At this time of an intensifying climate breakdown, it is easy to experience a strong sense of guilt about the carbon emissions from the means of transport we take especially in our long-distance trips. I, myself, sometimes get obsessed about the carbon footprint of a flight, which is becoming more and more visible as airlines include the kilo equivalents of CO2 in the tickets they issue or as online calculators convert every one of our actions and purchases into emissions figures. But is this the right path to follow in addressing the worsening climate crisis?
In my recent book, Philosophy for Passengers, I explored the various emotions and moods, which passengers may experience during their journeys, from boredom through distractedness to elation. Guilt may be added to this list now that eco-trauma, eco-anxiety, and climate depression become widespread conditions, especially among the younger generation. While we ride various means of transport, guilt rides on us, weighing as the heaviest luggage on passenger conscience.
As an affect, guilt is thoroughly negative and reactive: it brings us down, prompting guilt-ridden subjects to beat down on themselves. Just as fear (for our children’s and grandchildren’s future, for instance) is insufficient as a motivation for radical change, so guilt is inadequate as an emotional backdrop for environmental action. In fact, it may even be counterproductive if it has a paralyzing effect, not only weighing down but also binding us with its invisible ties from within. Guilt not only makes those who feel its sting unhappy, but it also stops thinking in its tracks, preventing clear-headed analyses of the situation, its main causes and possible solutions.
It is important to remember, nonetheless, that the climate crisis is a cumulative effect of actions carried out by many generations and, within those, of groups pertaining to particular classes, geographical regions, sexes, and so on. You cannot be held accountable for this long history, even though you can also be the turning point where real change happens, the point at which this history is drastically altered in its projection into the future. And, of course, the effects of passenger activities, too, vary according to classes: the carbon footprint of someone flying in the economy class is significantly less than of business or first-class passengers (who occupy much more space in the plane) or of those traveling in private jets. Therefore, the first step in dealing with guilt is, simultaneously, viewing the issue from a more general and a more differentiated perspective: the cumulative history of emissions and the uneven contribution of each, in keeping with their socio-economic and passenger classes. This double approach is particularly fitting for the world of passengers, where the universal condition and its rigid stratifications coexist.
Another attitude, which may play a role in associating passengers and guilt, is passivity. Aboard a plane, a train, a bus, or a ship, we allow ourselves to be carried along toward our destination, more or less passively. Guilt is also a passivity-inducing emotion. But the passenger condition is not one of pure passivity; it frees us to do what we like during the trip (nap, read a book, play a computer game, watch a movie, work on a laptop) or… not to do anything in particular. There is an ever-present possibility of actively transforming passenger passivity, the possibility which is missing in the case of guilt. Being a negative emotion, it can only induce a reaction, not an action, and, more often than not, a reaction targeting the guilt-ridden person herself or himself.
If passenger experience extends beyond the actual occasions when we travel in various means of transport to the paradigm of individual and collective existence in the twenty-first century, then passenger guilt also has a propensity to touch upon the most varied areas of life outside these trips. The existence of apps and calculators of the carbon footprint that involve not only flights and car rides but also purchases, sending emails, and other mundane activities is the case in point here. This indicates two things. First, the background against which guilt sends its tentacles almost everywhere is energy. We view energy as something to be extracted and burnt, whether outside our bodies (factories, means of transport, and so forth) or within ourselves. When we have an inkling of the violence inherent in such a notion and practice of energy, it triggers negative emotions that embrace virtually all of reality. Second, a vehicle for the widespread generalization of carbon guilt is number, or, more precisely, the translation of everything into numbers, the quantification of reality. Energy production and consumption, its byproducts and efficient or inefficient use are measured numerically, again, in every area of life. Excessive bodyfat and CO2 emissions fall under the same heading of inefficiency—and they produce the same sense of shame.
Although it is a part of the problem, quantification is uncritically adopted as a means toward the envisioned solution. Are our lives defined by the numbers of steps a day we take, our diets by the numbers of calories, and the content of our existence by the quantitatively defined carbon footprint? The questions of where we are heading to and why disappear from the horizon of this way of seeing the world and ourselves, as does also the question of what would happen if we were not to take that plane, for instance, to visit a close family member we have not spent time with in months or even years. Such indifference of numeric values dovetails with the condition of passengers, who are all riding together but also apart from one another, regardless of the purpose of their journeys.
So, what should we do about the sense of guilt that may well up just as we embark on that flight or (less frequently) board that train? My suggestion is that, instead of rejecting it, we should fully assume and make transparent to ourselves our condition as passengers both in the means of transport we take and in life. This does not mean ignoring the environmental impact of our actions and taking a free ride on the unfolding environmental disaster (indeed, there is no such thing as a free ride: the bill arrives at our doorsteps with floods, landslides, severe forest fires, and droughts…). Rather, the idea is to take advantage of the freedom to act that opens up within the passivity of the passenger condition, transforming it from within. Renunciation, asceticism, guilt are not viable options: even the Buddha on his path to enlightenment rejected extreme self-deprivation and recommended “the middle way” between the excesses of superfluity and dearth.
It seems easier said than done to transform our passenger condition from within. What does it entail, concretely, with regard to carbon emissions and the climate breakdown? One example of this transformation would be to reinvent travel, considering how both our daily and less frequently undertaken dislocations could work in synergy with the elements (air and water flows, for instance), rather than spend energy in resisting the elements. Efforts of the kind have been made by the Berlin-based Argentinian artist Tomas Saraceno, whose artworks accompany the chapters of Philosophy for Passengers. In a multi-disciplinary project “Aerocene,” carried out with scientists and engineers from the MIT in the United States, Saraceno conducted experiments in fossil-free flights, factoring in, among other things, wind patterns around the globe. Their collaborative creative research provided the ground-work (and the air-work) for travel that does not harm the living planet and that reconciles us with the elemental fold without the luddite demand to give up on all technology. Projects such as Saraceno’s and his team’s are vital; after all, a diverse social ecology is indispensable to an ecologically healthy planet.