I Think I’ll Stay Home, by Alice Robinson

I was living in England when I first became party to serious discussions about climate change. Such conversations occurred at all hours between housemates in the big, dilapidated Victorian terrace where I found myself eking out a life. It was one of the coldest winters of recent years, but it wasn’t as cold as it should have been; English winters had been growing infamously warmer, everyone said. Even so, transplanted from Australia, I struggled with the weather. I had no appropriate shoes to wear and wrote home, shocked, to report that when out walking I could feel the cold coming up through my soles. Working fifty-hour weeks, all night shifts, as a waitress at the local gastro-pub, I spent daylight hours in bed, simply trying to stay warm. Quietly dubbed the ‘hippies’, my housemates allowed the ducted heating just a few hours each day. Alone in the house through the pale afternoons, I shivered. With the sharp realisation that comes from firsthand experience, it occurred to me that the descriptions of the cold in British novels that I had believed, from the vantage point of an Australian childhood spent burning, to be the work of dramatic license, were more likely observed from life. Inverting the experiences of so many early English convicts and settlers upon arrival in Australia, what I discovered in England was the world turned upside down.

For one thing, I had never witnessed such stringent environmentalism as I found under the hippies’ roof. Some of their choices were familiar to me. Hyper-vigilant about their own and global carbon emissions, the hippies ate no meat and drove no cars. On holidays they biked around their beautiful, damp little island sleeping in tents. What could be bought could be made and what couldn’t be made could be done without. Composts overflowed. While a little overwhelming when experienced daily and en masse, each behaviour indicated a thoughtfulness regarding the impacts of living that I supported. Though I found the hippies irritatingly pious, even clichéd, their attempts at living well and cleanly were understandable to me. I later grew to admire them.

There was the matter of flying, however. Here my admiration came unstuck. The hippies would not fly anywhere, for any reason. The first time I heard this said I had to ask for it to be repeated. Wearily, didactically, one housemate explained that flying constitutes the most environmentally damaging form of transport where emissions are concerned. This is not due solely to the emissions themselves, although they are a problem. Rather, it is the altitude at which they are released that does the damage. While overland travel by any form of fuelled transportation is certainly ecologically damaging, the impact of emissions released at altitude renders flying particularly problematic. Suffice to say that, as a result, the ramifications of flying for climate change are considerable.

Despite the challenges this explanation posed for me—as an Australian in England my very presence in the house was being called into question—it was a convincing argument and, I think now, correct. The research I have done over the past years points to aviation being highly contributive to the ecological issues we currently face, as the hippies so passionately asserted over nettle tea. ‘Radical’ commentators like George Monbiot—a vocal advocate of voluntary grounding—have come down blatantly hard on the damaging impacts of flying on the planet. ‘Some 92 million Bangladeshis could be driven out of their homes this century, in order that we can still go shopping in New York. Flying kills. We all know it, and we all do it’, Monbiot chided in The Guardian in 2006.

Yet at the time, I found it hard to grasp the concept. Coming from an island nation, from a culture of migrants, from a land considered remote from perceived cultural centres and from distant and historical homelands, living without flying had simply never occurred to me. It seemed extreme, a wholly restrictive way to live, and it indicated the outer boundary of the hippies’ commitment to upholding their environmentalist agendas and beliefs, demonstrating in ways their other little quirks did not just how far they were prepared to go in the name of preserving the planet. Could they really be that dedicated? Despite our best intentions, we all did guilty little things we knew to be ecologically damaging. Didn’t we? Giving up flying seemed too much. Even if flying was as damaging as they said, remaining grounded seemed a price too large to pay.

After arriving in England at the onset of winter, I had chosen the hippies’ house, against my partner’s more clinical instinct, because their emphasis on the ‘communal’ nature of the household spoke to the deep estrangement from community I was experiencing after eight months’ near-constant travel. In an unarticulated and perhaps even unidentified way, I was deeply homesick and longed for permanency. I wanted to belong somewhere for a while. On a level deeper still, I saw our long-awaited arrival in England as a homecoming of sorts. The hippies’ house struck a chord with the kind of emplaced life I imagined we might build in England. Not only did their big, stone terrace look like a storybook home, it accorded with some imagined notion of quintessential Englishness I had likely gleaned from books. I loved the place on sight.

