To Fly Or Not To Fly: That Is The (Wrong?) Question

In response to the ongoing discussion of fellow academics on whether we need to stop flying or fly less, I offer to put it in the context of change making, focusing on the adaptive nature of the challenge we face, the need to craft an appealing vision of sustainable and fair travel, and why we need a click moment.

Raz Godelnik
12 min readOct 3, 2019
Credit: Janusz Jakubowski

My grandparents never flew anywhere. My parents flew for the first time in 1982 when they were in their 30s. I flew for the first time when I was 22 (traveling from Israel to Australia for a 3-month adventure down under). My two kids’ first flight was when they were just babies, traveling to meet their family in Israel.

I thought about my own generational history of flights as I was reading with great interest the discussion of fellow academics, many of them climate scientists who have been debating whether we need to stop flying and how we can be more mindful of our own climate impacts overall. These questions were raised in the context of Greta Thunberg’s no- flying commitment, which was demonstrated in her travel to the U.S. on a sailboat, as well as the flight shaming movement that brought attention to the climate impacts of the aviation industry and travel in general.

Reading the tweets and articles of many esteemed colleagues I started asking myself if we are perhaps having the wrong debate. I’m feeling that we’re getting into technical debates that are important, but at the same time get us to lose sight of the bigger picture and the overall challenge we all have in mind: How to effectively fight climate change? So, I’d like to try and zoom out from the question of ‘to fly or not to fly’ to consider if this is indeed the right or the best question we should ask.

Individual Action?

Not everyone believes in the value of individual action when it comes to climate change. David Wallace-Wells, the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming”, made the following case earlier this year in a New York Times Op-Ed:

“But conscious consumption is a cop-out, a neoliberal diversion from collective action, which is what is necessary. People should try to live by their own values, about climate as with everything else, but the effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve.

Buying an electric car is a drop in the bucket compared with raising fuel-efficiency standards sharply. Conscientiously flying less is a lot easier if there’s more high-speed rail around. And if I eat fewer hamburgers a year, so what? But if cattle farmers were required to feed their cattle seaweed, which might reduce methane emissions by nearly 60 percent according to one study, that would make an enormous difference.”

8 years earlier Dr. Gernot Wagner, author of “But Will the Planet Notice?” made a similar argument in another New York Times Op-Ed: “…sadly, individual action does not work. It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it doesn’t add up to enough. Self-interest, not self-sacrifice, is what induces noticeable change. Only the right economic policies will enable us as individuals to be guided by self-interest and still do the right thing for the planet.”

Wagner’s point about individual action as a distraction from what we actually need to achieve was also echoed by climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann, who wrote last month on Time Magazine: “The bigger issue is that focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions. We need systemic changes that will reduce everyone’s carbon footprint, whether or not they care.”

On the other end of the ‘spectrum’ you can find numerous scholars who see great value in individual action. Climate scientist Dr. Peter Kalmus is one of them: “I’m a climate scientist who doesn’t fly. I try to avoid burning fossil fuels, because it’s clear that doing so causes real harm to humans and to nonhumans, today and far into the future. I don’t like harming others, so I don’t fly. Back in 2010, though, I was awash in cognitive dissonance,” he wrote back in 2016.

Like Kalmus many academics find that once they’re aware to their own carbon footprint they cannot avoid personal action. “I gave up flying in 2004. I’d just published a paper looking at the carbon emissions that come from climate scientists like me attending conferences, which academics do a lot. It would have been hypocritical for me to flag up flying as the major part of my carbon footprint, and then carry on doing it,” Prof. Dave Reay wrote on the Guardian.

Some, like Dr. Kimberly Nicholas see individual action as part of their responsibility for future generations, and others, like my colleague at The New School Dr. Genevieve Guenther consider it as a necessary part of role modeling — “The climate movement is not going to be effective until its leaders stop flying. I completely believe that”, she wrote on twitter.

So, does individual action matter? Well, this seems to be the main issue at question, especially with regards to flying in the discussion that took place on twitter, Ensia and probably other online and offline conversations. Yet, I feel that this question lacks proper context. Therefore, allow me to offer my two cents and a framing that hopefully can help contextualize it. This context is inspired by and based on Prof. Karen O’Brien’s work on transformation in the context of climate change.

