I am flying back to the UK from Delhi today. At least it is a direct flight I tell myself. Though that doesn’t do very much to appease the awkwardness I feel about flying. . .
Life on a bicycle these past 18 months certainly brought its challenges, though at least I felt assured that most of the time my environmental impact on the world around me was quite minimal. If there was a mountain before me then it was my legs that had to get me up and over it, and if I didn’t make it up there that day then I could pitch my tent, cook whatever food I’d bought that day at a local market, and gaze out over what I had climbed that day. Those were the days, my conscience fairly clear, and a deep connection with my-self and all that surrounded me often.
Yet I wanted to cross oceans and in the end I chose to do that by aeroplane. On the way to Bhutan with my bicycle there was first a flight from Spain to Argentina, then there was Toronto to Hong Kong, and then Bangkok to Kolkata. Whilst I was in Bangkok I also took the opportunity to go and visit my brother in Sumba, Indonesia, and with Sumba being a very remote island that trip alone took several flights.
That is one heavy carbon footprint.
Was it worth it?
I wonder, was my journey really worth all that resource use? Is the world at least a little happier for it? It was after all a journey about happiness. . .
Perhaps I could justify my journey based solely on my personal happiness, of which there was a great deal. I fulfilled important human needs (such as, physical well-being, connectivity, meaning, and autonomy), I had experiences that were not only awe-inspiring in the moment but can be recounted for many years to come, and I experienced challenge that lead to personal growth.
Though is it only about my personal happiness? I think not.
My travel has had happiness consequences for others too. I’d like to think there were wider benefits to my journey around happiness – that I contributed sufficient happiness to the lives of people I met along the way and that what I wrote about happiness based on my experiences will have been of some use to others. Maybe at least a little bit of what I learnt from the many inspiringly happy lands I passed through will one day help me implement ideas back home.
Yet even if there were wider benefits of my journey I have to balance that with the wider environmental impact of my travel. My travel will certainly have negative consequences on the happiness and well-being of others, including future generations and other species. I don’t know how much exactly so it is difficult to balance things, as well as there being the temptation to downplay the real cost of my travel. I don’t feel very personally happy when I think too much about all of this. Nevertheless, I do think about it. I have to.
The consciousness I hold around the environmental impacts of flying, and travel more generally, is why I sometimes chose to take slow boats over much less expensive flights. Though the boats took much longer and have environmental impacts of their own they were nevertheless far more enriching experiences. It is also why when I did fly I always opted for direct flights that are always, rather bizarrely, more expensive (a reflection that the real cost of flying is not paid for), and didn’t always put me exactly where I wanted.
Anyway, I hadn’t flown in three years prior to this trip. Plus, in Scotland my diet was primarily vegan and therefore fairly sustainable (I kept it local and vegetarian while travelling). . .and. . .and. . .and. . .I could go on, trying to justify to myself, and to others, that my journey about happiness was worth it in the end.
Of all the journeys I’ve made in my life that have involved flying it certainly seems to be one of the more worthy cases for travel. Yet I still know deep down that I am trying to justify something that at core has a negative influence on our planet, and in any case could have been avoided. Imagine for example if my cycle route to Bhutan had been more direct across the Europe and Central Asia, or indeed if I hadn’t even left home at all. Even if I had flown to Bhutan from the UK I could have been there and back in a matter of days and had lower carbon footprint. But then it never was just about the destination, and no doubt the daily life in the UK I would have otherwise had from the time saved would have been more impactful than life on a bicycle.
In fact, what I’ve learnt about travel, and I was conscious of this before I even left for Bhutan, is that real travel isn’t about distance. It is more about how we approach and interact with the world around us. Rarely does one need to go very far to find something wondrous that will challenge all perceptions of the self. Everywhere there is beauty, but sometimes to see and feel that beauty we may have to go much slower, sometimes we might need to stop completely. That is the real key to happy travelling.
I can’t see any good reason for me to fly again. And so once I am back in the UK – later today if everything goes to schedule – I am committing to not flying for at least the next 5 years, and it may even end up being for the rest of my life unless I can see a good case for it. Anyone else want to come with me, or indeed stay with me and be happy looking at the flowers. . .