But things didn’t go well. I carried with me to England the un-interrogated notion that I would be received in the ‘Motherland’ as one of its own children, or at least as a distant cousin. What I found there was a culture quite separate from my own. Far from recognising me as kin, even despite our shared Queen, most of the English people I met were ignorant of our connections to one another. I found myself retelling the story of the First Fleet in vain attempts to illustrate the reason for my presence, which was often curiously questioned. I was suddenly forced to reconfigure Australia as I imagined they saw it: not indicative of any shared past, but as one distant colony among many.

Months passed. We left England and travelled home across Asia. Everyone was talking about the weather. In Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, China, Myanmar and Malaysia, people were not necessarily using the term ‘climate change’ to describe what they were experiencing, but they knew something was off. Seasons were changing or failing to arrive; crops and rainfall patterns were not what they had been. Climate change entered general public discourse after the release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. We returned home that year, right on the cusp of mainstream reception of the supposition that something was going seriously wrong. I had bemoaned the hippies’ speechmaking in England, but I could not now shake what they had said.

To talk about travel in Australia, particularly travel overseas, is necessarily to talk about flying. The two are largely conjoined in public discourse and, I think, in our collective imagination. Against the grain, for several years my partner and I insisted upon overland travel as a means of getting across the continent from A to B. In defending our decision, as it inevitably seemed we must, we encountered many times the incredulous disbelief and incomprehension that results when overland travel is proposed outside of culturally understood contexts, like the epic road trip around Australia. This scepticism springs, perhaps, from rational concerns—the vastness of the continent, the huge distance between cities—and means that there are certain recreational kinds of journeys in which travel by road is accepted without question in Australia. For everything else there is flight.

Clive Hamilton has positioned climate change as a moral question as much as an ecological issue, for only a small percentage of the world’s population—the richest—are contributing to damage felt by all, and felt most harshly by the poorest. But for all our relative wealth in this nation, the future of Australia is by no means assured. In fact, Australia’s contemporary ecological realities have been globally appropriated as the ‘canary in the mine’ for projected climate-change outcomes elsewhere, as highlighted by the 2009 Los Angeles Times headline, ‘What Will Global Warming Look Like? Scientists Point to Australia’.

What I find most disturbing about our flying habits in this context is that, in travelling away from our home environments, we are degrading them. That we do this willingly, often without consideration of the ecological toll our trips are taking, seems indicative of a lack of custodial care toward the health, longevity and survival of our home places, a lack of grounding in place. It is indicative also of a widespread and dangerous negligence not only toward the protection of the landscapes, flora and fauna that are intrinsic to sustaining our lives but toward the security and endurance of our own lives as well.

Our mobility reduces if not the need for, then the emphasis on, the requirement of caring for the survival of our home places in the long term. In our cultural unconscious, it seems to me, lives the idea that we can always move somewhere else if things go wrong here. This is perhaps particularly so in settler nations like Australia, where many inhabitants possess histories of migration in varying degrees of immediacy, where ideas of travel are necessarily entwined with ideas of home. Earlier, I suggested that flying has become situated as an innate part of life, a human right, and that this may be a particularly Australian perception. Our histories of travel and migration may be one reason for this, the geography of the continent another. Very little of the Australian research I have encountered portrays flying as a choice. This is perhaps symptomatic of the nation’s lacklustre responses to climate change generally and is certainly indicative of the indelibly central position flying holds in Australia as a key mode of transportation.

