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Frequent flier guilt

A confession: until just a year ago I was buying nearly bi-monthly plane tickets across the Atlantic. For often as low as $400 roundtrip and only 6 or 7 hours in the air, I was convinced the world had shrunk. I could date a Spaniard who wasn’t interested in giving up his Barcelona address and still continue to work for American television networks.

Technology had changed my reality. I no longer had to camp out in a dark Manhattan edit room for a 6 week edit on a half hour show. Now with just 3 or 4 250GB harddrives – loaded with a hundred tape hours- stashed in my backpack, I could board a plane to open my personal edit facility in my boyfriend’s Barcelona apartment.

The system worked well. I would ftp (file transfer protocol- a way of sending files from computer to computer) my rough cuts to my executive producer in New York and then Skype (Internet phone) her to discuss notes. After the edit weeks were up, I would return to New York to polish the final show and meet with executives. Often while in town I would shoot another show, or a pilot, and return to Barcelona with a new half-hour in my carry-on, or return to await the arrival of newly-loaded drives by mail.

Aviation should get cigarette-style health warnings”

I wish I could say I had become enlightened about my heavy carbon footprint through what I thought was a fairly eco-enlightened circle of friends and family, but apart from a passing comment from my youngest brother, Tyson, no one ever mentioned air miles when I gleefully discussed the ease of my arrangement. And definitely no one ever put my emissions into perspective for me.

I didn’t have any real flier’s remorse until this spring when I read a press release from the UK think tank Institute for Public Policy Research that attempted to put air travel into a larger context. Here is one of their examples that resonated with me: the average individual in the UK emits 4400 kilograms of CO2 per year. A return flight from London to Perth, Australia, on average emits 4500 kilograms of CO2 per person.

Reading this, I felt naive. I knew flying consumed energy, but I just had no idea how much. If someone had asked me to put a long haul flight like this into perspective previous to discovering this, I would have said a flight from London to Australia- for just one passenger- would be like turning on your heat for a week or two. I had no idea it was like turning on your heat all winter plus turning on your air conditioning all summer, plus all your driving and anything else you can think of that you’d do all year as “an average individual in the UK” (if you’re an average American it takes a bit more flying to equal our larger footprint).

Perhaps this isn’t news to most, while interviewing fellow travelers in Heathrow last week, I was surprised to discover that most had a good idea of just how negatively impactful their flights were, but no one seemed prepared to make any changes.
This knowledge didn’t just make me feel guilty, but a bit defeated.

All my efforts to conserve energy- not having a car, rarely using heat and never using air conditioning, etc- seemed a bit futile if I were going to fly like I do. According to chooseclimate.org, just one of those trips from Barcelona to New York was equal to my entire yearly sustainable carbon emissions budget (the amount of CO2 each person can emit in one year if we want to stabilise the concentration of atmospheric CO2).

To never go home again

While I’d given up the cross-Atlantic commute prior to discovering the true cost of flying (this was due instead to a wedding, a pregnancy and more work in Europe), I am still unable to renounce all flying. My 5 siblings and parents all live in different cities: New York, Chapel Hill (North Carolina), Seattle, Cloverdale (California) and 2 in Australia (Sydney and Melbourne).

We’re not the first family to scatter across continents. A future in-law from Scotland was just telling me her brother moved to Australia 40-odd-years ago and has never returned even for a visit (there was no bad blood, but just the expense of the flight, plus having kids and grandkids has tied him down to his new land). Or yesterday I talked to an Irish man in his 70s who came to America 50 years ago and, as he put it, he hasn’t stepped on Irish soil since.

The problem is I come from a close family and I’m used to seeing a lot of them. During my 20-something years, I spent a year or two living at my parents home rooming with my older sister Emily. After moving to a San Francisco apartment, my younger sister Jennifer spent nearly every Friday and Saturday night as my houseguest and every Sunday, I would trek down the Peninsula for family dinner. During the first half of my 30s, I was roommates with my brother Colton for several years in Manhattan and just about every month one sibling would visit or I would fly to visit them.

Granted, nowadays, with technology like Internet phone, I am able to get on a 6-way Skype chat with my siblings across the globe at no cost to us, nor the planet. But phone calls and emails just aren’t enough. I like to spend at least a bit of time just hanging out together over a long dinner or a bowl of ice cream talking late into the night.

