“Dear Christopher. You fly to different countries. Your CO2 footprint is a million times higher than a poor person…..I wouldn’t know what to learn from you.”

To Fly or not to Fly?

That is the Question

Here is the criticism extracted from the two emails from Germany about this wallah’s taking flights.

Thank you for your article The Profound Meeting of Mindfulness with Nature, in the book Rieche das Feuer, spür den Wind.”

 It’s an inspiring article.

 At the same time, I wonder, if you really mean what you say? On the one hand, you tell the reader, to fly as little as possible, as it’s extremely bad for the environment. On the other hand, you seem to fly far distances several times a year. 

 To me, this is kind of symbolic for mindfulness and environmental behaviour.

 You won’t kill an animal yourself, but you accept flying and its damage to the Earth.

 It really hurts me, as it shows me that your concept doesn’t work. 

 You seem to be a person who is very mindful, but your CO2 footprint is million times higher than the one of any poor person, that just can’t afford any flights.

 It really hurts me that mindfulness won’t save the earth. I wish it would, but to me international mindfulness teachers are an example, of how it doesn’t.

 How do you cope?

 So right now, I’m looking at how I can combine mindfulness and psychosomatic healthcare with environmental issues in my master thesis. So I also have to and like to be critical, as this part of a scientific thesis. 

 To me, it’s a hit in the face that you fly from one town in Germany to another. That’s a total environmental disaster. It’s funny to me that you think, your teaching is so important and can somehow offset your environmental footprint.

 Perhaps I’m wrong, but from my perception, no one can truly learn from you, if your action and your teaching fall apart so far. 

 In this way, I think people will learn, that some imaginary believe in something is more important than their deeds.

 In a country like Germany, we don’t have a problem with environmental consciousness, but a problem with environmental action. And that’s the same with you. So, I wouldn’t know, what to learn from you.

 A Comment on Flying

In Brief.

  • I believe it is appropriate to fly in the service of people, animals and the environment
  • It is appropriate to fly to see loved ones
  • It is appropriate to fly to learn in depth from other societies, cultures, secular/religious/spiritual traditions
  • It is inappropriate to fly for pleasure, entertainment, sport and many kinds of business/political conferences
  • There is a danger of an increase in insularity, dogmatism and nationalism by refusing to board a plane and getting angry with others who fly. 
  • Eating meat, driving cars, excess of heat/light in the home/work have an environmental impact.
  • The clothing industry, unnecessary purchases and forms of  financial investments have a major impact on people, animals and the environment.

There is much to appreciate in the concerns of the emailer about the impact of greenhouse gases per passenger kilometre on every flight, short haul or long haul.

Yes, the environmental and human impact of flights is worse than other forms of transport, especially when linked with the transportation of aviation fuel, the manufacture of planes and the infrastructure around aircraft and airports. The production of cars and use of cars also have an impact.

Daily lifestyle can have a far bigger impact on the environment than boarding a plane once or twice a year.

Around one in two citizens in the UK take a short haul flight once a year and a long-haul flight every five years. The frequent use of flights for business and holidays harms environment.

The aircraft industry claims responsibility for only 3% of greenhouse emissions but some estimate that the true figure is more than 12% when scientists take into consideration all the pollution factors from start to finish of the life of a single aircraft.

CO2 emissions can dwell in the air for hundreds of years contributing to global warming, melting icecaps/glaciers, floods, famine and sudden climate changes impacting on numerous habitats. Vapour trails and ozone production also contribute to climate change on our modest sized Earth.

There is certainly a strong argument to cut out flights altogether.

People, such as my emailer, seem to take an absolute stand against my flights. The wise application of non-flying ethics can trigger concerns with others, who also stop flying or cut down on the number of flights.

Meat eating, gas guzzling. lecturers preaching to individuals for boarding a plane can bring about from the passenger a ‘f.ck you’ response. The passenger ends up flying even more in defiance.

The decision to refuse to fly or fly less shows steps in the right direction.

Does the boarding of a plane confirm an inherently unethical action?

Despite the public image, budget airlines offer an eco-friendlier service since they fill up the seats with passengers and employ smaller, more fuel efficient aircraft.  First class seats and business seats take up more space which reduces the number of passengers on the flight. Empty seats and expensive seats make the carbon footprint per passenger more expensive.

