The better angels of our nature

I am travelling to a conference and many of my colleagues are travelling by train. I left this quite late to book and realised I don’t have enough budget to cover the train travel… do I take a flight?

When I break it down, it would cost £17 to get to Denmark from London (plus another £25 if I want a large luggage). Outrageously cheap! The flight itself is 2 hours, and door to door its about 6 hours. In contrast to this, it would take me over 30 hours to reach the same location in Denmark from London[i]. And the cost?  Nearly £400. This is for an overnight stay in Cologne and for multiple trains on each of the 2 travelling days. I can’t afford that on my small PhD stipend budget. I am reasonably conscious individual of my carbon footprint, and the amount of cognitive dissonance I’ve had to deal with has been quite the wrestling match. Even with an ‘offset’ – which really are not good solutions – I feel guilty about flying.

Perhaps I should be feeling this. Yet the vast majority of people I know do not even blink twice about flying. They all know about climate change, everyone does now… do they feel guilty? Should they? It made me wonder; how can I convince friends of mine that paying £17 and taking a 6-hour journey is ‘bad’ and that, instead you should take a 30-hour trip and spend £400? Well, the answer is obvious to a ‘rational utility maximising individual’ as we homo economicus like to think we are (thanks neoliberalism!) – you don’t. But in this economic rationalisation, do we lose our moral compass? Is it morally wrong to fly? Flight shame shows us that it does indeed exist in at least a subsection of the population. However, shifting the moral landscape of society is no small feat – and an even longer process for the moral standards of society to translate it into law. I could talk here about moral disengagement, which is a set of process that humans tend to engage in to help justify our actions as not being morally that bad, which can prevent us from feeling guilty (or the fancy academic term – self-censure). Or I could engage in some moral licensing, which is me justifying the flight because I do other morally good things for the environment like ride a bicycle and not eat meat. Yet, this can’t apply to all situations, and when I think of my predicament above none of these moralising processes were that prominent. It was either go and take a (cheap) flight, or don’t go. This choice becomes whether I should hinder my personal and professional development for the sake of a certain amount of carbon – is this morally wrong? For others it will be about the possibility of a holiday aboard, or whether to visit family in another country… Do we expect people to make that sacrifice? It is becoming more prominent in environmental circles, although negative clarion calls are not convincing for societal change.

While behavioural psychologists can use dynamic norms, social identity, leverage personal responsibility, or tout the co-benefits to support the uptake of sustainable choices – we need this in combination with the true cost of flying. Promoting the positive change needs a foothold that can tackle the efficiency of flying. The price and time are the only things that flying has going for it. So, if we can realise this true cost, the time difference between them would also become more trivial. This can be tackled through multiple ways too, for example workplaces offering climate perks where organisations allow extra time off work for employees to travel sustainably. I sincerely believe with more equivalent prices many people would take a longer trip to lower emissions, plus train travel is far more appealing. The beauty of watching the landscape roll by, the calm beat of the wheels turning on the track, having time to think and slow down rather than being regurgitated through a flying tin can, the comradery of adventure you feel going on a train journey – it is much more in tune with human nature.

So how do we deal with the cost? A carbon tax or a more market-based approach that values nature as part of our economic calculations. It would more accurately measure the damage that a flight does to our planet and the ‘true cost’ of flying can be realised. This would make flights more expensive and would incentivise behavioural choices towards greener modes of travelling. But is this fair? Would we price out the less affluent in society by trying to solve the climate crisis? This could be one consequence, however that would mean that flight shaming could become more efficacious if only the privileged have access to flights. Maybe this becomes a tangible target for unfairness and change.

We can use behavioural science to help this transition, but we also need to address the enormous gap in cost that make taking the train unfeasible for many. We need to attack this problem from all angles and make plane travel unfeasible – not the other way around. If we can tackle the price, then the rest will fall more easily into place. I believe people want to do the ‘right thing’, but we need to allow them to do it.

Yes, I am flying this time. I do wonder as I write this short blog post whether this is my form of moral licensing… Even so, soon I hope the true cost of flying will be realised and we can tout the appeal of train travel, if costs were equal there is no comparison… and we can swing the scales towards the better angels of our nature.

[i] Thanks to a colleague who spent copious amounts of time organising the details of this multiple day multi train travel – another barrier that needs to be overcome. A ‘Skyscanner’ equivalent website for trains that calculates and books your whole journey.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *