Confessions of a frequent flyer
At the moment, my career as a political analyst involves a lot of travel to conferences and speaking engagements around the world, amounting to hundreds of thousands of miles in planes, trains and automobiles. I am probably burning several times more fossil fuels than the average Kenyan, and maybe significantly more than the average Western middle-class person. I feel increasingly guilty about this and I’m actively exploring ways to make amends but, like most people, I don’t know where to begin. How can individuals whose work and lives contribute significantly to environmental destruction be part of the solution?
I’ve tried to be deliberate about efforts to mitigate my impact. For example I don’t drive at the moment, am attempting a low-plastic lifestyle and travel with reusable cups and bottles. When in towns that I am familiar with I primarily use public transport. But I’m the first to admit that after 10 flights in four weeks, the last thing I want to do is be on a subway trying to get to a place I don’t recognize in a country where I don’t speak the language. So, many times, I’ve just opted to take a taxi.
Yet the ravages of climate change are front and centre like never before. Australia was recently quite literally on fire – millions of hectares of forest ablaze after unseasonably high summer temperatures turned the countryside into kindling. In Indonesia, unseasonably heavy rains have caused flooding, and with that death and displacement. In my own country, Kenya, 140 people died between October and December 2019 in an unprecedented long and heavy rainy season. Ocean temperatures are rising and leading to heavier rainfall, affecting food production cycles; temperature records all over the world are being broken.
How can our choices make a difference when the biggest culprits in poisoning the environment are large corporate interests? Several banks and consultancies have attempted to put a price tag on fixing climate change, and they range from $30 billion to $300 billion, both of which are far less than the total net worth of the world’s billionaires ($8.7 trillion). Individual choices are certainly important, but they can never equate to the systemic choices needed to shift the entire logic of the global political economy.
It’s also worth noting that the solutions to climate change are not insulated from the vagaries of global inequality. Growing up, I remember being indoctrinated into the belief that individual farmers cutting down trees for firewood was the biggest threat to the environment in Kenya; not the large industries that were clearing out hundreds of thousands of hectares of land for unsustainable and toxic commercial farming. Discussing individual responsibility for climate change should never detract from corporate responsibility for the same.
Knowing this doesn’t necessarily reduce my guilt. I hope to plant a few trees in a place in Kenya that needs them and I’m going to keep trying to use bicycles and public transit more regularly, even in a city that doesn’t have the infrastructure for it. Given the size of the problem we face, I know it’s not enough – but it’s a start.