Intergenerational Equity: A flight of fancy?

by matthay44

Planes A-plenty 2

My forays onto Facebook are increasingly limited. But even one swift look through my news feed every now and again reveals that my online self does not reside in an echo-Chamber of Secrets. Far from it. There isn’t a basilisk in sight and the overwhelming world-view that comes screaming out of the electronic page is one of liberal, left-of-centre, educated people. Admittedly, there is a smattering of moneyed, right-wing types, which is unsurprising given the educational institutions I’ve been lucky enough to attend, but they are a small minority.

As a consequence, the material I’m exposed to on social media is often encouraging; Kickstarter requests for innovative, ethical enterprises, exciting reports on cutting edge academic research and links to erudite articles on feminism, ethnic diversity and environmentalism. In amongst this hubbub, however, a common sentiment can be distilled from the seemingly disparate posts: an appreciation of intergenerational equity. It may not always be discussed (or even mentioned) explicitly, but a substantial part of the liberal worldview is underpinned by a desire to ensure that the world is a better (or at least equally good) place in the future.

Similarly, many of those I follow seem well aware that the generation preceding us (and I’m sure countless others besides) did not adhere to ideas of intergenerational equity strictly enough. Hence why my generation are staring at poorer pension deals, over-stretched and under-funded public services and a heavily degraded environment. When times were good, the leaders and politicians of our parents’ generation simply did not squirrel enough away for a rainy day.

While I love berating my parents and their friends with mock-rants and well-rehearsed barrages on the mess they’ve left me personally in, I acknowledge that it is fairly futile to waste any time or energy lamenting or complaining about decisions that were made in the past. Instead, like many people of my generation, I realise and accept that millennials will most likely end up less wealthy than our parents (fine), be compelled to act with greater social conscience (fine too, good even…) and be forced to find ways to shift our increasingly global society onto a different economic and ecological track, one that doesn’t think growth can last forever, one that is regenerative rather than extractive (hmmm, this could be tricky).

Most of my echo-chamber seem up for this fight as shown by, for example, the rapid rise in environmentally-motivated vegetarianism amongst my peer-group or the number of people willing to take to the streets to protest the current government’s undermining of the NHS. However, running in tandem to the liberal vibes of my news feed other aspirations are also detectable, one of which sits uncomfortably with me; it hinges on exotic travel.

For all the millennial desire to do collective good there seems to be a counter-current, flowing from the aspirations of the individual. We are all familiar with the social media ‘brag’, a lot of which is still depressingly focussed on affluence, consumerism and international travel. In itself, this isn’t a problem so much as the desires that underpin it. Even if people’s motivation to voyage to the ends of the earth has nothing to do with raising their instagram game, there still seems to be an implicit assumption that far-flung destinations are a must-do, a social necessity. Why go to a beach in Spain when you can fly to Thailand for the week, or hang-about in the French Alps when the good snow this year is all being dumped on the Pacific coast of North America?

Perhaps more telling is how rarely you hear people questioning the decisions of friends and family who are making these long-haul trips for leisure. Would you ever think to confront someone over flying to New York for the weekend? Or call up a pal who thinks its no big deal to pop to New Zealand for a fortnight? If not, perhaps question why not? Ask yourself what your views on this issue are, and why, because the scientific evidence is fairly one-sided.

If, in 2011, the aviation industry had been considered a country it would have ranked 7th in the world for its CO2 emissions, which are currently nearly 800 million tonnes annually. Now couple that with an awareness that fewer than 18% of the world’s population have flown, ever. Those of you who hate inequality in all its many forms, be it gender-based, economic or educational, must surely be appalled by the idea of the richest fifth of the world contributing more CO2 than all but seven countries just for the privilege of flight?

What is worse is that the majority of these flights are simply for pleasure; they aren’t even commercially essential. The U.K.’s major airports currently experience more than three times as many people flying for holidays and leisure than for business.* Ask yourself, do you think it is acceptable that the (relatively) rich citizens of the west are contributing disproportionately to greenhouse-gas induced climate change, which most adversely affects the world’s poorest people, mainly so they can go on exotic holidays?

If inequality in Britain, or the discovery of yet another billionaire who is tax dodging, makes you feel angry and upset then I implore you to see the similar injustice of the world’s wealthiest 18% flying, in full knowledge that the distances they travel will contribute to global warming and sea-level rise, which in turn will affect the remaining 82%. Then consider the 100% of future generations who will also be effected by the vicissitudes of a warmer, more volatile climate and the degraded ecosystems that will accompany it.

Turning a blind eye to this problem might be understandable if Spain’s beaches really were so bad that Thailand was the only option for sun seekers, or if the Alps had but a fraction of the winter sports infrastructure of the Pacific Northwest, but that is not the case. Those of us living in the U.K. are surrounded by unbelievable countries, with such a variety of landscapes and cultures that you could spend a lifetime exploring them and never even scratch the surface of half of them. Norway, Italy, Iceland, Portugal, Ireland, France, Denmark, Spain. None of these places is more than two hours away by plane. You could even drive or get a boat there.

I understand the importance of the aviation industry. I realise that there are families split between different continents, huge networks of multi-nation businesses, military commitments and corporate economies that are all entirely dependent on planes. I am aware too of the contribution that western tourism makes to less-economically developed parts of the world, but at what cost to our global society? Our priority here, surely, must be to ensure our planet’s health for future generations, even if there is a short-term economic hit in the present while we find ways to adapt.

I’m not asking for everyone to become a saint, or even to stop flying, but there seems to be a double-standard within my liberal and, dare I say it, forward thinking echo-chamber. We know that aviation is bad for the environment and will abet climate change in harming many people across the planet, both those alive now and those yet to be born. We know that there are ecological externalities that aren’t included in the cost of our plane tickets yet we choose to ignore this fact.

So maybe next time your mate is considering a stag-do in Eastern Europe because “flights are only £20 return” you will suggest that there are places in the U.K. that might be equally suitable and avoid 1,500 miles of travel. Or, instead of planning that two-week adventure in New Zealand’s admittedly majestic South Island moot the idea of a similar trip to Norway. You’ll still see mountains and fjords aplenty, and the money you save on flights to the antipodes can be used to offset the Scandinavian prices you’ll encounter. You will probably still end up quids in.