** The following essay has been written after I have been invited to write an essay through which I argue on my advocacy on living a childfree life, for a book on critical animal studies that will be published next year and I recently published it. I recommended to bring in the conversation the problem with aviation too, as it’s an almost taboo subject within the vegan movement… It has been a great honour to receive this offer, I am happy that I worked on it and gathered all the relevant info and I hope that it will be food for thought and it will generate some reflection. Feel free to share it through social media. **

The Vegan Society defines veganism as «a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.» yet there are many people who only follow a plant-based diet, some for environmental reasons (as a way to mitigate their carbon footprint) and others for health reasons.

This essay will focus on two out of those three types of people, the ethical vegans and the people who follow a plant-based diet for environmental reasons who will be called in this essay ‘plant-based environmentalists’. In the pages that follow, it will be argued that deciding to live a childfree and flightfree life, is a choice that makes the biggest impact on the environment and the other animals with whom Homo Sapiens share this planet. Thus, procreation and aviation – two major parts of most people’s lives in the global North – must be challenged and re-evaluated.

In 2017, research showed being childfree or at least having one less child is the best thing someone can do for the environment, since every additional child accounts to an average for the so called “developed” countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission per year. Following to that, 1.6 tCO2e is the carbon footprint of a single roundtrip transatlantic flight while eating a plant-based diet saves only 0.8 tCO2e per year (Wynes & Nicholas, 2017). Procreation is by far the largest contribution a human could make to climate change in their life. By not having a child or having one less child, hundreds of tonnes of carbon pollution could be mitigated.

Some facts about Aviation

Aviation has been proved to be the most climate damaging form of transport (Cohen et al., 2016) while interestingly, less than 10% of the world population have ever set foot on an aircraft (Scott et al., 2012). In fact, 10 years ago this estimation was even considered to be around just 5% but since it is yet regarded as “old, but most recent”, a conservative “10%” is used by Stay Grounded which is self-identifying as a “growing global network of initiatives, organisations and activists working together worldwide to bring forward a just, environmentally sound transport system and to rapidly reduce air travel”– an initiative hosted by the Austrian NGO Periskop (Stay Grounded position paper, 2021).

Furthermore, a more recent study, published in 2020, estimates that only 2% to 4% of the world’s population had the opportunity to fly internationally in 2018 and it concludes that just 1% of the global population (e.g wealthy frequent flyers) is responsible for half of commercial aviation emissions, which in that year accounted for 5,9% of all human-caused global heating (Gossling & Humpe, 2020, Lee et al., 2020).

Thus, flying less is indeed a matter of environmental and social justice, as Flightfree UK very well illustrates in a graphic shared on their social media.
Aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions (Stay Grounded position paper, 2021) while its emissions (NOx derivatives included) are currently warming the climate at approximately three times the rate of that associated with aviation carbon emissions alone, as it warms the Earth’s surface through both CO2 and net non-CO2 contributions (Lee et al., 2021).

Bullshit flights & Ghost flights

Bullshit flights

Some flights are unavoidable while some are even lifesaving, in other words, they can be considered as legitimate. For example, when an animal advocate flies somewhere in order to escort some rescued non-human animals to their home or to a sanctuary/rescue centre. For the latter, sometimes, when it comes to wild animals, it’s not even necessary for a person to escort them, but the transportation itself is based on air travel for the sake of the rescued individuals, in order to minimize their distress. Other legitimate flights can be ones for emergency reasons (disaster relief), safe escape routes for refugees, or visiting family in another continent for a considerable amount of time (when there is no alternative transport mode).

However, more often than not, people book tickets for the so-called “bullshit flights”: “Analogous to the concept of bullshit jobs – jobs that are meaningless and harmful for society, bullshit flights are unnecessary, frivolous and unfair”. Examples of such flights are the ones booked for weekend trips (and especially domestic flights), the use of private jets of course, incredibly cheap international low-cost flights etc. (Stay Grounded, 2021). Of course, this term would annoy the majority of people, as these spontaneous trips are giving birth to feelings of excitement and fun, but at which cost? Aren’t they other ways – more environmentally friendly – to have fun? As the relevant article of Stay Grounded network rightfully expresses: “The idea is to link [the notion of bullshit flights] with the institutional and societal structures behind them – with the economy and power relations that lead to bullshit flights. The power of the aviation industry exists both through a broad consensus that flights are fun, or could be fun if one could afford it, as well as through state subsidies, effective lobbying and greenwashing. It exists due to a lack of alternatives to travel, due to globalized trade, and a growing gap between rich and poor.”

