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cross country road trip illustration (Melinda Beck / theispot.com)

Why I don't fly

Figuring out the ethics of long-distance travel is a challenge.
By Dan Harper
Spring 2014

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On a Friday in late June, my partner Carol and I loaded up our car with a month’s worth of luggage and started driving east from our home near San Francisco towards Massachusetts where our fathers live. Our first stop was in Berkeley, only an hour’s drive across San Francisco Bay. There we had lunch with my cousin Nancy and her family, who were in town for a quick visit.

After we had exchanged family news (and news of our respective UU congregations), Nancy brought up the subject of our cross-country trip. “That’s a long drive,” she said. She was curious about why we would spend two weeks of our vacation driving across the country. Taking a jet would give us more time to spend with our families in Massachusetts and would cost less because we wouldn’t have to spend a dozen nights in motels or campgrounds.

I told Nancy that driving has one big advantage: it releases smaller amounts of greenhouse gases than does flying. In 2008, sustainability engineer Pablo Päster calculated in a column for Salon that a round-trip flight for two people from San Francisco to Boston would release about 2,000 kg of greenhouse gases. By contrast, making the same trip in a car that got 30 miles per gallon would release about 930 kg of greenhouse gases, regardless of the number of passengers. In fact, our hybrid car gets about 38 miles per gallon, so on our trip across the country and back we would release about 750 kg of greenhouse gases, less than half of what we would release if we flew.

On the other hand, how could we justify spending two weeks driving when we’d only have one week to spend with our families? I explained to Nancy that we planned to stop and see her mother and father (my aunt and uncle) in Ohio; we also planned to visit my older sister in Indiana and Carol’s aunt in South Dakota. Even though we would spend less time with our fathers in Massachusetts, we would be able to see other family members.

I’m fortunate that my employer pays me well enough and gives me enough vacation time that I have the option of driving rather than flying to visit my father. If I only got two weeks of vacation time a year, would I still go visit my father as often as possible? Would I feel compelled to reduce the number of my visits, or would I feel compelled to get another job closer to my father?

Balancing my ethical responsibility to the environment with my ethical responsibilities to my family is not easy. Figuring out the ethics of long-distance travel isn’t easy. The composer John Adams has written that he finds our contemporary “compulsion for globetrotting” to be “ecologically disturbing.” So do I. Like Adams, I wonder if someday we’re going to have to give up nearly all long-distance travel and “stay put in one place.”

On our long drive back from Massachusetts we stopped at a rest area in the Sierra Nevadas where Interstate 80 intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail. There we met two people who were hiking the trail’s 2,663 miles from Mexico to Canada. It struck me that this is how many of the first immigrants got to California: they walked. Once they got to California, they had no quick way to return for a family visit—no jet travel, no interstate highways, not even the train. Some of them never again saw the parents or siblings they had left behind.

I don’t want to have to walk 3,000 miles to see my father. But I don’t want to release 1,000 kg of greenhouse gases by flying to visit him, either. For now, I’ll drive when I can—and continue to wrestle with the ethical challenges posed by long-distance travel.


This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of UU World (page 58). Illustration (above) Melinda Beck/theispot.com. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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