The #flyingless tour (March 2018)

Parke is traveling overland by Amtrak for the next 2 weeks, for a mix of talks and meetings on food policy and #flyingless topics.

If you are near one of these events, please stop by to say “hello.” The chance to meet in person feels especially precious during these years of not flying.


  • New York City, Mar 16 (tomorrow), noon, CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, Hunter College. 1216 East Building. Contact O. Douglas Price (Twitter @ODouglasPrice) with quick RSVP to arrange building entrance. Presentation and discussion on #flyingless themes.
  • Atlanta, Mar 19 (Monday), 11:30am. Emory University, AMUC room 223. Presentation and discussion on #flyingless themes.
  • New Orleans, Mar 21 (Wed), 5pm, American Heart Association Epi/Lifestyle meetings, 5pm poster presentation related to U.S. food policy research.
  • Memphis, Mar 24-25 (tourism on music and civil rights themes).
  • Bloomington, IN, Mar 26 (Mon), 12:30pm, IU Food Institute, 405 N. Park Ave, on #flyingless themes and 4pm, 513 N. Park Ave. (Tocqueville Room), on U.S. food policy research.
  • Urbana Champaign, IL, Mar 27 (Tues), noon, University of Illinois, 426 Mumford Hall, on U.S. food policy research.
  • Chicago, Mar 28 (Wed). No meetings planned yet (indeed, suggestions welcome).

This journey is a pilot for a different way of organizing academic life, with a moderately smaller role for academic conferencing and a somewhat bigger role for slower-paced academic tours or sojourns from place to place. Among other activities, this tour gives me a chance to share topics from the second edition of my book, Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan), published this month, March 2018, as well as to act out some of our initiative’s ideas for #flyingless. Thank you to all the nice people who arranged these invitations. If you are interested in other people doing travels in a similar spirit, follow the inspiring Twitter feed of Giuseppi Delmestri (@gdelmestri) this month, and the growing number of other lifestyle pioneers we share from the @flyingless feed.


The whole world at our doorsteps

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).

Trinity Church, Boston (the Exploragrapher,CC-NC).








Let’s talk more about the aviation industry

Friends, leaders, environmentalists, we would like to hear you speak more about the aviation industry.

Many influential writers and activists on environmental issues address the fossil fuels industry, but rarely discuss the aviation industry. There are some exceptions, such as Alice Larkin (@AliceClimate), Kevin Anderson (@KevinClimate), and George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot), who frequently address aviation. Many others seldom do. Check the Twitter feeds of your favorite environmentalists. Search for your favorite climate change writer’s Twitter handle plus the words “aviation” or “flying.” Tabulating a sample of tweets for one high-profile climate change thinker this week, I find 45% are about the fossil fuels industry, 10% clean energy, 45% politics or activism, and 0% aviation, automobiles, home heating, or other industries that actually use fossil fuels.

Perhaps the movement finds it easier to talk about energy production than energy consumption. This may be fine for some consumption uses, but not others. At one extreme, replacing fossil fuels with clean energy in the electric grid may be more fruitful than reminding people to turn off lights. As a middling case, replacing gasoline cars with electric cars may be partially helpful. And, at the other extreme, we have aviation. We are skeptical about mainstream media coverage of biofuelselectric flight, and offsets. Changes in aggregate demand are fundamental for this particular critical industry.

It is unjust and unreflective to call for drastic economic changes in the fossil fuels industry while remaining silent about the aviation industry. The geographic locus of conflict over fossil fuels is in the coal mines of Appalachia, the oil wells of Oklahoma, and the gas extraction sites of North Dakota. The geographic locus of conflict over aviation would be in airports filled with comparatively privileged travelers, and (as @AntiAeroGAAM reminds us; added Feb 8) in the fields and communities displaced or damaged by new airports and airport expansions. It feels immoral to ask coal miners to be good sports about the economic transition they face, while remaining silent about the changes required for frequent flyers.