Thus, the problem is, at its core, systemic. Not many people have the practical ability or can even afford slow travel (travel by other means) as grind culture has people overworking and only able to take a couple of weeks off, twice a year, in a way that’s even romanticized and glorified through the mentality “go big and don’t go home”, especially Millennials.

Nevertheless, it’s still surprising how often and how easily, plant-based environmentalists and ethical vegans use airplanes.

Disclaimer: The term ‘bullshit’ is speciesist and it should rather be ‘humanshit’ because bulls and their faeces have nothing to do with our wrongdoings.

Ghost flights

Another astonishing type of flights, which isn’t known by many, is the so called “Ghost flights” who are defined as those with no passengers, or less than 10% of passenger capacity. Their reason of existence is due to the fact that airlines must normally run 80% of their flights, empty or not, to retain their landing slots (…). For example, an average of 500 climate damaging ghost flights left the UK each month in 2021 (The Guardian, 2022). A parliamentary petition was set up, calling for an end to such flights taking place and it has been signed by 16,968 people. The governmental response was the following: “The Government continues to provide alleviation from normal airport slot rules to prevent airlines from operating environmentally damaging ‘ghost’ flights during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Ghost flights and bullshit flights are the epitome of human greed and selfishness.

The truth about Carbon offset

A carbon offset is a reduction or removal of emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. Carbon offsetting is not a solution though because although indeed land-based offsets (capturing carbon through forests and soils) are good for the environment, they should be considered as a removal, not as an offset to justify further fossil fuel emissions because temperatures won’t stabilize or reduce while we are still emitting fossil fuels into the atmosphere. In other words, we can’t keep digging up, extracting and burning fossil fuels that emit fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere, whilst thinking that we will remove these emissions by planting trees, because this doesn’t actually reduce atmospheric emissions or atmospheric concentrations over a millennia. And that’s because when we take up extra carbon through the planting of trees, this stays in the fast carbon cycle (continuous carbon cycles between the atmosphere, ocean and land), cycling back into the atmosphere and it doesn’t return to geological storage on time scales relevant to humans — meaning that the process of carbon moving from the fast carbon cycle to the effectively permanent geological reserves (e.g., fossil fuel) doesn’t happen in anything less than a thousand of years, as Kate Dooley explains, a research fellow at Melbourne University’s Climate & Energy College, with policy expertise on forest governance, climate change and carbon accounting (Brinknews, 2021 & 2022).

So, carbon offset can’t sugar-coat the selfish need of flying to exotic locations. Carbon-offset actually feels like eating “humanely slaughtered” animals, after having decided to go vegetarian. As there is no way to slaughter humanely anyone who wants to live, there is no way to travel by plane without harming the environment.

Procreation in the midst of the sixth mass extinction

While we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, doesn’t it sound a little bit paradoxical to procreate? Our species today occupies or has at least transformed almost 90% of planet Earth’s land (Latham et al., 2014) and while our population is growing, environmental degradation grows along, generating pollution and fragmentation of wildlife habitats and most importantly, this unlimited growth of our population disrupts the communication and the mating behaviours of the other species and as a result, it affects negatively their reproductive success (Candolin & Wong, 2013).
Trying to exonerate our species as a whole, some people would blame capitalism, consumption and the industrial revolution instead, claiming also that it’s the people from the Global North who are to blame, and not humans altogether, but sadly, we are the culprits, and there are historical proofs counting back some tens of thousands of years ago, which demonstrate clearly how we are the deadliest animal ever existed on planet Earth.

Homo Sapiens – the ecological serial killer

It all starts with the arrival of homo Sapiens in Australia around 45.000 years ago, a period of another climate change that the system would be probably able to recuperate as it had happened previously to that moment, but the combination of it, along with human hunting, devastated the Australian megafauna and that’s because these marsupial lions (the continent’s largest predator), diprotodons and giant (200-kilogram & two-metre) kangaroos, along with huge koalas, enormous flightless birds, dragon- like lizards and snakes five metres long – they all had no time to evolve a fear of humankind and thus, before they could do so, just within a few thousand years, they were gone.

