Bilde mangler beskrivelse

My son as a baby at the airport. Photo: Private

Air travel and basic needs: a personal journey

Ian Gough, my former PhD supervisor and now co-leader of the FLYWELL project reference group, co-authored a book with Len Doyal in 1991 where they identified health and autonomy as the two universal basic needs.  


They argued that when the needs for physical health and autonomy are not met, serious harm can happen as people cannot fully participate in society.

Some years ago, I felt that both my needs for health and autonomy demanded that I accept a job offer in Bodø, 1.180 km away from my residence in Oslo. At that point, I had been in precarious or temporary academic positions for 10 years, in a country where I did not feel welcome and with the recent experience of a psychopathic boss that almost derailed my academic career. Even with an offer of a permanent academic position at Nord University, I hesitated to accept the job. How could I justify taking a return flight every other week with the emissions that this entailed? How could I rely on a 17-hour train ride to keep a job when I had a 3-and-a-half-year-old child waiting at home? Ian who had recently published his book Heat, Greed and Human Need and is fully aware of the environmental damage of our everyday practices said to me: 'Monica, just fly'. He was even more aware than I was that, at the time, meeting my basic needs depended on accepting that position as Associate Professor. I still hesitated. In the end, I was saved by the COVID pandemic, and most of my lectures during the two years in Bodø were given on-line. I also managed to combine flights with train rides, probably at a 50-50 rate. 

Avoiding emissions from flying has influenced both my research, which no longer depends on fieldwork in far-away countries such as Peru, and my personal life, as I left my permanent job at Nord University for another permanent research position closer to home. I no longer fly for work-related reasons since my economic security is well supported by low-carbon travel and digital solutions. Fortunately, CICERO, my current employer, respects this decision. However, being originally from Catalonia, I still fly for family or health-related reasons. Both are closely linked, as according to Doyal and Gough, significant primary relationships are intermediary needs supporting the realization of the basic need for autonomy. Even if I visit my mum four times a year, I limit my flights to 2-3 one-way flights Oslo-Barcelona, which roughly equals 1.25t co₂ . The rest of my travels to Catalonia are by ferry and train, a journey taking 2-3 days and consuming one third of my monthly salary. Nonetheless, emitting 1.25t co₂ from flying per year far exceeds what a fair travel budget should be (to meet 2030 targets for 1.5 degrees of warming the total equitable allocation is set at  2.2t co₂ per person per year ). 

Bilde mangler beskrivelse

My son 7 years old in the train station. Photo: Private

As for many of us born in the seventies, flying did not become embedded into our practices until well after our teenage years. As a child, my everyday life revolved around walking to school and the sports club, where I trained in athletics until the age of 18. Family holidays were car-based, mostly driving to villages on the Catalan coast or to the North or South of Spain. Air travel was expensive back then, and until the mid-nineties when air travel prices started plummeting, I had probably taken a total of 7 return flights to Spanish or European destinations. Things changed when I moved to the UK in 2002. Flying then became part of my work and leisure practices. Visiting family and friends in Catalunya or my boyfriend in Oslo, attending academic conferences in Europe and the US, or conducting fieldwork in Peru were some of the activities that involved air travel. Was I not aware of the negative environmental impact of flying? As a matter of fact, I was not. It was through meeting Tim Kasser, a social psychologist and expert on materialistic values, that I became aware of the environmental toll of air travel. He, based in the US, only accepted lectures, presentations, or network meetings in Europe or other continents if they were scheduled back-to-back. He felt that an intensive use of time in another continent would reduce his total emissions from travel while still allowing him to network, acquire, and disseminate knowledge. 

Currently both Ian and Tim try to avoid flying. I also do so, but as I mentioned earlier, I still fly on an annual basis. Is my wellbeing reduced because I limit air travel? I do not think so. However, I know I miss opportunities to network and engage in informal exchanges with European colleagues. I am also aware of the fact that I visit some friends and relatives, such as my sister and niece who live in Munich or my friend Liz in the UK, way less that I would if I did not voluntarily reduce flying. I miss attending sporting events, as I used to love the odd trip to an ATP tennis tournament with my husband. 

Beholding the two-three annual one-way flights that I take to or from Catalonia offer me plenty of opportunities to meet my needs. I will take one-way flight this Easter and whilst visiting my mum, I will also go to the FC Barcelona- SK Brann football match on March 28th. Later in September during the Autumn school break, I might use my second annual one-way flight to participate, for the first time, in the tennis tournament that Norwegian veterans organise in Mallorca (another essay could be dedicated to questioning why Mallorca is seen as an optimal destination for the annual veteran meeting, rather than considering Båstad in Sweden, for example). The return journey will be by train, accompanied by my son. It will be a long 3-day ride during which we will play games, eat packed lunches, watch movies, and endure the stress caused by Deutsche Bahn’s chronic punctuality issues. Should I completely refrain from flying? Yes, without a doubt. However, given the current circumstances the toll on both my and my mum's wellbeing would be too high, as I would only be able to travel to Catalunya twice a year. Nonetheless, with the prospect of direct trains from Oslo to Hamburg hopefully becoming available in 2027, and the expansion of night trains across Europe gaining speed, the day when I will stop flying is drawing nearer and nearer.