In public debate and in the theater of public engagement to protect the environment, the aviation industry deserves a place alongside the fossil fuels industry. We appreciate the occasional tweets and articles by leading environmental writers and public speakers about aviation already, but the issue deserves more. For example:

  • Along with articles about tax breaks for Exxon, let’s have more articles about the more universal tax breaks for jet fuel.
  • Along with articles about the Paris Agreement, let’s increase coverage about the omission of international aviation from that agreement.
  • Along with coverage of EPA’s failures to regulate carbon from energy plant emissions, let’s write more about the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO’s) inadequate approach to addressing aviation emissions.
  • Along with reports about sacrifice zones and spills from pipelines, let’s give more attention to the daily noise pollution and localized air pollution for low-income neighborhoods near airports.
  • Along with editorials calling for divestment from fossil fuels, let’s consider divesting from the aviation industry.

When I raise this issue, friends sometimes say that environmental progress requires a steady focus on policy change and industrial transformation. They say talking about “personal change” would be a self-indulgent distraction. Yet, I don’t see why the aviation industry is equated with personal change, while fossil fuels are treated as an issue of industrial structure. I do wonder whether high-flying personal habits induce a cognitive dissonance, which has muted environmental writing addressing the aviation industry. Conversely, I suspect more political writing about the aviation industry would trigger contemplation of personal change. My own experience, and that of some authors involved with our initiative, is that flying less can be part of a slower lifestyle that is simultaneously good environmentalism and joyful. But, this personal change is not the goal of this blog post, which is about hard-nosed coverage of aviation as an industry.

Friends also sometimes describe their own flying for environmental work as essential. Yet, environmental NGOs and researchers alike could still adopt a reasonable budget for aggregate reductions in flying for environmental conferences, prioritizing a smaller number of high-impact flights. Thinking about the COP meeting in Paris, many European participants traveled by train and bus, and the conference would have been just as successful if they all had done so. As for the enormous U.S. presence, my friends and colleagues were inspired by their experience in Paris, and yet our next important work may involve more domestic travel to bridge the political and cultural gulf that produced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement. Clearly our first work is at home. The question is not about judging environmentalists; the question is about having the small public interest non-profit sector demonstrate how to do its small share, at a time when courageous changes are expected from every major sector of the economy.

I recognize that most of the world’s greatest environmental writers focus on broad social transformation. In the spirit of this broader transformation, I say to them it is both fair-minded and strategic to quit the soft treatment of the aviation industry. I’ve said enough on this myself. I am ready to hear from you, whether you agree or disagree with me, so long as I don’t hear a deafening silence. Friends, speak up more about the aviation industry.

By Adrian Pingstone (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Universities can make changes in how we subsidize travel by air

The Tufts Institute for the Environment (TIE) this month revised its travel grants program to encourage greater thoughtfulness about the climate change impact of travel by students and faculty for academic conferences on environmental issues.

The new guidelines require students and faculty applying for travel grants to “provide an explanation of how their travel request maximizes environmental impact while minimizing travel emissions costs.” It continues:

Given that aviation is an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally, it is advantageous to travel using modes other than aviation when feasible; and, when aviation is essential, to use direct flights, stay for a longer time period on a single trip, and accomplish more and more diverse activities on each trip. Short travel will still be supported, but applicants who propose environmentally responsible travel plans will be favored.

Even more concretely, one of the program’s three evaluation criteria now states that a grant proposal will be evaluated based on whether it “maximizes environmental impact while minimizing travel emissions costs.”

You have probably guessed that I proposed this change and drafted the language TIE adopted. If I were king of my university, rather than a mere faculty member, I would institute a yet stronger policy, immediately ending all subsidies for travel by air. I feel impatient with the pace of change for universities, including even my own, which has a strong reputation for environmental leadership. Yet, at a time when our national politics has collapsed into dysfunction, it nonetheless pleases me that TIE adopted this modest policy.

Previously, the travel grants program’s poster — no longer in use! — illustrated the exact wrong way for environmental organizations to think about travel, complete with clip art of an airplane.


Now, Tufts University is doing better than that.

Accept this challenge: what similar changes can you promote at your university?

This #flyingless initiative is not just about personal austerity. It is about challenging universities to lead the way in modeling a better way of doing things. In small steps, and then soon dramatically bigger steps, let’s keep moving forward together.

Climate scientists lead by example

In a new book, climate scientist and #flyingless supporter Peter Kalmus integrates lucid readable summaries of the key facts about climate change and charming personable engagement with the human dimensions of making radical lifestyle changes.

The book is titled Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution (New Society Publishers, 2017; also available from online booksellers).

