In these years of not flying, am I deprived of cross-cultural exchange, adventurous vacations, networking for my career, or art? No. The whole world is at my doorsteps.
My daily subway commute ends with a walk through Boston’s Chinatown. My work colleagues come from all parts of the globe. On the way to a movie, my family eats at the Asmara Ethiopian restaurant. I worship from time to time at the Spanish language services in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross (Catholic) and Congregación León de Judá (evangelical). Walking distance from home, we see a concert by a Malian singer and guitarist at the Somerville Theatre. Traveling to NYC, my family stays in a side-street B&B in Queens, a global metropolis unlike any other. I read the international news, watch international history documentaries on television, and reminisce about past travels in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe. It is true that I feel the loss of travel by air to new places, but I enjoy plenty of cross-cultural exchange.
On a family bike tour, we take the new ferry and pedal through the alternating francophone and anglophone fishing villages of Nova Scotia. We speak with fishing folk, packing plant laborers, naturalists, and international tourists. In a random conversation in a grocery store parking lot, we listen to the stories of a First Nation Canadian man about the old farms that were paved over. It is true that I feel the loss of vacations by air, but I enjoy fine travels regionally.
For work, in the past few years, I have learned from conferences and meetings in Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Immokalee, Woods Hole, Albany, and many other places. I travel frequently by train to Washington, DC, for work. In one long trip next month, I will take Amtrak for meetings, conferences, and presentations in New York City, Atlanta, New Orleans, Indiana, and Champaign-Urbana, with stops for tourism in Memphis and Chicago on the way. It is true that the train journeys are sometimes wearisome, but they have offsetting pleasures and the work time is good. It also is true that I feel the loss of travel by air to meetings in other continents and the West Coast, but I see many colleagues from those places at the meetings I do attend.
For art, I have always visited the great galleries of Washington and New York, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, but for some reason I never had been inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum or Boston’s Public Library, which are both walking distance from my office, until after I stopped flying. Why not? Because, when I was flying, I thought I lacked the time. Reflect on the irony! It is true that I miss the Prado and the British Museum, and have never visited the Louvre or the Hermitage. I will have to use the virtual tour, which is of course not the same and yet an artistic and technological marvel in its own way. It also is true that I feel painful loss at not being able to revisit the temple at Borobudur or the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which is a holy place to me. As a balm for my heart-ache, I instead visit Trinity Church in Boston, which is the masterpiece of the architect H.H. Richardson and the artist John La Farge, and the delightful quiet Romanesque chapel of the monks of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist alongside the Charles River. This week, I watched on TV Jim Jarmusch’s charming movie Paterson, about a quiet poet with a passionately artful sense of place in his run-down New Jersey city. Art is not a competition, and nobody should care if the museum we visit is ranked third or eighth globally. If we have a heart to listen with, we all can recognize that we are blessed by enough art to occupy all the hours we can devote to it.
For people who fly frequently, it is possible to drastically reduce flying while preserving what we love about cross-cultural exchange, adventurous vacations, stimulating work-life, and art.
For readers who doubt my claim, take your own mental inventory. If you fly four or more times in a year, imagine that you cut your flights to one quarter of their current level. To compensate for the loss, imagine that you increased your time invested locally and regionally, in overland travel, and in longer and more extensive use of the rare flights that remain. Confirm for yourself, while the environmental impact of your aviation falls 75%, that your quality of life would barely be diminished, and even the small sacrifice might trigger a response in your own soul, enhancing your appreciation for the treasures that surround you in your own place and region.
Some readers will consider my message obvious. Others will rebel against it with a hardness I can only attribute to selfishness. A third group will tell themselves that they would be willing to fly less if only the system were more supportive (through more understanding employers, more reasonable expectations from family members who live elsewhere, better train prices and comforts, better national climate policy, and so forth). For people in this third group, please focus for now on advocacy. For starters, especially if you are connected to a university community, please participate in the advocacy aspects of our #flyingless initiative (see petition, list of academic supporters, and FAQ).