Reduction of flights per year, short haul and long haul, help persuade governments to legislate for fuel efficient, highly eco-friendly aircraft and to apply the same principles to every aspect of the industry. Governments also need to reduce the costs of public transport by train, bus and coach. The pressure from the ‘no flying’ campaigners placed on passengers on planes needs to be placed on governments and business leaders flying around the world exploiting the poor, environments and resources.

Some people need to fly to other countries to develop an international outlook. Humans remain vulnerable to insular views, nationalism and identifying with tendencies to undermine other nations, societies, religions and nations. Then people form their view of the world through their politicians and media. I regard it as too simplistic to take a moral position that flying is bad and refusing to fly is good.

We may need to fly out of a Western country to another part of the world to expand our consciousness, to learn about other societies, cultures, lifestyles, religions and spirituality. We can then return home to live with quiet austerity, and a modest carbon footprint. The non-Western world can offer us much renewal.

With knowledge and skills learnt overseas, we can contribute to the transformation of Western society from consumerism to wisdom and compassion for the present and future generations. We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that the West has all the answers.

A long-distance flight with healthy motivations can contribute to a sustainable world for humans, animals and the environment. A rejection of all flying can contribute to self-righteousness and support consumerism through denial of an international outlook for the welfare of all. For example, first-hand experience of Eastern spirituality runs deeper within than reading books.

We learn and we share. That may reduce the need of others to travel overseas or may inspire them to travel far and wide. He or she, who is without sin, can throw the first stone.

Reasons to Fly

For example, millions of families are split up living in different parts of a continent or parts of the world. Long haul flights and short haul flights keep families connected. People take flights for spiritual/religious reasons. People take flights to spend time out of their own culture and society to experience other ways of life. People take flights to give to those in need. We need to broaden our spiritual, religious and cultural horizons. We need to experience other ways of life.

Children benefit from a different climate, culture, outdoor life and exposure to people and animals from other countries. Westerners can spend months living a simple life in a village or monastery in the East for weeks and months which reduces considerably their carbon footprint. People from East and West, North and South need to spend time with each other.  We need people from other parts of the world to see the benefits and the insecurities prevalent in Western life. Flights make inter-action possible.

The total rejection of flights can confine us to our consumer obsessed culture with no experience of living in a non-consumer culture. That could leave a narrow, dogmatic mind with an insular world view.

We should choose our flights carefully. We examine our intentions and see the genuine benefits for others and ourselves for flights rather than flights for making money /consumerism and pleasure-seeking motives.

Where possible, trains are a better form of transport. Yet questions arise here. Does the train use diesel or electricity? Is it energy efficient? Who owns the train? Does the CEO own aeroplanes?

He or she who is without sin when it comes to travel can throw the first stone at passengers.

Environmental scientists tell us that a passenger on a seven- hour flight contributes as much to CO2 emissions as driving a car for 10,000 kilometres.

Car users also need to cut down on their journeys, use public transport as much as possible for work, pleasure and shopping and endeavour to have more than just the driver in the car. International campaigns to make every vehicle on any road in the world fuel efficient and eco-friendly would be a significant contribution to the reduction of emissions. The same principle applies to all forms of ships and boats.

We can end our meat diet, ensure equipment, such as refrigerators, commercial and personal, are built to the highest eco-friendly standards and minimise landfill sites. Between them, such human activities generate methane, nitrous oxide and greenhouse gases. We need political action to address the consequences to health and habitats suffering under the impact of consumerism.

A Personal Response

I fly to three continents a year to offer Dharma teachings and practices connected to the Buddhist tradition.

I take flights to work with people in India, Australia and the Israel/Palestine. I also flew to Thailand this year to offer talks and teachings to mark the 111th year of Ajahn Buddhadasa, the celebrated Thai monk of the 20th century under whom I explored the Dharma.

Once a year, I take a flight from within Germany from Dusseldorf in the north to Munich. One retreat finishes on the Saturday morning and I start another retreat in the evening on the same day.  I prefer the practitioners have the Sunday for the retreat.

I encourage people to fly to the East, such as India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka for their spiritual development, expansion of experience, service to others and insights into expressions of life on Earth.

Around 10 years ago, I stopped taking flights twice a year to New York and San Francisco.

I fly to Israel/Palestine once a year rather than twice a year, as some years ago.