The missing context

  1. We are dealing with an adaptive challenge, not a technical one

Ron Heifetz et al. identify two types of challenges: technical and adaptive. Technical challenges are easy to identify and have clear solutions that can be applied by experts, whereas adaptive challenges are difficult to identify and require changes in values and beliefs, learning and experimentation, as well as the engagement of different stakeholders in crafting an effective solution.

As O’Brien points out “the current approach to realizing the1.5C target has been predominantly technical”. At the same time we already see growing signs that this approach is not very effective. Failures to enact textbook solutions like carbon tax in Washington State or tax on diesel in France, as well as the failure to execute the Paris Agreement suggest that ignoring the adaptive nature of the climate crisis will probably get us nowhere.

I agree with O’Brien’s conclusion that we need to start addressing the climate crisis as an adaptive challenge requiring a shift in values, beliefs and social norms. This shift is critical especially given what Peleg Kremer and I call the red zone/green zone gap: This is the gap between policymaking that is grounded in the understanding that we are in the red zone (i.e. severe risk) when it comes to climate change and the people who are supposed to be served by it and feel as if they are actually in the green zone (i.e. low risk).

As long as the majority of people consider climate change as a distant threat, or what Michael Lewis calls a ‘fifth risk’: “The existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk”, this gap will lead to the failure of technical solutions. To overcome it we need to start addressing climate change in general and flying in this case as an adaptive challenge.

2. Crafting a vision of the post-carbon world

As far as I can tell all the people involved in the discussion on flying believe we will see dramatic changes in the ways we live, as we shift into a new era where we have no choice but to address the impacts of climate change — let’s call it the post-carbon era. One of the key questions is what is the vision we have for this future? Consider the best-case scenario — let’s say you use a time machine and you’re now in 2030 or 2035 and you find yourself in a world where the SDGs have been achieved and we are getting very close to net-zero emissions. What life in this world look like (especially for people in the global North, which are the ones involved in the current discussion)? Can we create a compelling narrative around this life and how our wellbeing can be improved due to the steps we took to get there (see AOC’s example with the Green New Deal)?

“Any student of the rise and fall of cultures cannot fail to be impressed by the role played in this historical succession by the image of the future. The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures,” Fred Polak wrote back in 1973 in his seminal book “The Image of the Future”. Almost half a century later we find it quite difficult to create the image of the post-carbon future and probably unintentionally contributing to delaying this future.

We need a clear(er) vision of this future so we can ‘sell’ it in the present, making the case why the future in a post-carbon world is preferable over a business-as-usual future. Yes, we can use Wallace-Wells’ point that “in the coming decades many of the most punishing climate horrors will indeed hit those least able to respond and recover”, but my gut feeling is that it’s probably not going to be enough, just like going to heaven is not just about avoiding the horrors of going to hell.

And what about travel — how people travel in the post-carbon world? We need to figure out this piece as only saying: “We can’t fly” or “short-haul flights should be heavily taxed” is not enough. Will people in the near future be traveling more like my grandparents, parents, me, or my kids? Or maybe it will be something completely different, i.e. a combination of a Green New Deal (providing everyone with time for vacation), cheap VR technology to allow visiting new places without leaving your home, and free sustainable vacations to those living within their carbon means?

3. Making change happen requires multi-dimensional action

OK, let’s assume you address climate change as an adaptive challenge and also crafted a clear vision of a post-carbon future. Now what? Well, it’s time to articulate your theory of change. After all, no matter where you are on the spectrum of individual action you need some sort of a theory of change — an explanation of how change will happen, or what do you believe are “all of the necessary and sufficient conditions required to bring about a given long term outcome?” to figure out how we get from where we are to your preferable future.

Some of those involved in the (no) flying discussion seem to mainly consider a one-dimensional approach to change — for example, champions of policy-based solutions to climate change don’t necessarily explain how exactly we make these policies happen, not to mention executing them successfully — is it just about voting for the right people? Same with those who are in favor of individual action, but also understand the scale and speed that are necessary to move the needle — what’s the theory of change there? How should we expect personal intervention (for example, stop flying) to lead to a desired change, such as limiting warming to 1.5C?

