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23 July 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 11:56am

Can “flight shame” still serve the climate movement in the Covid era?

Shame may have been helpful in maintaining lockdown discipline, but it has also had dark consequences during the pandemic.  

By India Bourke

“Shame on you,” I told a fellow passenger on the London Underground earlier this year, after they defiantly refused to put on a mandated face mask. I was fuming. But I was also unsettled by my own response. In attempting to advocate for a more caring, cohesive society, was I just further exacerbating divisions?

Shame may have been helpful in maintaining lockdown discipline, yet it has also had dark consequences during the pandemic. “Name and Shame” Facebook groups have attracted tens of thousands of members. The results have not always been kind: as Amelia Tait has written, a professor in Poland took his own life after being accused of breaking quarantine.

At the same time, the backlash to the perceived and actual curtailment of personal freedom has grown in fervour. In France, national Bastille Day celebrations were interrupted last week by protests against tighter Covid rules. In the UK, anti-lockdown protestors clashed with police in London on the very day that the remaining Covid restrictions were lifted.

Such pandemic-specific tensions will, I hope, pass when mass vaccination is achieved and the virus contained. But wider questions have been raised over shame’s role in effecting behavioural change. In the increasingly climate-stressed years to come, how far should it play a part?

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Flying less, eating less meat and adopting energy-efficient tech will all likely be necessary to stem rising carbon emissions. And shame, especially in the form of “flight shame”, or “flygskam” in its original Swedish, has already proven a powerful motivational tool.

In 2019, the year the climate activist Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic to attend a UN climate summit, the flight-shame movement surged. Accusations of insincerity were hurled at Google’s executives and others for flying to Sicily to discuss climate change. Jet-setting celebrities who backed the Extinction Rebellion protests even felt obliged to describe themselves as “hypocrites”.

“I’m not telling anyone what to do, or what not to do, I’m just doing this because I want to,” the Thunberg told reporters upon her arrival at the summit in New York.

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Founded a few years earlier, when a number of Swedish celebrities, including Thunberg’s mother, pledged to give up flying for the sake of the environment, flight-shaming soon gained support among individuals and Facebook groups, such as Jag flyger inte – för klimatets skull or Tagsemester. Take-up of domestic flights within Sweden fell 9 per cent on 2018 levels in 2019, and new linked terms were spawned – from “Tagskryt”, meaning “train brag”, and “Att smygflyga”, to “fly in secret”.

With a single long-haul flight potentially generating more CO2 emissions than the rest of an individual’s entire annual carbon footprint, the need to reduce air travel is clear. Yet, in the Covid-19 era, can a concept such as flight shame keep people grounded – and avoid creating further division?

While the pandemic has proven that the world can accommodate drastically reduced air travel (win the first quarter of 2020, global air passenger traffic was down 92 per cent on 2019 levels), that fall is only temporary. The ache to visit loved ones abroad, or simply to explore, has arguably never been greater, especially among the young: according to a recent Deloitte survey, Swiss under-30s are more likely to report that they will be flying more, not less, post-pandemic.

Nor has the experience of Covid-19 encouraged a sense of collective problem-solving, according to Jennifer Jacquet, associate professor of environmental studies at New York University and author of Is Shame Necessary? Instead, she notes, the emphasis on vaccination as the solution to Covid has heightened the idea that self-reliance is what is most important.

Furthermore, prior to Covid-19’s arrival, some in the flight-shame movement were already concerned about its negative effects. According to Anna Hughes, director of Flight Free UK, the original Swedish meaning of the term “flygskam” is much more about an individual’s internal sense of responsibility to others than the public acts of shaming with which it has often been associated. Instead of criticising people for flying, the organisation instead simply aims to persuade, pointing out that travelling by rail in Europe largely emits around 90 per cent less CO2 than an equivalent flight.

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If public shaming can be counterproductive, then encouraging a sense of collective responsibility might help better harness the concept of flight stigma. Legally mandated, as opposed to discretionary, behaviour changes could be key.

Governments should help transfer the weight of responsibility for decisions – and any consequent stigma – away from individuals, Jacquet argues, and into a broader sense of “social shame”. This could take the form of partial bans: “We wouldn’t want to ban aviation altogether, as it’s essential for visiting family and saving lives,” she says. “But the frivolous flying – to the extent that it can be identified on a large scale – that may have a hope [of restriction].”

Similarly, Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School, makes the case for businesses reducing work-related flights. He believes that “travel related to business meetings [as opposed to team building events] should disappear”, thus saving on time and jet-lag as well as carbon footprints.

These top-down interventions may be hard to make in the current political climate. In the US, right-wing US media outlets are already pushing a narrative that President Joe Biden’s climate change agenda will entail onerous lifestyle restrictions (such as Fox News’ false claim earlier this year that Biden wanted to take away people’s burgers). Meanwhile, far from discouraging flying, the UK government has consulted on cutting air passenger duty on domestic flights, and so incentivising their take-up.

But if governments can succeed in leading the way, then behavioural shifts may bring a wealth of benefits. “A new way of mobility where we travel less but in a more qualitative way (for instance by train) might contribute to a world where viruses are not spread as fast as today,” says Susanna Elfors, founder of the Tagsemester Facebook group.

In this light, shame as a battle with ourselves – rather than others – may yet help serve the greater good. As the author Dr Martin Shaw notes in his new book Smoke Hole: Looking to the Wild in the Time of the Spyglass, in Arthurian legend an old warrior reminds a young knight to “never lose his sense of shame”.

[See also: Majority of Britons support France’s short-haul flight ban]