To bus or not to bus?

flying bus - ronan blog

To bus or not to bus? That is… a question..

I ask it because, recently, I took myself on a bus trip from Dublin to Bari to London, taking up a grand total of 94 hours of my apparently not so precious time. One might expect that this was cheaper than, or at least competitive with, flying. In fact, the journey cost £300, whereas flying would have cost around £60 at the time of booking. 

So, am I doing this because I am a special kind of masochist, delighting in inflicting a form of slowburn arse-torture on myself (from the seat, you understand)? Am I just so damn poetic that I relish the possibility of staring wistfully out of the window at varying shades of grey winter landscape for interminable lengths of time?

No. (Well, maybe a bit to the second one). The reason I am doing it is an environmental one. I had been invited to Italy to tutor for a week (maybe another blog will deal with the irony of someone supplementing their income as a social impact professional by helping the elite become eliter) and had already flown three times this year, blowing my self-imposed carbon budget. Each flight had seemed unavoidable - two weddings and my mum’s 70th (note to self: another blog on which exactly of our luxuries is ‘unavoidable’) - but this, clearly, was not. Trains were even more expensive (in excess of £550), and so my only option was to travel as my ancestors did. On a Flixbus.

Interestingly, the price ratio of the two types of journey is basically inversely mirrored by the carbon cost ratio (bus avg - 68g of carbon per person, plane - 285 g p/p (source: youmatter.world) - or a carbon ratio of 1:4, as opposed to 5:1 in terms of price). Such a situation exists primarily because prices for air travel are subsidised by local governments looking to boost tourism and kerosene (ie plane fuel) remaining tax free. The fundamental flaw of a market where the more ecologically harmful form of transport is incentivised is screamingly obvious. Mechanisms such as carbon pricing would help reverse this effect, but this isn’t the topic I want to delve into here.

My question is more specific. Given the vast disparity in costs, did I make the right decision, or should I have just bought the plane ticket and spent the spare £240 on offsetting the carbon produced from my flight (assuming my employer, who paid for the journey, would have taken such a utilitarian view of the transport costs)?* When I told a friend, his immediate reaction was one of mocking disbelief. To him (someone who, admittedly, flies extremely frequently for work), offsetting was a no-brainer, and the option I had chosen was virtue signalling of the most embarrassing and counterproductive variety. 

This mockery, in fact, is what inspired me to write this article, so please bear with me on my rambling attempt at self-defense:

I would suggest that the apparent justification lurking beneath my flatmate’s mockery lies with our favourite crusty old philosopher Kant and his categorical imperative. In other words - with every moral choice you make, imagine a world where everyone else were to do the same. In this instance, the hypothesis being: if everyone who flew offset their plane journey with five times the expenditure on carbon offsetting, we could keep flying as much as we want.

There are two flaws with this approach: firstly, the value of an action, moral or otherwise, is often not objective or inherent, but symbolic. Many actions are designed to point beyond themselves to a certain goal or principle, rather than serving merely as behaviours to be mimicked. Veganism, for example, is best understood as a symbol of protest in my view, designed to draw attention to the environmental and ethical harm caused by the animal farming industry, rather than an archetypal diet to be rolled out universally: smashed-avo breakfasts, quinoa arancini and almond-milk flat whites deplete water reserves catastrophically themselves, and result in exploitation and economic imbalances in local farming communities, whilst controlled animal husbandry can contribute to healthy, natural soil. 

Similarly, when Greta Thunberg sails across the Atlantic in a yacht, she isn’t saying: ‘Please make sure you take this form of transport when you go on a weekend trip to New York to do your Black Friday shopping’. She’s saying ‘Oi! Look! The planet’s burning! It’s literally on f*cking fire you idiots. This isn’t a boat, it’s a life raft, made of hope and youth and sustainable balsa wood and I’m trying to sail it to the shore of sanity you all sailed off from about two hundred years ago, you plastic-bag-chucking, uber-eats-ordering sh*its for brains’. Just with (a little) less swearing. 

