On November 2, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner Jack Miles. In it, Miles lays out his reasons why we all need to “stop traveling” ASAP in order to save the environment. The editorial is well reasoned, and it’s tough to argue with the environmental implications of our continued air travel obsession. Still, Miles made a massive, sweeping statement, and those statements are meant to be unpacked, argued over, and wrestled with.
Since I took particular issue with the piece, I’m here for some unpacking:
Things Miles got very right:
- The world has three years to “bend the emissions curve downward“, according to including former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That’s…um… a big deal.
- Flights are exceedingly impactful on the environment. As Miles states, “…Nothing that we do pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than air travel. Cancel a couple long flights, and you can halve your carbon footprint. Schedule a couple, and you can double or triple it.”
But as convincing as the environmental talk was, what was left out gave me pause:
- Is this a Baby Boomer, writing to an audience of all ages, leaving us all on the hook for the environmental pillaging that was turned into policy by other Baby Boomers in order to create incredible amounts of wealth during the 80s and 90s? You’d better believe it.
- Is this an exceedingly wealthy, elderly person encouraging everyone to cut out flying in an era when flights are cheaper (against inflation) than ever before in history and the ability to travel is at its egalitarian peak? Hard yes.
- Does this plea for no travel come from a white man, who is insulated from the negative effects of xenophobia and nationalism (two things which travel is scientifically proven to combat) that have marred our nation this past year? Indeed!
- Does the article soft pedal the fact that the U.S. Military is — by far — the largest single consumer of fossil fuels on the planet earth? Also yes.
- Does the piece casually explain away the author’s own trip to Morocco, in a flippant manner — absolutely undercutting his intended point, while underscoring a bigger point: “Boomers are the real entitled generation and will keep doing whatever the hell they want.” Bingo!
Look, obviously this struck a chord with me. I’ve made my career encouraging people to travel. But the real reason I don’t like it is that it continues the green trend of putting the onus on individuals, rather than corporations or the US Government. I’m also not a fan of Baby Boomers — a generation that wrecked the environment at a previously unheard of pace and scale — exhorting youngsters to stop certain behaviors without at least saying, “We were bad; Do better than us!” (I call this the Al Gore corollary, because An Inconvenient Truth suffers from this same problem.)
Worst of all is this headline:
I am an editor at a website that relies on “virality” to meet pageview goals. So trust me: I get the need for splashy headlines. But considering all those other issues, this is insanely eye roll-inducing. Stop it WaPo. Stop it Jack Miles.