Train travel is on the rise in Sweden. Photo from Wikipedia

Luke Stocking: Keep the planet in mind for travel plans

  • August 8, 2019

“We’ll be coming to visit from July 22 to July 30,” I told my mother-in-law, who had come to Windsor from her home across the border in Michigan to see my son play soccer. 

She wrote the dates down in her book and looked at them for a moment. Then, with a most wonderful smile, she drew a heart around the dates. My own heart warmed immensely. 

Visiting my mother-in-law in Farmington Hills, Mich., has been our annual vacation for the last 10 years or so. This year, considering the climate emergency, I found myself reflecting a bit more than usual on our choice. 

Summer in Canada is synonymous with vacation. “Any plans this summer?” This is the common question with friends and acquaintances come June. It can be a sensitive topic as it also often touches on the question of economic class. Your answer often reveals where you can afford to go. 

When it comes to affordability, one of the biggest cost factors is, of course, whether air travel is involved. But the question of air travel is increasingly not simply an economic cost factor — it is becoming an ecological cost factor as well.

Calculating the global carbon footprint of the aviation industry (and trying to break it down to isolate vacation travel) is no easy task. Two climatologists published an article in the journal Science claiming that a 4,000-kilometre flight produces carbon emissions that would melt the equivalent of 32 square feet of Arctic summer sea ice. Whatever the actual numbers (and you can spend a long time researching them on the Internet), we intuitively know that taking a vacation that does not involve an airplane is generally better for the planet than one that does. 

Yet, globally, more of us than ever are flying. According to the International Air Transport Association 2018 annual review, the number of airline passengers since 2003 has more than doubled. 

I recently came across the term flygskam, a Swedish word that roughly translates to “flight shame.” Climate activists in Sweden have been using it to attempt to curb our appetite for air travel. It seems to be working, at least in Sweden. 

Swedavia, which owns and operates 10 Swedish airports, reported a 15-per-cent drop in domestic passengers in April compared to the same month last year. More Swedes are opting for train travel. The main Swedish train operator reported a 12-per-cent rise in business passenger numbers. That has led to another Swedish term on the rise, tågskryt, which translates to “train-bragging.” 

The travel industry in Europe has taken notice. Dutch airline KLM has even undertaken a marketing campaign to portray itself as an ecologically conscious choice for travellers. It is the first campaign I have ever seen that encourages customers to consider alternative forms of transport and to fly less. The website asks people, “Do you know that flying from Amsterdam to Brussels takes longer than going by train?”

As someone who has made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land — impossible for a Canadian to do by train — I would never propose giving up all air travel as a moral obligation in the fight against climate change, even though some are making that choice. But perhaps we could employ our famous Catholic guilt on behalf of the planet and engage in a little bit of flygskam, reducing air travel by choosing more vacations that keep us on the ground. 

Our annual family vacation to Farmington Hills keeps us on the ground. However, our decision to do this is not based on flygskam or Catholic guilt. It is based on what our family wants from a vacation. Every year we ask our kids what they want to do for vacation and they always say “visit Babcia.” 

They love swimming in her condo pool, borrowing loads of movies and books from the local library, eating at restaurants and going to Marvin’s Marvellous Mechanical Museum. They are relaxed when they are there. My wife and I are relaxed. We are a family at rest with our loved ones. 

The Catechism teaches us that the Sabbath is “a day of protest against the servitude of work, and the worship of money.” Our summer vacation is also a form of Sabbath. It is a time, as the Catechism explains, that “helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social and religious lives.” 

I have realized that by focusing on the important elements of what a vacation should be, we have ended up at my mother-in-law’s every year. Perhaps if we focus more as Catholics on what we really need from our vacation, we will find that our destination does not always require us to endanger our planet to reach it. 

(Stocking is Development and Peace Deputy Director of Public Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions.)

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