Along with Joe Nevins and I, Peter was the third presenter in a session of the first nearly carbon neutral online conference organized by Ken Hiltner and colleagues at the University of California Santa Barbara in 2016.

Peter is both a scientist and a community builder. His web project, “Scientists Who Don’t Fly,” features personal accounts of climate scientists who wrestle in fascinating diverse ways with the lifestyle implications of their scientific work. Far from being a downer, the overall effect — like Peter’s book — is upbeat. Though people sometimes will try to tell us that change is “unrealistic,” these appealing personalities offer their own testimony that it not only is feasible in principle, but they have done it themselves and still are thriving.

Best of all, Peter’s website has a “join” link for you to submit your own testimonial.


National Geographic runs article by airline “points expert,” saying air travel is getting “greener”

by Parke Wilde

National Geographic on June 20 ran an article, authored by a “points expert” from an affiliate marketing site, making misleading claims for “greener” air travel, with funding from the aviation and defense technology company United Technologies.

The article by Eric Rosen, with the headline “Air travel could get greener even as flights double,” was not marked as advertising, and yet the article seems unlikely to meet the magazine’s usual editorial standards. National Geographic did not respond to my questions about the article.

Misleading claims

Although the headline says air travel could “get greener,” the critical section on environmental impact addresses a much less ambitious goal: “how to prevent a doubling in air traffic from doubling the environmental impact of air travel in the coming decades.”

This section says a new voluntary United Nations program on aviation climate impacts, called “CORSIA,” would have “emissions capped at 2020 levels,” which is quite misleading. Under CORSIA, aviation emissions would continue to climb rapidly, but “net” emissions would be capped through the purchase of offsets, using other industry sectors to compensate for the growth in aviation emissions. This offset scheme is thought by experts to be unlikely to achieve its goals, and, even in the most optimistic scenario, the word “net” in “net emissions” is required for honest reporting. Not even the strongest supporters of CORSIA claim that it caps aviation emissions themselves at 2020 levels.

The article makes exaggerated claims about aviation technologies, for which the only source cited is Sean Newsum, the “director of environmental strategy” for Boeing, a major airplane manufacturer. For example, Newsum makes an implausible claim for aviation biofuels: “Biofuels represent huge potential reductions of between 50 to 80 percent of the lifetime carbon emission of both existing and future aircraft.” A good source for more credible information about biofuels and other technology myths is Peeters et al. (2016).

An accompanying quiz on the website is titled, “How green is air travel?” One of the questions asks, “Which of these is NOT a way a reduction in emissions will be achieved?” The options are: (a) Fewer passengers, (b) Improved technology, (c) Better operations, and (d) Alternative fuel.” The correct answer? You guessed it — “Fewer passengers.” The accompanying explanation says, “Air travel numbers are going up, not down. Passenger loads are expected to double over the next 20 years.” With this sleight of hand, National Geographic switches the topic from promising methods to projected trends, to make demand side changes look like the wrong answer to a question about reducing aviation emissions.

Authored by Eric Rosen, a “points expert”

The National Geographic article’s author, Eric Rosen (@EricRosenLA), is a travel writer and self-described “points expert.” I could find no prior reporting on climate change, the environment, or indeed any other science topics.

This week, in typical fare, he writes for Bravo on “OMG, LOL: 35 funny three-letter airport codes that will make you giggle, BRO!” You can imagine his chuckles at Fukuoka, Japan, and Gaya, India.

Rosen is identified as managing editor and writer for “The Points Guy,” an affiliate marketing site. The “advertiser disclosure” explains how it works. The site takes advertising from credit card companies and other businesses and writes articles on frequent flyer points programs and other air travel topics. The articles may favorably discuss the advertisers’ products. The site’s slogan is, “maximize your travel.”

National Geographic sponsorship by United Technologies

The footer to the National Geographic article says, “This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.” United Technologies is a Fortune 500 commercial aerospace and defense company, owner of the Pratt and Whitney aviation engine manufacturer and many other subsidiaries.

The article is not marked as advertising. From other pages and search engines on the National Geographic site, links to the article are not identified as having been sponsored.

