Back to the future

by Terry Oliver on August 1, 2010

A perennial problem for us grandparents over the years has been travelling long distances to see our grandkids. My generation has enjoyed the luxury of cheap air travel to bridge those long distances which separated us from our loved ones but this was not always so.

When my grandfather left Torquay in Devon in the 1890’s to come to Canada he said goodbye to his parents at age 17 and they never saw him again. Nor did they ever get to meet his children, including my mother, his youngest child.

The first World War made it possible for his eldest child, my oldest uncle, to visit some of our relatives in the UK when he joined the RCAF and the government paid for his travel abroad. But he was too late to visit my great grandparents. Otherwise, flying was out of the question for ordinary people.

The wealthy and professional people were able to travel abroad by ship to visit family from the old world but for everyone else, travel by ship was a one-way journey and young people who emigrated to the colonies could only keep in touch by letter.

Even the transatlantic telephone call was prohibitively expensive as recently as when my own children went abroad in the 1990’s and phone calls were short, stressful and infrequent. I can remember phoning home from England myself in the 70’s only at Christmastime for a shouted hello (everyone shouted then because we assumed we had to, it was so far away).

We forget how quickly things changed – and just as quickly they’re changing back.

For many of us, the cost of flying is becoming prohibitive as the Peak Oil phenomenon begins to bite. But also for many, myself included, there is a moral dilemma attached. How can I continue to justify flying when it causes so much damage to the planet and depletes shrinking oil supplies for my grandchildren’s future?

I have made my decision not to fly and explain to anyone who asks, why I can no longer justify it. I decided there were alternatives to getting across the Atlantic to see my children and grandchildren in England. Like trains and boats, for example. The CO2 emissions for both were only a fraction compared to flying.

But there is a problem. Travel by freighter is costly – roughly double that of flying. And the time factor is a further problem. You need to plan a long way ahead to book a freighter journey and the trip itself is time-consuming.

Well, you say, as a 3rd Ager, retired and a grandparent, I’ve got plenty of time. True, but I find it hard to plan a week ahead never mind 6 months. This is not an insuperable hurdle and I’m slowly adapting my attitude to travel. Despite what my children think, I am not a dinosaur.

Freighters advertise that they produce 20 times less CO2 per passenger mile than airplanes.

So far so good. What about travelling by passenger ship then? They at least run on certain routes on a monthly basis. I can travel from my home near Vancouver by train to New York and by the Queen Mary to London – just like my grandfather did in the opposite direction.

More problems. There is no winter season. Last boat is November and that’s it till the spring. Next is the cost. If the freighter is double the airfare, the passenger ship is double the freighter fare. For the cheapest. So far there aren’t any No-Frills passenger ships. Only luxury ones where you dress up for dinner and the CO2 count is worse than flying when all factors are taken into consideration.

So, I can always resort to what Al Gore and David Suzuki do – fly and buy carbon offsets. But is this just a guilt assuager? The chief NASA climate scientist James Hansen has famously described carbon offsets as the modern day version of buying medieval indulgences, where you pay for your sins and then merrily keep on sinning.

Meantime, the tug of wanting to see my grandkids increases the longer I put it off. My current solution is to reduce the frequency of trips back to the UK to once every second year, travel by train as far as I can go by land and then fly the shortest distance to Ireland and proceed by train and ferry to London. Oh yes, and buy carbon indulgences/offsets.

It’s no joke being a green grandad. How do you manage it, anyway?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheila August 2, 2010 at 1:14 am

This is indeed a thorny dilemma- seems like a no win/no win. If I choose to fly I damage the environment my grandkids will inherit but if I choose not to I lose contact with them. The “indulgence” (off-set) I purchase will not really off-set the damage.

This problem will soon be resolved by the price of air travel increasing so much that it is no longer possible for most grandparents to fly to visit their grandkids. But in the mean time, while some of us still have the choice, what to do?? For one thing, I think we need to see it in the context of what else we’re doing for the environment. We can walk or cycle instead of driving, reduce consumption of products that have been sent thousands of miles, maybe even try to eat more foods that have been produced within 25 miles, buy only stocks of companies that are not harming the environment, advocate for reduction of consumption, advocate for alternative energy (immediately), buy second-hand, reduce fuel consumption, learn about non-violent communication, and….the list goes on, -I think maybe the attempt to find a way of life that is more in keeping with the limits of growth of the planet based in the awareness of the responsibility that we in the industrialized countries have to the rest of the world’s population- any way in which we personally can add to the solution rather than the problem can be seen as helpful and we needn’t be too down on ourselves if the air travel dilemma remains unsolvable for the present.

Cliff Stainsby October 8, 2010 at 4:05 pm

I have long been concerned about the impacts of flying on climate change. Most recently I did an analysis of the moral implications of flying by jet on vacation. The conclusion that I came to is that flying by jet on vacation is tantamount to murder. The essay I wrote can be viewed at . The link takes you directly to a short blog that briefly summarizes the essay. The blog contains a link to the full essay. The essay contains the moral criteria, logic, and calculations I used to reach my conclusion. I hope the essay will help would be flyers and travellers make decisions about how and whether to travel. I did not examine modes of travel other than flying be jet. But, I suggest that if one decides to fly the reasons must be incredibly compelling.

Terry Oliver October 11, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Thanks for your comments, Cliff. I found your essay compelling in its reasoning. Harsh truths, but we will have to face more and more of them so it’s good to have some ethical discussion on subjects like flying. For myself, there is no question of flying when I can take a train or bus . My problem is finding ways of crossing the Atlantic to see my family. Perhaps we will see the advent of no-frills passenger ships using alternative fuels/wind/solar?
Meantime I’m stuck with carbon offsets – a poor substitute.

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