The giant diprotodon existed in Australia for 1.5 million years and successfully survived at least ten previous ice ages along with the first peak of the last ice age, around 70,000 years ago. But more than 90 per cent of Australia’s megafauna disappeared 45.000 years ago, and among them was the diprotodon.

Out of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing more than fifty kilograms, twenty-three became extinct. Furthermore, a considerable number of smaller species also disappeared at that time and as a result, food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were broken and had to be rearranged. For millions of years, this was the most important transformation of the Australian ecosystem and the appearance of Homo Sapiens at that moment has not been a coincidence. Especially if we take into account the fact that oceanic species did not disappear and that’s because Homo Sapiens didn’t have yet the knowledge to conquer the sea too. Whereas if this massive extinction was a consequence of climate change, sea animals would have to disappear as well.

Similar ecological disasters have taken place in so many other areas, and the narrative is always the same:

1) New Zealand: Within a couple of centuries after the Maoris, New Zealand’s first human colonisers, reached the islands (about 800 years ago), the majority of the local megafauna was extinct, along with 60 per cent of all bird species that one could encounter over there by then.
2) America: Around 16.000 years ago, Homo Sapiens reached the western hemisphere landmass and it was the first and sole human species that did so. Animals and plants that have been unknown to Africa and Asia were there flourishing, only to get extinct within 2000 years of humans’ arrival. North America lost 34 out of 47 large animal species while South America lost 50 out of 60. To name some of them: Mastodons – rodents the size of bears, oversized lions, giant ground sloths (up to eight tons and reached a height of six metres), sabre – tooth cats (disappeared after thriving for more than 30 million years), herds of native American horses and camels, along with thousands of species of smaller mammals, reptiles, birds, and even insects and parasites also, they all became extinct after humans set foot in the Americas.
3) Cuba and Hispaniola (at the Caribbean Sea): Scientists who look for fossilised bones and petrified faeces have stated that the freshest dung balls and the most recent camel bones date to the period when humans flooded America. Only in one area they have discovered younger dung balls, in Cuba and Hispaniola, where they found petrified ground-sloth scat dating to exactly the time when the first humans managed to cross the Caribbean Sea and settle these two large islands.
4) Wrangel Island (on top of Siberia) in the Arctic Ocean: The last mammoths ever existed, disappeared from that island about 4000 years ago, right after the first humans reached it, while by then they were flourishing for millions of years. They had already retreated from Eurasia and North America from where they disappeared 10.000 years ago.
5) Galapagos islands: Uninhabited by humans until the nineteenth century, they managed to preserve by then their unique diversity of animal species, including their famous giant
tortoises, who, like the ancient diprotodons, showed no fear to humans so they were considered to be extinct for the last 100 years ago, but -sadly for them-, one individual was recently found… (If only they could stay unfound and unbothered)
6) Madagascar: Some majestic animals were living and thriving there, like the elephant birds and the giant lemurs but they suddenly vanished, along with most of the other large animals of Madagascar, about 1,500 years ago – precisely when the first humans arrived on the island.
7) Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Caledonia, Samoa and Tonga, the Marquis Islands, Easter Island, the Cook Islands and Hawaii: A similar wave of extinction took place in all these places with hundreds of species (birds, insects, snails and other local inhabitants) being killed off by humans, directly or indirectly.

and almost every one of the thousands of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Arctic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea (Harari, 2014 and references therein).

Hence, our species is indeed the deadliest animal ever existed on Earth, as Harari rightfully claims in his book and if we add to that inherent deadly nature of us, the current technological “needs” of ours, along with our daily need for power (electricity) because we never go to bed when the sun sets, as we have this greed for more hours being up, out and about, there is no question why more and more people who care about the Earth and the other animals decide to live childfree nowadays.

Even if everyone was able to live off the grid, the very manufacture of solar panels and batteries is highly destructive for the environment (adding to this the fact that batteries don’t live forever and they need to be replaced every 5-8 years), there is no environmentally friendly vehicle (other than wooden bicycles possibly), there is only one company that manufactures ethical and sustainable smartphones (which do not meet the needs of many people) and no similar computers exist yet. But even if they existed, having this alternative, doesn’t mean that their construction has no impact for the environment.
One could say that both plant-based environmentalists and ethical vegans who travel by plane or/ and procreate, may suffer unbeknownst to them, from cognitive dissonance, a mental conflict that occurs when a person’s behaviour and beliefs do not align, which in that case could be called climate dissonance.