Questions for National Geographic

It is difficult to believe this article meets National Geographic editorial standards for an article touching on important scientific issues such as climate change. From the headline, it is not possible to pass this article off as a harmless piece of travel “fluff.” And, yet, the identification of sponsorship is not sufficiently thorough to meet journalistic standards if National Geographic wants to say this article was intended to be seen as “advertising,” with no implication that it met usual editorial standards.

I wrote the editor and the press office on July 7 seeking comment. I offered to share their point of view on all the issues in this post, including the United Technologies sponsorship, the Boeing sources, the experience of the author, and the substantitive doubts about the coverage of aviation emissions technologies. National Geographic did not respond.

National Geographic magazine was purchased some years ago by the Murdoch family’s Fox media companies (as a 2015 article in the Guardian discusses). Rupert Murdoch is a leading global media magnate, supporter of conservative political causes, and well-known climate change skeptic. At some times in recent years, the National Geographic organization more broadly has done some vigorous reporting on climate change, including the “Years of Living Dangerously” documentary on National Geographic Channel. Yet, in my own view, this Eric Rosen article on greener aviation appears akin to greenwashing and aviation industry propaganda, not within the bounds of real journalism.




Flying less is greener

Because of a recent Washington Post piece by Sam Denby, it seems like a good time to collect some principles for fair reporting about the environmental impact of several transportation modes.

Principle 1: Report that less long-distance travel benefits the environment

What matters most is how much long-distance travel we do. There are many ways of reducing the average frequency of long-distance travel events while preserving what is important in our work and valuable in our lives. Sam Denby’s piece discusses trips from Dubai to Sydney and from Frankfort to Washington, but it is silly to hold miles constant when discussing such trips. The alternative to flying from Dubai to Sydney is not driving the same route. The alternative is flying less, and it is definitely greener.

Principle 2: Never exaggerate small improvements over bad options

One could compare a flight from Chicago to North Carolina to a single person driving in a car for the same journey. But that trip alone in a car for 820 miles already has a large carbon impact. A family of four environmentalists, if they must travel to North Carolina, can drive. A single environmentalist, who must travel to North Carolina, can consider a bus. We cannot as a nation meet our climate commitments if we travel too often from Chicago to North Carolina. We must contemplate the value and frequency of the trips.

Principle 3: Report equivalent comparisons across transportation modes

On those occasions when, as just one part of a broader analysis, it makes sense to compare transportation modes holding constant the trip distance, then make the comparisons fair.

Option 1: best cases. If you measure miles per gallon (mpg) of a fancy new jet operating at full capacity, then compare it to the passenger mpg of a cutting-edge electric train, a new bus at full capacity, and a hybrid car with 4 passengers.

Option 2: average cases. Alternatively, if you compare trips for average automobile mpg and occupancy, then your computation for flights must: (a) use actual occupancy rates for flights, and (b) use averages for the real-world fleet, not best cases for fancy new planes.

Existing media reports

Let’s look at some actual examples in recent media coverage. I feel Sam Denby in the Washington Post does poorly by these principles, but you can judge.

Fivethirtyeight in 2015 has the title “Every Time You Fly, You Trash The Planet — And There’s No Easy Fix.” This piece does well, emphasizing global carbon emissions goals and assuming that traveling less is one of the options. Denby criticizes the actual transportation mode comparison, because the data source was a carbon offset company, but Denby doesn’t actually say what’s wrong with the numbers, and it seems to me the comparison here does not exaggerate the environmental harm of flying. It seems to basically agree with the other sources discussed below.

Much of the recent controversy arises from the work of Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan, which argues that the efficiency of flying has improved relative to the efficiency of automobiles. I like it that Sivak attempts to follow “option 2” above for consistent comparisons. I don’t know enough about engineering to reconcile his numbers with somewhat differing numbers from environmental organizations. A nice article at Yale Climate Connections treats Sivak’s estimates as authoritative. On the other hand, a somewhat earlier 2013 analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation somewhat disputes the numbers, making flying look worse than other modes on a passenger mpg basis. For me, the key thing is that Sivak’s numbers do not really make frequent flying look green. Of the existing sources, Sivak’s estimates are comparatively favorable to flying when reporting under “Principle 3” above, which may be fine as far as it goes. But to report the truth more broadly, we must still keep in mind “Principle 1” and “Principle 2”.

My own summary of this complex literature is simple and short: Flying less is greener.