A lot of what lies behind the rampant consumerism which feeds the climate crisis is the lack of meaning in modern, secular existence, as we reduce everything to its dollars and cents market value. But meaning is found not through considering what an object can be exchanged for, but what it represents. Meaning doesn’t subsist in the thing itself, but is created from pointing beyond it. And as discussed, that’s what a symbol is. We need symbols to inject the fight against the climate crisis with meaning, to represent the values and spirit of the world we are hoping to build.

Moreover, even if we accept the categorical imperative, is it really true that we can just continue flying so long as we then capture all of our harmful emissions, like a toddler running around smearing cake on the walls whilst pointing to the baby wipes he’s got in his pocket and winking at us reassuringly? 

The answer, quite plainly, is no.

Firstly, carbon offsetting is not guaranteed by giving money to carbon offsetting schemes. If we take tree planting as an example, the same systemic issues persist as in every other chain of consumption: we cannot see the end of the supply chain, who is actually planting the trees nor how. We cannot see how secure the plantations are nor guarantee how long they will remain protected. As was witnessed in Turkey last year, although a world record 11 million trees were planted in one region in one hour, over 90% of the saplings are now dead according to the country’s own agricultural and forestry trade union[1].  It’s almost as if issues running to the very core of our society, culture and economy can’t just be magicked away with a top-down, short term and unplanned government directive or something!

Secondly, we are still releasing more carbon into the atmosphere when we offset. Whilst captured carbon is temporarily drawn down, it does not vanish. So, we take carbon that is largely safely locked away in the bowels of the earth by burning fossil fuels - so naturally sequestered as to be functionally inert - and we release it above ground where it can join the the carbon death throng that is driving our atmospheric density to extinction-epoch levels.

Thirdly, carbon offsetting is not sufficient in itself, but is part of a bigger picture of measures we need to take to protect the environment. A narrow focus on carbon offsetting through tree planting often results in monocultures, as it is easier and in the immediate sense more efficient to plant thousands of the same seed. Monocultures are poor for biodiversity, which is an essential part of ecological health, since the stability of ecosystems depends on the interdependency of an entire network of animals and plants. If our environment does not sustain our bee populations for example, crops are not pollinated and do not grow, meaning that we pollute the earth by having to use more fertiliser to sustain yields, which further degrades the soil and biodiversity of the area and so on.

This is not to mention the more spurious carbon capture technologies such as DAC (Direct Air Capture), which remain unproven prototypes which are mainly used to justify the continued pursuit of unfettered growth by developed nations through business-as-usual carbon-intensive activities. Even if they were to work, this would be the equivalent of the earth having a massive gash in its head and us wrapping a big bandage around it, tapping it on the bum and telling it to stop crying.

But really, I’m not interested in the technicalities. The bigger problem is that this mindset of exploit and then amend, consume and then regurgitate, snatch and then drip-feed back is not only the reason behind our current ecological crisis, but is that crisis. The external world is nothing other than an extension of our internal worlds. What kind of world is created by those who take first and patch up later? By those who live for short term pleasure at the expense of their own children? By those who shrug at issues, not because they are unimportant, but because they are inconvenient? Our world is what is created, whose beauty is choking on our ever shallower breath. By continuing to make the same old mess and simply advocate for more efficient ways of cleaning up, we allow a corrupt and exploitative system to limp on, and worse, we expect that corrupt and exploitative system to provide the solutions for the problems it has created. We must address the sickness at our heart, otherwise all that we will inherit is a painted corpse.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/30/most-of-11m-trees-planted-in-turkish-project-may-be-dead

Image source: jarrett798

As it was, the bus journey was very pleasant. It was its own little pocket of ‘slow living’ (the countercultural idea that faster isn’t always better) and gave me plenty of time to stop and reflect. After all, ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’. Or watch all 20 episodes of Succession in a row, as Auden might have added today (if he weren’t being whored out to Centre Parcs adverts. Jesus.)

*Not everyone will have a rich employer willing to shoulder the bill of their personal ethics. If I hadn’t had that option, I simply wouldn’t have taken the trip. In general our options are to travel less, travel more locally, travel by bike, or rideshare. Inconvenient sure. But probably better than civilazational collapse!