In the past 40 years, countless people have told me they have turned their back on consumerism, obsessing about money and pursuit of possession of luxuries, expensive gadgets, new cars after engaging in meditation retreats and listening to teachings.

The teachings and practices change people’s lives. I believe these teachings and practices offset the environmental cost of a return flight of an individual.

  • This wallah takes the train from Totnes, England to France and Germany and back home around five times per year.
  • I do not fly for holidays anywhere.
  • I do not own a car.

Some become Agents of Change in variously significant ways.

The Mindfulness industry does not have a vision of environmental, social, corporate and political change. It belongs primarily to the personal well-being movement.

We need voices to question and criticise lifestyle that impact on people and environments.

We, the internationalists, also can stay true to our perceptions, values and priorities.

For some of us, we serve others in different parts of the world. We travel due to the kind invitations to offer programmes for the benefit of people, animals and the environment.





4 thoughts on ““Dear Christopher. You fly to different countries. Your CO2 footprint is a million times higher than a poor person…..I wouldn’t know what to learn from you.””

  1. I enjoyed your thoughtful article Christopher and pondered on your comments. I fully appreciate your points about the broadening experience of travel and the benefit from visitng dharma teachers to people in India and elsewhere but I feel the situation with climage change is so serious now that such travel is not justified. Try telling the polar bears who are so critically threatened by melting ice that a journey to India for a retreat is justified. I believe Totnes is a ‘transition town’ where the aim is to live and work locally and use local produce as far as possible so maybe spiritual welfare can be seen in the same light? We have to start living differently. There is after all so much on offer in Totnes including your good self. Also, technology now makes it possible for us to enjoy dharma talks in our own home. I have in fact enjoyed one or two of yours and also completed your Mindfulness course in the comfort of my own home! I now attend a sangha in Edinburgh just a 20 min walk from my home. So my point is that drastic measures are needed, most of all from governments of course, but also from all of us being responsible as individuals. Jung said ‘if you want to change the world begin with yourself’ or words to that effect.

  2. Interesting debate.

    I got into an aeroplane argument with someone once. I flew to Tenerife to sit in a rocky cove and eat raisins and speak Spanish to lizards, and they said my flight wasn’t as necessary as their flight, ‘cos they were doing international lectures about how not to ruin the world.

    I think the invention of planes, trains, ships, cars, bikes is a miracle!!! Here’s to technology!! Its surely a balanced approach, rather than the thing itself, that’s the clue. Is it? Perhaps it isn’t. I don’t know.

    On a personal level, I’ve decided its balance, with all my attempts at ethical living. Balance makes my heart feel open.

    Despite the fact that there’s always someone ready to bash me on the head with their placard, in fact they do that more than tell me how balanced I am, but hey, I know my own heart.

  3. Hi Christopher,
    My impression, while reading the letter, is that the author has already made his/her mind, and suffers from the contradiction of enjoying your teachings while not being able to bear the environnemental price at which they come.
    I do believe we grossly underestimate the damage our technological way of life (flights included) does to life on earth. I happen to work with a lot of scientists whose domain of expertise has to do with the unsustainable exploitation of the earth ‘s resources (living, or mineral) and they pretty much agree that we are on the way of achieving the greatest ecocide since catastrophic geological events which occured thousands of millions of years ago.
    Flights are on the high end of the spectrum in terms of harm, but so are eating processed food, owning a smartphone, or not being mindful of what multinationals do to us as we consent to use their services.
    I however, would like to think that having a thousand Christophers flying around the globe teaching, would be a good use of what resources we have left, before the now inevitable collapse of our technological civilization.
    I raise chickens for eggs. Sometimes, i kill a sick hen even if i try and let them die of old age. I suffer when i kill an animal. Its important to pay that price as it keeps me focused on the importance of respecting life. I almost never travel by plane anymore, or use a car to do a trivial thing, because, i’ve found out with some surprise, the suffering caused by the knowledge of what i’m actually doing in terms of harm to all life on earth, is as acute as that of taking an animal’s life, or even more : in the killing of a hen, i have to be fully awake and conscious of what i’m doing. In the traveling at high speed, i can read a book, talk to a neighbor or listen to music, relegating the act of killing in the back of my mind.
    Thank you for all you do, and i’ll gladly fligh less so that you can fligh more.

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