Absolutions via carbon offsets or the Earth Pope

If only I were more a fan of carbon offsetting, I could just alleviate all guilt with a simple click of my mouse, as little as $22 per international flight and the knowledge that some person in Bolivia is reducing their already-relatively-small carbon footprint. But it doesn’t take much research to discover that this is just too easy.

In the same vein, I considered simply confessing my carbon sin to the Earth Pope, an environmentally-aware layperson who provides “absolutions for the eco-sins of all humans on the planet“. I have an email out, but I’m not counting on that as a solution.

Since I’m just not ready to give up flying, I’ve decided I’m going to try to cutback. Instead of flying to the U.S. two times in a season (like last fall) to visit family, I’m going to take longer, and less frequent, trips. I’m fortunate that both my husband and I just need an Internet connection to work so this summer we’re taking our first extended trip to see family. This time, we will be in the U.S. for two months, instead of our normal visits of just 1 to 2 weeks. And this is just the beginning.

Denouncing “binge flying”

Now that we have a 4-month-old child, I feel an even stronger pull toward family and I think a child benefits from time with their grandparents, so why not give both sides their time? If you’re lucky enough to have the job flexibility, why commit to living in just one city, state, or country?

In the meantime, I’m trying to help others recognize their bad habit (as I wish someone had with me over the past few years). Last week flying to San Francisco, I sat next to a woman from Boston who told me she was flying this summer not just to California, but to Ireland as well. Granted she had been given the entire summer off by her employers (for 20 years as a devoted employee) so I don’t blame her for taking advantage of the time, but I made a mention about my guilt around the large carbon footprint associated with flying (without using the insider terminology).

I don’t think she heard me above the plane noise because in response she told me, rather reverentially, that her flying companions were world travelers and did this kind of thing all the time.
She’s not alone in thinking this way.

It’s become a mark of status to take vacations to places where you need a Lonely Planet or a Rough Guide: exotic spots like Thailand, Kenya, or Peru. Though maybe this is old think.
Just last month, Mark Ellingham, the founder of the Rough Guide travel book series and the man who inspired so many to travel the world, announced he had changed his tune.

He told the Telegraph that he’s “not convinced there is such a thing as a ‘responsible’ or ‘ethical’ holiday.” He’s pushing for green taxes on flights and while he admits he won’t stop his international travel, he is planning on limiting it.

If there was just one thing I could change, it would be this new British obsession for binge flying. We now live in a society where, if people have nothing to do on a Saturday night, they go to Budapest for 48 hours.

I remember my first trip to Europe in 1990 at age 20. Seeing spots like Florence, Paris, Copenhagen, Budapest with my 18-year-old sister sparked our first real interest in history. But today, I no longer feel the lure of adventure travel. Perhaps, it’s after visiting hill towns in Northern Thailand and Darfur refugee camps in Eastern Chad (not for adventure travel, but for work) and boarding the plane home feeling as if I had learned very little new.

Social networking sites as adventure travel

Lately, I’ve begun to think a bi-annual bi-continent life can truly be a possibility. When our baby turns one, why not leave Spain for the U.S. for a year. With all the online home rental sites, we can easily rent our Barcelona place to cover the mortgage and find a place near my parents in Northern California.

If we take just one trip per year, but make it the entire year, we can cut back on flying and spend even more time with family. Win-win, right? At this point, I’m just crossing my fingers our jobs stay so flexible and we can swing it.

I am left with a feeling that living in our globalized world with Internet, and laptops, soon to reach every last tribe or tributary, cultural experiences are happening online, in chat rooms or on social networking sites.

A friend recently helped start a book discussion site called goodreads (headquartered in L.A.) and when I commented that many of my friend invites were coming from Iran, she told me that they’d had great success there; apparently, Persians are great book-lovers, and now, are my online “friends”.

I’m not promsing to quit air travel cold turkey, and most likely I never will, but I do swear to give up my “binge flying” and to treat other binge fliers with less respect.

Instead of esteeming frequent fliers as worldly, I now see them more as SUV (or Hummer) owners. Granted, sometimes you need an SUV to fit your large family (or a flight to visit them), but I have begun to recognize that there are equally appealing alternatives. Instead of 48 hours in Budapest, I plan to aim for month-long or year-long trips, for now.

Who knows, perhaps one day, my travel to the cities, and countries, of my family members will extend to 5 or 10-year-long stays. It doesn’t sound bad, though I’m sure I’ll miss all those frequent flier miles.