A year without flying. Does it make a difference?

Eric Holthaus of Veroqua, Wisconsin, not far from La Crosse, tried something different last year. He stopped flying and started taking the scenic route.

Holthaus, who writes about the weather for Slate, writes this afternoon that he made the decision a year ago this week after reading a science report that climate change is getting worse.

He vowed to stop taking airplanes in an essay last year, not easy, he said, for someone who flies about 75,000 miles a year. But there he was, he said, crying after reading the report and about to step on an airliner.

He did some calculations about what his contribution to climate change is.


By vowing not to fly, I went from having more than double the carbon footprint as the average American to about 30% less than average.

I don’t take the decision lightly or imagine that it won’t have a big impact on my life. But my wife and I are lucky enough to live in a stunningly beautiful part of the country. Most of our immediate family lives within a day’s drive. I’m excited to spend future vacation days exploring the local area.

I’ll still have to travel a lot (by car and train), and I’ll use videoconferencing for meetings I can’t miss. But by removing my single biggest impact on the climate in one swoop, I can rest a bit easier knowing I’ve begun to heed the IPCC’s call to action. Individual gestures, repeated by millions of people, could make a huge difference.

That was then. How about now?

Over the past year, I’ve had to make a few small sacrifices, sure. (My 28-hour bus ride from Wisconsin to Atlanta wasn’t the most relaxing travel experience I’ve ever taken. I’d have much preferred one of these.) But an amazing thing has also happened since I’ve embraced slow travel: My world has shrunk and become richer. (It’s also easier to escape those awkward family reunions.)

My wife and I canceled a frequent-flier trip we had planned to Hawaii and instead spent a weekend at the otherworldly ice caves on Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin. I sent our Civic into a 360-degree spin on an ice road to Madeline Island in a moment of pure joy. It was the coldest I had ever been. What initially felt like one of the biggest sacrifices of our decision to stop flying (enjoying the polar vortex instead of Hawaii in February) turned into a moment I’ll never forget.

In March, my wife and I embarked on an epic road trip through the drought-stricken West to visit family and friends and report for Slate. That trip changed the way I think about California and opened my eyes to the complexity of water issues rarely seen in front-page coverage of the drought. I also got to introduce my wife to one of my favorite places on the planet: Oregon’s breathtaking Columbia River Gorge, which was shrouded in fog on our early morning transit as we headed home to Wisconsin.

Did it make a big difference? Individually, probably not. The planes he didn’t take flew anyway.It depends on whether there are enough people like him. And it’s a matter of not expecting someone else to change the way they live but being willing to examine one’s own contribution.

He cites another essay by a scientist who’s gone 11 years without flying, and isn’t exaggerating the likely impact of the decision.

“I think we will fail, but I don’t know we will fail. There’s a very big difference between those two.” Anderson continued, “It’s likely we will die trying. But if we don’t try, then we will definitely not succeed. I work in this area because I still think there’s a thin thread of hope.”