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Marty Nathan: One grandmother’s carbon-based life choice

Photodisc/David De Lossy

Photodisc/David De Lossy

But there was a problem. My daughter Leah is living in Cambodia with her husband, a Navy physician.

We did the expected. We bought round-trip tickets to visit them in March. The flight, though certainly not cheap, was affordable for a doctor and a professor. I dreamed of holding 3-month-old Misha in my arms, playing with her fingers and toes, feeling her breathe against my chest as she slept, taking the burden off Leah of walking her when she cried.

And in Cambodia, a place we’ve never visited, with beautiful beaches and rain forests and ancient ruins. Our family has flown many places, most recently to Ethiopia where my husband and I had Fulbright grants to teach. We went to China for a week to a conference and I flew to Bolivia and Gaza on fact-finding tours.

Yet now, in 2014, neither he nor I could ignore the conflicting unease associated with flying halfway around the world for two weeks. Over the last several years we have learned more and more about climate change and now we cannot claim ignorance at what we would be contributing to global warming just by that one trip.

You see, flying puts in the atmosphere 100 times the gram carbon/weight carried of truck travel and up to 1,000 times the carbon of rail travel. Furthermore, because they are emitted at high altitude, those same carbon molecules have two to four times the warming impact on the earth as they would were they spewed out closer to ground, according to calculations by the David Suzuki Foundation.

Here is the math: Two to four times the 2.8 million grams of carbon that the two of us would be burning is equivalent to 8.4 metric tons of carbon.

It gnawed at us. Was this two-week trip to see my 3-month-old granddaughter really a gift for her? Or was it one more small bit sealing her doom? I woke up one morning realizing that I had to face the real impact of our plans.

I hesitantly told my husband my thinking and, amazingly, he agreed. Then I told Leah. Actually, and less amazingly because she ponders the climate dilemma all the time, she agreed. We are not going. We are cashing in our tickets.

Since then many friends have asked us when we are going and we have explained our decision: that we will wait until Misha is 9 months old and take trains to visit her in Washington when her parents return. More than once those progressive friends have answered, “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”

It seems that jet flight for vacations is one of the sacred cows that many of us have a hard time examining. We see it as a right, compensation for working hard, to leave our homes and problems far behind to visit the exotic and the wild. What irony that that flight itself is a major threat to many of those same exotic and wild beaches, tropical forests and mountaintops degraded and destroyed by global warming.

I do not believe that voluntary lifestyle changes by the privileged alone will stop climate change and prevent the horrors that will be visited on Misha but even more heavily on the poor of our world.

There must be a massive political struggle, worldwide but starting in the industrialized countries, to eliminate the burning of carbon — stop building fossil fuel-burning plants; invest in lower-energy public transportation, conservation, efficiency and renewables; and levy a carbon tax that begins to reflect the real cost of our use of the energy resources that have been sitting in our earth for hundreds of millions of years.

If we had to pay the real price of jet travel, few of us would or could climb aboard. Our major task must be to engage in that struggle.

However, those who advocate for this now must “walk the walk.” We must try to live the life we are working for, make decisions that reflect our ethics, no matter how difficult those decisions are. Otherwise, our movement lacks moral force and will be seen by many as hypocritical.

I hesitated for weeks to write this piece, feeling that many could read it as moralizing. But my heart tells me it is past time that each of us look at our children and grandchildren and ask ourselves if there are not things that we can and must do out of love for them to end our poisoning of the atmosphere. It is in their name that we must learn and act according to that knowledge.

Marty Nathan, M.D., lives in Northampton.

Legacy Comments6

But the flight wasn't cancelled, was it?

So you're saying one person's actions don't matter. This may be true but if many people start making decisions like Marty and her husband, there would certainly be a drop in the number of flights scheduled. YOUR decisions, combined with MY decisions, combined with the decisions of others DO make a difference!

600 million new flyers in south east asia who are new to flying will cancel out your 100. "From Indonesia to Vietnam, carriers in Southeast Asia are buying new aircraft as about 600 million people -- or the combined population of the U.S., Germany and Brazil -- fly more. Boeing and Airbus, the world’s two biggest planemakers, are both counting on Asian airlines to buy more aircraft in the next two decades as economic growth in the region enables more people to take flights. " http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-09/garuda-said-to-consider-10-airbus-a330s-weigh-a350-787.html

Your argument would seem in part to hold true domestically, at least temporarily--the economic downturn led to reduced demand and in response U.S. carriers cut out some routes and switched to more fuel-efficient short-haul aircraft which seem to fly full much of the time. And some reports show that carbon emissions in some developed countries have dipped recently. But given the world's rising population, it would be very difficult to curb international jet travel. There would almost certainly be a critical mass who consider their reasons for travel to be highly compelling and there would be economic repercussions from curtailed travel. The letter writer's concern is well founded but I believe we need to ask ourselves some very hard questions about how we can take truly effective steps to curb carbon emissions.

Thank you for writing this and setting such a wonderful example or all of us. I have no doubt that Misha will grow up loving you and your husband all the more for your sacrifice.

Excellent letter. A single plane ride undoes a lot of Prius miles, solar panels, twisty lightbulbs, etc. This is hardest to grapple with when family has settled far away. A future in which we truly do our best to conserve may have to be one in which we remain near the people we love most.

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