Monday, August 22, 2022

The privilege of not flying

This blog has been dormant almost 2 months! That’s partly because of a 4-week concert break. But also, as I mentioned in my last post, because my concert write-ups (which are also a “web log”) have taken the bulk of my energy for reflection. While I do intend to resume distinct postings on this blog, I will also cross-post here whenever I post a new concert write-up.

The most recent write-ups are of the Rutland Town and Strafford concerts in late July. 

One thing that comes up a lot in discussions of the tour is how I am coping with the supposed hardship of a no-flight lifestyle. As I wrote in the Strafford write-up:

Something I try to convey at all my concerts is that renouncing flying has not been a privation, but a boon. You can’t do everything, and if I were flying all over the world I would not be tramping all over Vermont. There is so much here, so much beauty, so much variety. Going from town to town can feel like traveling between worlds and even centuries.

Because our daughter had a dance performance the day after the Strafford concert in nearby Corinth, my wife and I set up a tent at our son’s college roommate Bryn’s place in Chelsea...

Camping by Bryn’s pond, waking up to three (!) kingfishers battling for this prime territory in the pre-dawn, hiking nearby Wright’s is hard to see this as self-denial.

You can read more at the write-up, along with many pretty pictures!

This reminded me of something I read decades ago by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, famous for identifying and naming the psychological “flow” state. In the article “The Costs and Benefits of Consuming”, Csikszentmihalyi writes:

In one study we correlated the happiness that American adults reported experiencing in their free time with the amount of fossil and electrical energy that the activity they were doing at the time consumed (Graef, Gianinno, and Csikszentmihalyi 1981). If a person was reading a magazine when the pager signaled, for example, more energy was expended than if he or she had been reading a book, since producing a magazine (in terms of manufacturing paper, printing, sales, distribution, and so on) requires more BTUs of energy per unit of reading time than it takes to produce a book. Thus if there were a direct relationship between energy consumption and quality of experience, a person should be happier when reading a magazine than when reading a book. Instead, we found the opposite: a slight but significant negative relationship between the average BTU load of activities and the happiness people experienced while doing them.

People fly to get places, not for the joy of going through airport security. But the point is worth pondering. If you are lucky enough to have the option, are you happier driving to work, or taking the train? Taking the bus, or biking or walking?

Of course, as with everything from highway suburbs to industrial farming, our social and physical infrastructure has been set for a world that is unsustainable. Even highly privileged individuals are unwitting victims of larger societal choices. People have been establishing trans- and intercontinental extended families, for instance, with a casualness that comes from the expectation (unlike in past centuries) that they could see their relatives across the country or across the world almost as easily and often as if they lived a few towns over. Changing that expectation entails a lot of emotional adjustment and trauma. 

That is a harsh reality. But the alternative to making deep changes in privileged lifestyles is incomparably, inconceivably more tragic. The earth breakdown that is now so clearly underway, if not halted as much as is still possible, will mean at the least the end of organized human society as we understand it.

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