So, there is no way around the truth: It’s not possible for humans to not be destructive for the other animals and the Earth. The more ethical vegans and plant-based environmentalists realize it, the better.

On Parenthood & Adoption

There is nothing wrong with parenthood. It’s natural for the majority of people (not everyone feels this need neither everyone is appropriate to become a parent) to feel that need. However, with so many kids having being brought into existence by irresponsible or sick people who can’t take proper care of them, along with the unlucky kids who lose their parents while they are still young, it would be better to give them a chance to grow in a family, so they don’t get raised in orphanages / hospitals.

For many non-human animal advocates against procreation, the thinking is similar to “adopt, don’t shop”. As long as there are kids with no parents, people should adopt instead of procreating.

On the other hand, adoption itself is often problematic, not only because many are resulting from crimes such as abduction and sale of, and trafficking in children, but also because even the legal procedure in many cases is so costly that it has become an option only for privileged people. Furthermore, in many countries, the whole exhausting bureaucratic procedure, has an emotional toll and is very discriminative towards people of minority groups.
The problem lies, once again, on the system and it needs to be addressed with a multi-disciplinary approach so more people can have access to ethical adoption and as a result less people would procreate.

Bibliography

Brinknews, Dooley, K. (2021, March 7). Carbon Offsets Do Not Reduce Carbon Emissions, Only Delay Them. Retrieved from https://www.brinknews.com/carbon-offsets-do-not-reduce-carbon-emissions-only-delay-them/

Brinknews, Dooley, K. (2022, March 1). Carbon Offsets Are Not Carbon Reductions. Retrieved from https://www.brinknews.com/carbon-offsets-are-not-carbon-reductions/

Candolin, U. & Wong, B.B. M. (2013) Behavioural responses to a changing world: Mechanisms and consequences. Oxford University Press.

Cohen, S.A., Higham, J., Gössling, S. Peeters, P. & Eijgelaar, E. (2016) Finding effective pathways to sustainable mobility: bridging the science–policy gap, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 24:3, 317-334, DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2015.1136637

Gössling, S. & Humpe, A. (2020). The global scale, distribution and growth of aviation: Implications for climate change. Global Environmental Change. 65(1). DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102194

Harari, Y.N. (2014). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Random House Group Limited

Latham, J., Cumani, R., Rosati, L. & Bloise, M. (2014). Global land cover share (1) [ Food and Agricultural Organization]. http://www.fao.org/uploads/media/glc-share-doc.pdf

Lee, D.S., Fahey, D.W., Skowron, A., Allen, M.R., Burkhardt, U., … Wilcox, L.J. (2021). The contribution of global aviation to anthropogenic climate forcing for 2000 to 2018, Atmospheric Environment 244. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2020.117834.

Scott, D., Gössling, S. & Hall, C.M. (2012): Tourism and Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Mitigation (p.109). Routledge, Taylor & Francis group.

Stay Grounded position paper (2020). 13 Steps for a Just Transport System and for Rapidly Reducing Aviation. Retrieved from https://stay-grounded.org/position-paper/#sdfootnote2sym

Stay Grounded (2021). “Bullshit Flights”: A debate on legitimate air traffic. Retrieved from https://stay-grounded.org/bullshit-flights-a-debate-on-legitimate-air-travel

The Guardian, Carrington D. (2022, March 31). Ghost flights from UK running at 500 a month, data reveals. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/31/ghost-flights-from-uk-running-at-500-a-month-data-reveals#:~:text=during%20the%20period.-,Ghost%20flights%20are%20defined%20as%20those%20with%20no%20passengers%2C%20or,arrivals%2C%20or%20any%20domestic%20flights.

Wynes, S. & Nicholas, K. A. (2017). The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters, 12 (7).

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Anita Chan & Adelle Goodman for proofreading it and helping me out to express in a better way some of my thoughts and many thanks to Sarat Colling for some insightful comments that contributed to the end result.

Elisabeth Dimitras