I am not the first to point out that tackling climate change is so difficult, in part, because it is a global issue occurring as a result of individual behaviours. We are all contributing to the manifestation of climate change, and this brings with it the onus of personal responsibility. In order to reduce emissions, each of us is personally required to modify the way we live, largely voluntarily. Such sacrifice will probably feel like punishment. The conundrum of climate change is that it is difficult to ascertain just how much each individual is contributing to the issue of worldwide emissions, just as it is difficult to ascertain the ways in which individual curtailments may contribute to a solution. Taking personal responsibility for climate change in the face of these uncertainties and despite collective culpability requires a steely resistance to the kind of thinking that allows for the passing of blame onto other individuals, industries and nations. It requires the belief that, as individuals, we are contributing to a serious global ecological problem that, in some cases, may manifest first and more quickly somewhere else.

In my own small experience, the ability to voluntarily do without, to make individual changes that are not necessarily all that pleasurable in the name of a global outcome, and in the faith that it will benefit the safety and longevity of my own life, requires a firm belief in the very personal threat that climate change heralds. In order to remain grounded and actively avoid flying, I had to believe absolutely that climate change posed an innate threat to me. When positioned as a personal threat, the issue shifts from public to private, an issue that I am both culpable in and capable of working to prevent.

I can’t remember exactly when my partner and I decided to stop flying ourselves, but the more acutely we became aware of climate change, the harder it was to carry on living as we always had. Not long after returning to Australia from England, we began to change our lives. Flying was not the only aspect to be tempered; among other changes, we largely stopped driving and grew more deeply committed to not eating meat. Yet unlike my perception of the hippies’ resolve, each environmentalist concession we have made has been somewhat painful—the way that I imagine religiously decreed celibacy is painful. One feels that it is the right thing to do, but refraining really hurts.

In respect to flying, we have not been the world’s best abstainers. During our period of supposed grounding, I flew twice for familial reasons, what Monbiot calls ‘love miles’. These flights were grudgingly taken only when I felt my attendance at an event—my sister’s wedding; a family reunion—seemed imperative, and the geography of Australia, its island status, meant that there was no other way to get from A to B without spending the tens of thousands of dollars that overseas cargo-ship travel requires. My way of reckoning (coping with) flying was to donate a sum of money relevant to the cost of the tickets to organisations like Landcare Australia. This method of alleviating guilt is available only to those, like myself, in circumstances that allow such spending, and it does not account for the emissions produced by flying because the two (emissions produced, funds spent on environmentalist causes) are in no way comparable, as widespread criticism of offsetting generally maintains.

What I found most frustrating about voluntary grounding is that there really are very few alternatives to getting off the Australian continent, and none that come anywhere close to the relative affordability of flight. For a nation of boat people, living girt by sea, we appear no longer to rate ocean voyage. I am hopeful that we will see some reduction in the domination of flying as a means of overseas travel in time, hopeful that the market for more affordable transportation via water revives. In respect to domestic travel, avoiding flight has necessitated many long bus and train trips. Though it is a far more arduous mode of travel, requiring much more time, journeying overland changed my view of the world literally, and in other less tangible ways as well. While avoiding flight I came to see travel as a sacred thing: a choice not flippantly made, but invested in. At times, we travelled over land, really feeling in a corporeal sense, perhaps for the first time, just how large this continent really is. To get to a friend’s wedding in Cairns, we budgeted for close to a week of travel each way (far less interesting a trip on the return journey, let me tell you). What this experience and others like it have shown me, apart from the majesty of this nation’s beauty, the breathtaking diversity of the land, is that distance and place are felt in the body. The physical difficulties that arise from air travel, like jetlag, as well as the often surreal sense that one experiences when stepping off a plane somewhere entirely new—‘where am I?’—is totally negated when appropriate time is taken in journeying, when place is experienced at ground level along the way. When I stepped off the train in Cairns, though the heat was a shock, I experienced none of the strange, dissociative feelings so familiar from flight; I knew exactly where I was because my body had travelled the distance in ways it could tally. I had watched the land unfurl on a human scale.

