If you believe Mark Twain’s famous “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” line, it’s no surprise that keen travelers are often progressive thinkers. “Eco-lodge” was common in backpacker parlance long before energy-efficient houses went mainstream and, generally speaking, travel writers have done a good job seeing through and calling out greenwashing. Even influencers — the most (wrongly) hated vagabonds on earth — have often been part of important travel movements. It was Instagram’s vanlifers and cliff-posers who helped spark a National Parks boom (for better or worse) in a time when the protection of wild spaces is deeply embattled.
Which brings us to the newest travel cause célèbre — flight shaming, or flygskam in the original Swedish. The act of making people feel bad for traveling in planes due to the carbon they burn, in hopes that they’ll consider alternative modes of transport. Trains, most likely, but also busses. Or boats. Last month, climate activist Greta Thunberg sailed to New York City in order to avoid taking a transatlantic flight.
But while big outlets like CNN, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal have covered the flight-shaming movement, travel personalities, influencers, and writers seem to be taking a beat. Which is either interesting or self-incriminating, depending on how jaded you are. Maybe it’s a little of both.
“I think we’re holding our breath because we know we can and should fly less,” travel writer Ali Wunderman (Time, CNTravelers, etc.) says. “But also because we worry about who’s getting the brunt of the blame in this conversation.”
Wunderman’s point speaks volumes. Because while flight shaming feels straightforward, it actually comes freighted with questions of privilege, the utility of shame-as-a-tool, and who has onus in cutting emissions. Questions we should wrestle with while still facing the climate emergency head-on.
When the Wall Street Journal covered flight-shaming, their lede cited “carbon-spewing vacations to Thailand,” one of the most common international destinations for young travelers around the world. It did not, considering its readership or the title of the publication, kick off with corporate travel, which 1) is on the rise, 2) is the sector of travel most easily made obsolete via technology, and 3) has the financial wiggle room to buy carbon offsets or support airlines that do.
This surely won’t surprise Wunderman or other travel writers — young travelers often seem to be the low hanging fruit in these discussions. Who gets missed with all this shame? Private jet flyers. Big businesses. The military-industrial complex. The typical shame-dodging suspects.
The “blamee vs blamer” question is further complicated by the diversity boom in travel right now — with the stories of black travelers, queer travelers, and solo female travelers gaining traction for the first time. These emerging voices are crucial to the widening and deepening of the travel conversation, so flight shaming articles written as these movements surge ought to at least wrestle with that conundrum.