, to make conscious decisions. It starts with refraining from any unnecessary flight in the first place, taking the train as much as possible (e.g. to get to the international airport), choosing the right airline, researching which flight to take so that you sit in a new model of airplane which is more efficient (Compensaid helps you here a great deal to make this process easy and transparent), taking a reusable water-bottle with you, I have recently started to take my own snacks or simply doing intermittent fasting while flying, so as to…
4. …not be wasteful.
Gandhi said, “there is no greater violence than wastefulness.” There is obviously a huge amount of plastic and food rubbish wasted on airplanes. But not to be wasteful goes much further than that. It concerns the whole chain of our consumerist society. And it most definitely also entails cutting back hugely on every flight that is wasteful or unnecessary because you could instead take the train, skype or stay at home. The best way, I find, to create non-wasteful, and instead, mindful habits is through Yoga and meditation, reading and educating myself, forming powerful habits and creating a life-vision for myself that happens in relationship and in partnership with Nature. My new book “The Wonderful Wild” deals with this topic in detail, so for all you Germans out there, if you are interested to learn more about it, maybe you would like to give it a read. For all English-speaking people, I would like to recommend the following books: Earth is hiring (Peta Kelly) / Light on Life (B.K. Iyengar) / The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible (Charles Eisenstein).
5. Going vegan.
I went vegan two years ago and it is the best way for me to practice non-violence, to stay healthy, to do my part in protecting wild lands so they won’t be destroyed for cattle-farming, and to protect the climate. I am not aggressive about promoting a vegan diet though, because I feel like there is much more we need to consider when protecting the planet than just refraining from eating animal products. I also see a lot of hazards in the vegan movement that promote hate towards “them bloody meat-eaters who still f@#$*ing don’t get what’s at stake here!!!” Finally, veganism can also lead to complacency or self-righteousness (“Look at me – I’m better than you!” or “I’m already doing MORE than enough!”) Having said this: A plant-based diet is still a powerful tool to do your part.
Air-travel-enemies would now argue that taking only one long-distance-flight destroys all the good efforts a vegan diet tries to promote and enlarges the personal ecological footprint by a thousandfold. But what that footprint doesn’t take into account is all the good things that are about to happen in the near future. What it doesn’t take into account is the huge change that is happening within our society right now. What it doesn’t take into account is the life-changing effect a visit to the gorillas might have on that one person (I see this change in a persons perception of the world happening all the time on my safaris).
That ecological footprint limits our human experience to numbers and is unable to take into account (or simply fails to measure) all the things that cannot be measured in numbers. And while it is a good indicator to get a first idea on ones own impact on the world – no numbers-game will ever replace the deeper change that needs to happen within all of us. We need to do the inner work and find our way back to love, compassion and empathy. If we judge ourselves and others only by insufficient numbers, I’m afraid we will never get there and we will just look for another scape-goat that diverts our attention away from the real elephant in the room – which is:
6. We need to stop the blame-game.
We need to stop fighting one another, and stop pointing the finger at the others. We need to stop with the war-mentality that has been predominant in our species for centuries now. What Mother Earth asks of us is that we find our way back home; that we understand we are all connected with one another; that Nature is based upon relationship, community and giving, not taking.
What we need, I believe, is a change of heart.
If we keep blaming something outside of ourselves for the destruction of our planet, we will keep repeating the same mistake. If we keep acting from that old story of anger, hate, blame and fear – the results we achieve will ultimately have anger, hate, blame and fear at their core and therefore, will never be as powerful as they could be if they were made up of love, compassion and empathy.
The above are things each and every one of us can do individually. What we need in combination with this change of heart are powerful political decisions taking effect on a global scale. The time is now to prove that the word “democracy” actually has meaning. The time is now to make our votes and voices count.
Please don’t take my word for it though. I’m just one person and, because of my own personal story and background, I am most likely not free from bias, I am not a saint, I am just like anybody else. Believe me when I say though, I have been thinking about these topics for years now, and I try to read as much as possible about them. If I could encourage you to do one thing, it would be to not blindly follow the mainstream narrative, but to educate yourself and form your own opinions. (I found the book Factfulness by the late Hans Rosling of great value in this regard.)
To conclude, I believe every narrative that makes use of the word “shame” should make us stop dead in our tracks and turn the other way, because it leads us further and further away from the new story of compassion and empathy we need to cultivate within our society instead. There is still a place for air-travel in this world. And, on a side note, with many African economies becoming more and more prosperous, it is also not realistic to hope for people to stop flying. Predictions are that a lot more people will board airplanes in the future. And who are we to tell them they cannot do that?
To me, the climate crisis has made one thing very clear: That we are all inter-connected. That this Earth is a super-organism working on the principle of relationship. All of us are citizens of this Earth. Air-travel is a meaningful way to strengthen our international relationships and break up cultural boundaries. Air-travel has the potential to become environmental-friendly and we have to work towards it. This does in no way promote unnecessary country-hopping on cheap deals.
But my personal background in African eco-tourism leads me to trust that there are bigger things, unmeasurable things, to take into consideration when moving towards a sustainable future. To sacrifice countless other good causes (like wildlife-protection) for the current mainstream cause (climate change) would be a sad mistake to make. Climate change is a serious, pressing issue. However, it is also but a symptom – a fever- of a much bigger sickness our species has contracted: The sickness of not revering Nature anymore.
Unless we turn toward other dimensions of ecological healing – soil, water, biodiversity, etc. – the condition of the biosphere will continue to worsen. And unless we address the roots of social and psychological misery, sustainable energy will just sustain more misery.– from “Climate – A new story” by Charles Eisenstein
There is more to us than just our ecological footprint. And I truly believe that there is another story we can tell about the world, if we choose to do so.
Lots of love,
PS: I use amazon affiliate-links on this website for the books I recommend. It has been suggested to me that, as a writer, I should refrain from supporting a big cooperation such as amazon, and help the local bookstore around the corner instead. But, again, I have to be real here and say that, being away from home most of the time, my kindle is the best way for me to read all the books I recommend here. As a writer, amazon also generates my biggest income-stream. The fact that ALL the writers I admire who promote new ways of thinking still have their own books on amazon led me to decide that this is okay for me, too.