The main difficulty I experienced in attempting to remain grounded did not derive from the enormous amounts of time, and sometimes money, that are required to facilitate alternative modes of journeying, nor from my own sense of ‘missing out’; from feelings of entrapment; from owning a future in which I never see Paris again. The hardest part related to weathering the reactions of other people—family members, friends, colleagues—whose responses to my choices were largely negative, else incredulous, flabbergasted or mildly amused. As an academic, I work in an environment wherein attendance at international conferences is expected, and the support of communications technologies as a means of presenting and engaging are slow to evolve. In my experience, virtual modes of communication and online networks are still perceived in the workplace as less legitimate than attending conferences face-to-face, and making a case for using them over and above journeying overseas poses particular bureaucratic and interpersonal problems. Even in the context of domestic conferences for which alternative modes of travel are available (train, bus), I encountered difficulties getting funding and approval to take them; the processes for conference attendance, including the various fields to be completed on the requisite paperwork, are often wholly geared toward flight.

I often struggled to articulate my reasons for wanting to avoid flying in these professional contexts, remembering so acutely the zealotry I perceived the hippies as initially spouting, and was conscious that any ideological opposition to flying, even on environmental grounds, is so outside of the consideration of many that it can appear merely daft, unhinged. I found it difficult to assert my position in such a way that it sounds both reasonable and necessary. In every attempt, and in the face of other’s consternation and smirks, I had to draw hard on the belief that what I was attempting to do was worthwhile. It is easy to become cynical in the face of climate-change research and the impossibly low cost of budget flights, but I found that maintaining some hope that my actions were contributing to meaningful cultural change was necessary, and bracing.

In 2006 I was home from England in time to rejoice with my father as he celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of his connection with the land on which he lives. His property, Casuarina,is in Wallan, north of Melbourne. He first moved there with his family as a boy in 1956. The farm was subdivided in the 1970s and my father developed ten acres for himself. I grew up on that land with him, as well as in inner-city Melbourne with my mother. Although my father is quick to point out that two or three generations of contact is very little in the context of Indigenous connection to country, and even far less than many rural settler families can claim in parts of Australia, it is a connection of a longevity far more enduring than any other about which I personally know. While I thought I could shrug off that connection and move on to more exciting shores, in practice I found that I could not. In fact, far from ‘getting away’, my attempt to move to England precipitated four years of Australian-centric writing and research. What I felt for and about Australia prior to leaving for England, despite holding such a strong sense of place and an enduring, generational connection to land, seems startling now. Yet it is only by going away and returning that I have come to see the value in those things I was so quick, like so many travellers and expats, to give away. At the same time, I see that my connection to place did not register in part because, in a world that prioritises cultural artefacts over access to and relationships with the non-human world, the chance to see ‘old things’ in Europe was more compelling than engaging with my home terrain. In that first summer back home I was already beginning to become interested in climate change, despite myself. In fact, my interest was cemented by the dawning realisation that I had places, homes, worth caring for in the long term, places worth fighting to preserve. I saw those homes (Wallan and Melbourne) as being local but began also to understand that they were part of a symbiotic, global ecosystem of places, each reliant on others to survive.

Today it is easy with the benefit of hindsight for me to recognise that, in avoiding flight, I became more grounded in my home places not only as a result of simple lack of options but also because the less I turned to overseas and distant shores the more attuned I became to those at which I already am. It seems to me that this fundamental shift in thinking and being bodes well in respect to tackling climate change. If custodial attitudes to our home places—through choice and necessity—could be precipitated more widely, then the ecological benefits from voluntary grounding would potentially outstrip those derived from the airplane emissions that we would save. A richer and perhaps more meaningful outcome of voluntary grounding—on personal as well as ecological fronts—exists in the (re)emergence of the homes that we find, patiently waiting for us, once we stop journeying away. This was, ultimately, the lesson that the hippies bequeathed me. While I saw their lack of flight as a stifling shutting down of geographical and cultural options, they experienced it as a deep embedding in the earth they loved best. Though I had to travel away to get it, and this fact troubles me, what I found overseas was the value of my own home in the world, as well as the will to protect it.

About the author

Alice Robinson

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