In these times of worsening climate breakdown, it’s easy to feel very guilty about the carbon emissions from the modes of transportation we use, especially long-distance travel. I myself am sometimes obsessed with the carbon footprint of a flight, increasingly visible because airlines include the equivalent in kilos of CO2 in the tickets they issue and online calculators convert each of our actions and purchases into figures. related to emissions. Now, is this the most appropriate method to deal with the worsening climate crisis?
I have studied the different emotions and moods that passengers can experience during a trip, from boredom to euphoria to distraction. Guilt can now be added to the list, given how widespread ecotrauma, eco-anxiety and depression triggered by the climate crisis have become, particularly among the younger generation. When we travel in various means of transport, guilt travels above us and weighs as much as the largest suitcase on the conscience of the passengers.
As an emotion, guilt is totally negative and reactive: it depresses us and pushes those who feel it to beat themselves up. Just as fear (for the future of our children and grandchildren, for example) is insufficient motivation to make radical changes, guilt is not a good emotional background for protecting the environment. What’s more, it can even be counterproductive if it has a paralyzing effect and not only weighs us down, but holds us back with invisible ties from within. Guilt not only makes those who feel it unhappy, but also interrupts thinking and prevents a lucid analysis of the situation, its main causes and possible solutions.
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However, it is important to remember that the climate crisis is the cumulative consequence of the actions of many generations and, within them, of groups belonging to certain classes, geographical regions, sexes, etc. We cannot feel responsible for this long history, although we can be the turning point, the moment in which things really change, in which this history drastically transforms its projection of the future. And, of course, the effects of passenger actions also vary by class: the carbon footprint of someone flying economy is significantly lower than that of passengers in business or first class (which take up much more space inside the plane) and that of those who travel in private planes. Therefore, the first step in dealing with blame is to look at the problem from a more general and at the same time a more differentiated perspective: the accumulated history of emissions and the different contribution of each person depending on their socioeconomic class and the class in which who travels This two-pronged approach is especially useful for the world of passengers, where universality and rigid stratification coexist.
Another attitude that can contribute to associating passengers and guilt is passivity. When we are on board a plane, a train, a bus or a ship, we let ourselves be carried towards our destination in a more or less passive way. And guilt also pushes passivity. But to be passengers is not to be purely passive; it gives us the freedom to do what we want during the trip (sleep, read, watch a movie, play or work on the laptop) or to do nothing. The possibility of transforming passing passivity into action is always present, a possibility that does not exist in the case of guilt. This, since it is a negative emotion, cannot provoke any action, but only a reaction, and most of the time, a reaction from the person himself who feels guilty against himself.
Just as the passenger experience extends beyond the specific occasions in which we travel in various modes of transport to become the paradigm of individual and collective existence in the 21st century, passenger guilt also tends to affect the most diverse areas of life apart from travel. One example is the existence of apps and calculators that show the carbon footprint of not only flights and car rides, but also shopping, emailing, and other everyday activities. This indicates two things. First, the background against which guilt sends its tentacles almost everywhere is energy. For us, energy is something that must be extracted and burned, outside our body (factories, means of transport, etc.) or inside it. When we have the slightest glimpse of the violence that this conception and practice of energy entails, it causes us negative emotions that encompass practically all of reality. Second, a vehicle for the immense generalization of guilt is numbers or, to be more exact, the translation of everything into numbers, the quantification of reality. The production and consumption of energy, its derivatives and the efficient or inefficient use that we make of it are measured numerically, once again, in all areas of life. Excess body fat and CO2 emissions fall into the same category of inefficiency and produce the same feeling of shame.
Over-quantification, which is part of the problem, is nevertheless unthinkingly accepted as a means of achieving the desired solution. Is our life defined by the number of steps we take per day, our diet by the number of calories, and the content of our existence by the carbon footprint defined in figures? In this way of seeing the world and ourselves, the questions of where we are going and why disappear, just as the question of what would happen if we did not get on that plane, for example, to visit a loved relative whom we have not seen since months or even years ago. The indifference of the numerical values is in tune with the passenger condition, because the passengers travel all together, but also separated from each other, regardless of the purpose of their trip.
So what are we to do with the guilt that can wash over us just as we’re boarding that flight or (less often) hopping on that train? I suggest that, instead of rejecting it, we fully assume and see with total clarity our condition as passengers, both in the means of transport we take and in life. That doesn’t mean ignoring the environmental impact of our actions and freely contributing to environmental disaster (in fact, it’s not free: the bill arrives at our doors in the form of floods, landslides, severe wildfires, and droughts). It is about taking advantage of the freedom of action that we have within the passivity that characterizes the condition of passengers to transform it from within. Renunciation, asceticism, and guilt are not viable options: even the Buddha, on his path to enlightenment, rejected extreme deprivation and recommended “the middle path” between excessive abundance and excessive scarcity.
Transforming our passenger condition from within seems easier said than done. What does it imply, concretely, regarding carbon emissions and the climate crisis? An example of transformation would be to reinvent the trip, taking into account what synergy there could be between our trips, both daily and not so frequent, and the elements (air and water currents, for example), instead of wasting energy in offering resistance. That is the effort made by the Argentine artist living in Berlin Tomás Saraceno, whose works of art accompany the chapters of passenger philosophy. In the multidisciplinary Aerocene project, carried out in collaboration with scientists and engineers from MIT in the United States, Saraceno carried out flight experiments without fossil fuels and taking into account, among other things, the direction of the wind around the planet. His research, the result of creativity and collaboration, laid the foundations (and the heights) to travel without harming the living planet and integrating ourselves without giving in to the Luddite demand to completely renounce technology.
Still, a fundamental question remains: what is an ordinary person, other than an MIT scientist or a visionary artist, to do in this situation? Instead of succumbing to the weight of guilt, we must take small positive actions that promote environmental health. Planting trees, participating in local cleanups, and drastically reducing non-recyclable waste can go a long way if done on a large scale. What you should not do, in any way, is stop traveling to meet new people, to keep in touch with old friends and family, to get to know other places and experiences. A diverse social ecology is indispensable for an ecologically healthy planet.
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