I would like to offer a different, multi-dimensional configuration that is based on Karen O’Brien and Linda Sygna’s Three Spheres of Transformation. “The three spheres,” they explain, “referred to as the practical, political, and personal spheres, can be used as a tool for understanding how, why and where transformations toward sustainability may take place.” O’Brien and Sygna define transformation “as physical and/or qualitative changes in form, structure, or meaning-making”, which seems very suitable to our discussion as we clearly look into these type of changes.

The three spheres include: 1) the practical sphere, which “represents both behaviors and technical solutions to climate change. These include behavioral changes, social and technological innovations, and institutional and managerial reforms.” 2) The political sphere, which includes “economic, political, legal, social and cultural systems; it is here where politics and power influence the rules of the game, where social movements, collective action campaigns, lobbying, electoral politics, and revolutions respond to them, and where threatened interests resist or quash pressures to change”, and 3) The personal sphere, “where the transformation of individual and collective beliefs, values and worldviews occur.”

The interactions between the spheres are key to understand this framework. O’Brien explains in a separate paper: “The three spheres depict the dynamic relationships between the practical, political and personal dimensions of transformation. They draw attention to the importance of the political and personal spheres in getting the conditions for practical transformations that contribute to the 1.5°C target.” In other words, each sphere can be responsible for potential intervention/s in the system, but the greatest potential for transformation as O’Brien and Sygna explain lies in the interactions across the three spheres.

I’d like to build on this framework and offer a way to contextualize the discussion over how to make change happen when it comes to flying or even climate change in general. Just like the three spheres of transformation, which does not represent “a theory of change per se,” my suggested configuration can similarly be viewed as more of “a heuristic that can ‘hold’ and integrate different theories of deliberate transformations”.

I suggest that change (or transformation for that matter) happens when constant interaction of three spheres (individual domain, political domain and cultural domain) leads eventually to a ‘click moment’ that results in defining and pursuing a desired vision of the future.

The three spheres I use in this configuration correspond with O’Brien and Sygna’s spheres, but I named them differently to emphasize the different dimensions in which they operate: The individual domain, the political domain and the cultural domain. In each one of these domains (similarly to O’Brien and Sygna’s spheres) there is a different focus: lifestyle and technical changes in the individual domain, policymaking and regulatory changes in the political domain and changes of norms, values and beliefs in the cultural domain.

The interactions between these domains are critical as one feeds the other — for example, lifestyle changes may feed into a change of social norms that will result in new policies and regulations. However, this may still not be enough to help articulate and pursue a vision of a desirable future. I suggest that we need a ‘click moment’ as a necessary condition required to generate the desired long-term outcome.

What is a ‘click moment’? It represents a moment where all elements fall in place to finally ignite change. Historian Barbara Berg explained in a 2017 New York Times article on the #metoo movement that “in the women’s movement of the 1970s we had this phrase ‘the click moment… This is the click moment. It’s like, ‘Enough.’ And then there’s a snowball effect: Once you see women speaking truth to power and not being told, ‘This is just what you have to put up with,’ then it encourages other women to stand up.”

The ‘click moment’ also corresponds with the notion of “gradually, then suddenly.” This idea (inspired by a quote from Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”), Tim O’Reilly explains “describes the way that many seemingly chaotic processes progress, from collapsing sandpiles to forest fires to industry transformations”. “Small changes accumulate, and suddenly the world is a different place,” he adds.

Overall, we may need to have such a click moment, where all parts (i.e. changes in the three domains) fall eventually in the right place so we can articulate and then pursue the vision of the future we want to see.

Here’s an example of how this configuration of change may look like when it comes to flying:

In summary, asking if we should stop flying or fly less may not be the wrong question, but it may be an insufficient one if we consider the bigger picture and contextualize it properly, for example by using these questions:

1) Do you consider this issue as an adaptive challenge rather than merely a technical problem?

2) What is your vision for a post-carbon world and how whatever you do or suggest play into it?

3) What is our theory of change and how whatever we do/suggest play into it?



Raz Godelnik

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach