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On the Joy of Not Flying



Reflections on National Radio Interview Tom Bennion - Stop flying posted 25 November 2009

Lawyer with an environmental conscience, Tom is an active proponent of reducing carbon emissions via choosing not to fly. Some would say he's advocating putting the tyranny back in distance but Tom may argue he's incentivising an expeditious transition to a carbon neutral long-haul travel alternative. (duration: 20′32″)


As a boy living on a sheep station off the Cook Strait I would watch distant planes glint silently across the skies and dream of flying. On the station I lived in a world of rich forests, chattering creeks, mysterious lakes and sparkling air. I wanted to look down upon all this and see the world as God sitting on his throne in the Heavens must see all.


I retain vivid memories of flying in the cockpit of a Bristol Freighter across Cook Strait as a twelve year old. I shall never forget the thrill as the pilots gave me the joysticks and bade me keep the instruments constant all the way over the ocean and land till just before we touched down at Blenheim.

This dream and such a vital experience was why I decided to stick with College and get University Entrance so I could apply to be an Air Force pilot and thus become a commercial pilot.


That dream vanished as I discovered in my UE year that I was shortsighted in one eye and started wearing spectacles. In retrospect it was a blessing because NZ was about to join the USA in an invasion of Vietnam and I could well have become a major agent of slaughter of many innocent people.


Instead I went to Canterbury University and eventually encountered the Club of Rome about the time I graduated. The profound realisation that the human species could not continue to expand and destroy resources at the current rate affected me deeply. The idea of burning mineral oil for transport began to become at anathema to me but still I loved flying, as I still do.


As a young university student I flew in a tiny two-seater plane from Masterton to Wanganui to Ardmore to Tauranga and back one weekend. It was so hot in the tiny cockpit that both pilot and I sat in our underpants. I learned of the power of thermals as we rocked our way over mountain ranges. The altimeter would register plummets of 1000 feet as we hit  air pockets and my abiding memory is of being airsick. Though I vomited towards my lap it remained clean. Instead our fall was so fast my vomit rose, spread all over the Perspex cockpit ceiling and slowly slid down the sides of the windows. Despite or perhaps because of this embarrassment my overwhelming memory is of being at one with the land and sky as I became enjoined in their dynamic interplay.


My one experience in a glider was of bliss. It was a surprise birthday gift and my senses were so overwhelmed I have never truly gathered them together again to truly remember the occasion.


On another occasion I found my self booked as a treat on a flight in a small commuter plane from Koromiko just out of Picton to Wellington. The plane bucked and shuddered with stress as it pounded its ways through the invisible walls of northerly gusts over the Queen Charlotte sounds and Cook Strait. The next morning I opened the Dominion broadsheet to view a burnt hole in a paddock at Koromiko. The plane had crashed on a subsequent flight killing those on board.


The downgrading and closure of the Lyttelton-Wellington sea ferry service in the early 1970s was a major blow. During my two decades living in Christchurch I flew several times to Wellington to visit my parents and other relatives in the North Island. It became a sacred experience for me. I learned to fast from food the day before so my senses were as utterly alive as they could be for the occasion. I would attempt to absorb the skies and this land that I am born of with every inch of my being during the short thirty-forty minute flight. Flying was such an incredible privilege and such a rare experience for me that I wished to absorb every fold and every turn of the land and every glint and every hue of the clouds for I might never have that privileged experience again. While those around me were sometimes pale, sweating and green with nausea and fear as we rocked and bumped over the Cook Strait I would be an oasis of stillness and bliss.


Watching our invasion of Iraq in 1991 and our media coverage of the slaughter I realised that our addictive use of mineral oil/gas could have only one consequence – the catastrophic collapse of humanity into global warfare in which many billions of people would perish. Thus I determined to never own a car again (I had two) and to not fly again.


Such decisions are extremely difficult in the NZ culture. Relatives twice gave us cars so our family “could have a normal life” and I was roundly abused for not providing my family “with the basics”. I was condemned as selfish and uncaring, often by those who ran four or five cars. It was only after my family broke up after 28 years and people saw that my daughter and her mother did not buy cars again that the abuse stopped.


Giving up flying has been even harder. I did fly from Wellington to Christchurch twice after 1991. On one occasion I found the air tickets sitting in my letter box as a dear friend wished me to be the brides’ father’s best man at the first wedding of his children. I was too poor at the time to find my own way there and used the tickets.

On the other occasion I succumbed to the intense pressure of my lover at that time to fly to her, though I begged to come by ferry and train.


However my 1991 apocalyptic vision remained with me, all our NZ media now conforms to the violent template I saw with the advent of TV3-CNN coverage of the Iraqi slaughter and by 2002 I realised that our abuse of our carbon and electrical potentials must result in major economic collapses by 2010 and global warfare would then be inevitable by 2015.


This insight, plus an increased appreciation of the unspeakable beauty and sublime balances of Earth’s atmosphere, resulted in my decision to never fly and thus trash this exquisite ecosystem again.


In itself the decision is easy. The sense of being an active steward of our wondrous airs is associated with great joy and a feeling of privilege to be alive to breathe it. It is however very difficult to share this experience in our addicted, dissonant culture. Few New Zealanders seem mindful of the vitality in their every breath and most assume it is their God-given right to destroy mineral oil on scale. They seem unable to imagine a world in which their role is otherwise. I say this in all kindness, for who knows what vital elements of existence I deny too.


It can be lonesome if not lonely at times not flying when all those around you continue to fly. Till recently I did not speak of my reasons for not flying as I knew I would be abused and dismissed as being self-righteous.

I detected that even my existence as a non-flyer raised levels of self-doubt and guilt in other people.

I am an avid traveller at heart and enjoy even the vicarious experience. After people have shown me their photos of their trip they have often said they enjoyed the experience with me more than the trip itself. I really am interested in this world. However, perhaps because everyone flies so often now and people feel it is a mundane activity or perhaps because the politics of flying is now more charged, I am less invited to share such experiences now.


I can say with some authority that nothing makes the light of interest die in the eyes of women so quickly as when they learn I don’t have a passport and don’t fly. Some who I have become more intimate with begin to express great frustration and dismiss me as “ narrow minded”, “self centred”. “very boring” and “lacking adventure”. When they have offered to pay my airfares so I can join them in their travels I smile and decline the offer as gently as I can and express my appreciation of their great generosity but to little avail. My gentle refusal is received as a personal rejection of them.


I began to write more this century about the wonders of the atmospheric balances that sustain us. It is impossible to write abut sane uses of our carbon potential without discussing the injustice of the costs of the vast subsidies given car, truck and jet users. In my writings I also began to point out in detail the great psychological truth that our actions are our prime message of existence.  I suspect many did not wish to be reminded of these inconvenient facts. I have noticed people now talk of their travel even less freely in my presence.


The truth was out, as is always is. It became only a matter of admitting it and trying to accept the responses with compassion.


About two years ago the NZ Listener published an article on the impacts of air travel on climate balances and the movement to cease flying. I finally felt free to come out of the closet and admit my decision not to fly is not because I don’t like flying or cannot afford to fly or I don’t like travelling or other reason but basically because flying is an inappropriate activity for me.


Now this may seem virtuous when stated like this and it is not as it seems.  I made the decision because it is a very rewarding one and in retrospect it may have served me well. For years my daughter, her husband and her mother have flown to India regularly. I would love to have joined them, as I would love to pay homage to those peoples who have sustained such great wisdom on our planet in the form of Yoga, meditation techniques and science in general. It so turns out I have a faulty heart and I realise now I could easily have died in the heat and dysentery of India.


As an aside, it so turns out I blew an optic nerve several years ago and thus now have diplopia of vision. Thus my decision to not use cars may have protected me and others from crashes before I understood this condition.


I like to think my daughter, who is about to fly with her husband and her mother to meet his family in Colombia, knows that it is not for lack of love that I do not and will not join her whatever happens in her travels. Today we have a farewell dinner together.


My own mother came to NZ as a war bride from London in 1946 and in my youth flying was only for the very rich. Thus she only saw her family in England twice again before they all died out. I know full well her deep affection for them. I believe my daughter knows the deep affection I have for her and though it may be very hard for her I like to think she catches a glimmer of the love for all, including all our children that underpins my decision not to fly. She is free to do as she will.


The decision not to fly is born of a myriad of risk calculations. I have concluded that human beings can affect the thermal balances that sustain us all. A global thermal build-up may not result in large net temperature change for climate processes are very dynamic. However humans cannot adapt to the more extremes of weather phenomena involved as feedback systems work more vigorously to sustain thermal stasis.


I have attended the lectures of almost all the world leading climatologists that visit NZ and read their works. In general I find them lacking science on scale and would not be surprised to find that much of their work lacks integrity. I study their lifestyles/language and detect great denial of change/stewardship. They don’t really believe what they teach and if all humans followed their model then we would be plunged into global warfare instantly.


Thus my decision not to fly as little to do with the utterances of the likes of Jim Salinger, Kevin Tremberth, Martin Manning, Andy Reisinger, David Wratt, Al Gore, Bill McKibben and 350, Greenpeace, IPCC and other so-called climate experts. My observations are that these folk enjoy less science than the average human being. Indeed in their denial of stewardship they destroy science on scale.  Their work could be proven as totally flawed tomorrow and it would make little difference to my decision not to fly. My views are based on a far more holistic appreciation of our wonderful carbon potential and Earth’s systems.


(Note this week hackers revealed the email exchanges of some of our leading climatologist’s and these reveal a little of their lack of science.).


In Bryan Crump’s interview with him on Nights Tom Bennion said how the decision to cease flying set in generated a whole new range of options and strategies. This is so very true.


Homo Sapiens are very consistent creatures in that our every act reveals the deeper nature of our psyche. Ultimately our actions shape the form of our intellect and our use of language. There is a fundamental striving for consistency throughout our psyches and this can involve the development of vast and sophisticated mechanisms of denial of the consequences of our activities if we sense they are unsustainable. However the truth of our decision to act in a certain way is always out. When our psyche is in dissonance with reality (change/stewardship) these coping mechanisms prevent us seeing, thinking and imagining alternative and perhaps more harmonious ways of living.


Thus it was only when I decided to never fly again, even if it broke my heart not to do so, that suddenly the true wonder of the atmosphere, the miraculous powers of carbon forms and other inspiring insights were opened to me. It was not a matter of feeling virtuous or righteous but rather being filled with a lovely sense of being more truly alive. Which is quite the contrary to the consequence one expects if one believes the barrage of airline ads we experience daily.


Travelling in planes necessarily insulates us from the greater reality. With the decision not to fly it becomes easier to imagine how a village somewhere will be fed for over a year using the mineral oil not combusted into pollution by an individual’s flight between continents. One can better hear the laughter of the children of the world. There is also less chance the village will be bombed and burned if it is cursed by being proximate to mineral oil reserves. One can better hear the screams of pain and feel the terror and anguish.


In summary, the act of not flying, seemingly inconvenient and costly at first, opens up a richness of experience and an enhanced appreciation of life that invigorates and inspires to our depths. An enhanced sense of harmony with all prevails. One is able to transcend and experience realms that jet users can never travel to. 



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Warning -All material needs editing and reviewing. My apologies for sudden changes in font.