Tech geek Anirvan Chatterjee and landscape architect Barnali Ghosh were surprised to learn that their carbon footprint was bigger than 90 percent of Americans, despite their green efforts which included living without a car. They found that air travel was to blame and challenged themselves to spend a year without flying. In words that might resonate with many desis, Chatterjee wrote about why it would be hard to give up flying, just before embarking upon the Year of No Flying project.
Growing up in a family of post-1965 transnational immigrants, our history is deeply connected with the democratization of air travel — countless flights to and from India, Canada, Nigeria, and the United States. Our stories begin and end in airports. (Last flight)As part of the no-flying challenge, the couple crossed continents and oceans to explore solutions to the problem of aviation sector emissions, meeting with environmentalists and planners, including youth activists in India and Vietnam. They crossed the Pacific and Atlantic by container ships and traveled by train through Asia. They also had the infuriating experience of flying to India during the year because emotional, political and logistical factors prevented them from either skipping South Asia or traveling there by land/sea.
Post-challenge they continue to write about the latest developments in green travel and aviation emissions. They also took time to answer my questions.
How did your families and friends react to your decision to stop flying for a year?
I think some of our friends and family members may have thought that we were more adventurous travelers than we really were. Getting around the world in 365 days without flying doesn’t have to involve rappelling through canyons or trekking across Central Asia. We took a mix of container ships, ferries, trains, and buses to get around. [Train Travels slideshow]
We’ve heard that only about 5% of the people on the planet use aviation. Exploring life without planes felt very normal; it’s what people have always done, and most people on the planet still do.
What is your most memorable experience from the project?
The Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic crossings were particularly memorable. By the time we got on board the cargo ship that would take us from Seattle to Yokohama [slide show], we were exhausted from having spent the past month madly planning for our year ahead. We finally slowed down as we stood on the deck as the ship pulled out of harbor, watching a spectacular sunset with the shimmering Seattle skyline and Mount Olympia in the background.
It was better than any plane journey we’d ever taken.
For the next ten days we were grateful to have this gift of time and of discovery. It was amazing to look out the window and realize that we were in the middle of the Pacific, surrounded by 2,800 containers and with no land in sight. We’d flown over this ocean so many times without ever appreciating its size and depth.
It also gave us a very intimate view of the workings of a modern day cargo ship, and a glimpse into the invisible world of global shipping. Our cargo ship back home from Europe to the US was smaller, but the diverse crew, including a contingent of Sri Lankan sailors, immediately made us feel at home.
Do you have any advice for people who want to help reduce global emissions by cutting down or eliminating their air travel but feel torn by the desire to attend a family wedding across the world or visit grandparents in person, etc.?
Barnali’s brother’s getting married in India later this year, and yeah, we’ll be flying there. We can’t imagine not being there. British writer George Monbiot has a word for this: “love miles” — all those dirty miles we fly, and then justify using love.
We’re trying to deal with this in three steps: understanding the problem, taking personal steps, and trying to fix the larger system. We started off trying to understand the problem.
Aviation’s responsible for about 4.9% of our total impact on the climate. An economy flight from San Francisco to Mumbai and back has the impact of driving a car for an whole year! It takes a while to internalize, but when it comes to the climate, binge flyers can be worse than SUV drivers.
Next, we’re trying to cut back and substitute. We usually fly to India every year to see family, but now we hope to make that basically our only flight each year. Buses, trains, and cars usually beat planes, though that varies; you can check the numbers for your next trip at www.TripFootprint.com.
Finally, though personal efforts are nice, they don’t mean much unless we can make bigger changes: better rail/bus alternatives, more business flights replaced by cheaper and greener remote conferencing, and an end to subsidies for dirty transportation options. We’re supporting climate and transportation justice groups. If you want to learn more, or don’t know where to start, consider the wonderful Transportation For America coalition (www.t4america.org).