Why choose a slow way to cross the Atlantic? Or ‘How we ended up on a cargo ship for a week’

I’m currently away travelling in North America for 6 months and got there by travelling on a cargo ship from Liverpool to Halifax, Nova Scotia (see here for a sister post describing the voyage)

I was motivated to choose this mode by considering my personal impact on climate change. Was this a misguided idea given that they’re powered by bunker fuel, or a smart low-carbon choice? I’ll explain how me and my partner came up with this decision below.

The Context: Travel and Aviation

With apologies for sporadic referencing of the ideas informing my thinking, here’s my rationale for questioning long-haul flights for personal travel in 3 steps…

1: I know from many (enjoyably geeky) years of looking into the numbers of my personal impact on climate change that taking a long-haul flight means taking responsibility for emitting a great deal of carbon dioxide. For example, a return flight from London to the west coast of America would mean more than 2 tonnes of CO2 on my balance sheet. (Try out a carbon calculator for your whole lifestyle or just for flights if you’re curious.) This compares to the UK average carbon footprint of around 9 tonnes a year (more if you consider the impact of overseas manufacturing for products consumed here).

2: To have the best chance of keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5° to avoid some of the worst impacts of a changing climate, we need to be getting down to something like 1-3 tonnes per year, the faster the better. Now, that carbon budget is for everything – heating our homes, travelling to work, food, consumer goods, so that’s not an easy ask! Some areas of life, like generating energy and urban mobility, have technological solutions that are going mainstream (like solar PV, bikeshare schemes, electric vehicles) that offer us good cause to hope to decarbonise. But for rapid long-haul aviation for the mass market it doesn’t look like there’s a techno-fix on the horizon – my understanding is that it’s likely to get more efficient and a small number of flights might sustainably(?) use biofuel, but most flights would still engender a large carbon footprint.

3: For that reason, I see the pathway towards sustainability within this sector as involving a shift in expectations and practice – more towards a norm of slower travel (with the exception of high-speed rail) and expecting to travel for a longer time if we go a long way, using emerging low-carbon modes of travel (for example, see VoyageVert or EcoShip for international travel by sea). A socially just approach to tackling climate change would seek a fair way to allocate the flights that would still be taken as we recalibrate our expectations and international links – not just leaving it to the market so that only the rich get to fly. The Free Ride campaign offers one angle on this from the UK; systems such as Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) or Personal Carbon Allowances might offer another (certainly nothing much will change without some sort of price on carbon). There’s a fascinating discussion to be had about which trips are worth the environmental impact and alternative ways of connecting, and with so many personal and business relationships that cross continents, any shift would need to be a gradual one.

Making it personal: How we chose a cargo ship

For all the reasons that one might travel – seeing friends and family, meeting new people and cultures, developing professional relationships – a trip to North and Central America was on my wish list and my partner’s too.

But there’s no convenient, affordable low-carbon option for transatlantic travel on the menu at present. And do we even go at all? I’ve only even been on one long-distance trip by plane (to New York in 1999) and since I learnt about both climate change and the impacts of aviation back in 2001 I’ve not done so again. Therefore flying across the Atlantic wasn’t a decision I could take lightly!

If we were to make the trip, our options were to fly (perhaps choosing the shortest possible route or most efficient airline), take a cargo ship, work/volunteer as crew on a sailing boat, or pay to be passengers on a sailing ship. Each one is very different in terms of cost, duration and what’s asked of the passengers.

Four modes of sense-making for sustainability

We took a semi-structured approach to thinking it through, building upon a simple heuristic framework of ‘Four Modes of Sense-making for Sustainability’ that I’ve been developing (as a rough and evolving concept) over the past year. I should say by way of context that we’re both very structured thinkers in our different ways! This means making lists, mindmaps, considering different options and perspectives and talking things through with each other and friends. In part this links to having studied Permaculture design, which is awash with tools to help organise thinking and in part, it’s just our nature.

After weighing up options over many months, it took the best part of a dedicated day discussing this in depth to get to a decision that felt right. I presented my thinking in terms of this framework at the Behaviour Energy and Climate Change (BECC) Conference in Washington DC in October 2018 see here. I’ll summarise some of the main ideas below.

Aspects of our decisions, mapped onto four modes of sense-making

Making our automatic thinking conscious

Issues of personal and collective identity and emotion tend to be the engines of personal decision making, more than ‘rational’ evaluation against a set of criteria. As Jonathan Haidt and many other psychologists have highlighted, articulating motivations for decisions can often be an exercise in justifying something that we rapidly decided unconsciously. Our challenge to combat this was to discuss and reflect, bringing our motivations out into the open to test how well-founded they are and what courses of action we could live with.

Modes 1 and 2: Personal and Collective Identity 

Like many people we love travel and all it can offer. A long-distance trip over many months was an appealing idea – my partner had not done this and I had done so once. For many people, this idea of travel as a means of self development and expression is a massive emotional pull, and isn’t held back by environmental concerns. The big challenge for us was reconciling this pull with our sense of identity as environmentalists, which has meant, for a long time, avoiding long-haul flights. For me personally, this outlook goes back over 15 years and brings up strong feelings around contributing towards harm for others. So on a personal level we both had strong and conflicting emotional responses.

In terms of collective identity, I teach about how social norms have a strong influence on behaviour in my Masters module on environmental behaviour at De Montfort University, but I also know it from lived experience! For this issue, I felt supported in questioning flying by friends who, like us, are looking for ways to both travel and live lightly, and public voices and organisations that reaffirm that outlook (books like Ed Gillespie’s Only Planet, or Beyond Flying, and projects like VoyageVert and EcoShip). On the other hand, as an academic, my profession is about educating, learning and applying knowledge, which needs to be an international endeavour. Frequent long-haul travel is the norm; cheap flights are the default transport mode, even within Europe, despite their having many times the carbon footprint. So whilst again I can draw strength from academics like the climate change researcher Kevin Anderson who critique norms of frequent long-haul travel in academia, it can feel both professionally risky and just plain socially awkward to push too hard on this issue.

So, reflecting and naming these issues around emotion and identity was a useful step and challenged us to move beyond an auto-pilot decision. To get to our decision we needed to also bring in some thinking around the possible impacts of our different options.

Modes 3 and 4: Impacts now and where this might take us

A mode 3 approach would focus on the tangible, measurable facts for each option – the carbon footprint of different modes of travel, the costs, duration, etc. This was helpful information, but didn’t give us a rule to make a decision (lowest cost, or lowest duration weren’t what we were after!).

The breakthrough concept for me here was around what I’d call Transition thinking (an aspect of mode 4, on indirect impacts). By that I mean visioning a more sustainable future, and backcasting to consider what actions might help us get there. My outlook here is infomed by my prior involvement in the Transition movement and academic thinking on ‘Sustainability Transitions’.

OK, so aviation isn’t sustainable now, we thought, but what kind of world do we want? What came up for me was a world that rapidly decarbonises, that looks to develop technologies that will enable low-carbon long-distance travel and which is principled about how our limited carbon budget is spent on flights in the interim (otherwise those with money will fly, those without will not).

The picture this gave me was of most future low-carbon transatlantic trips being slow, certainly not as cheap as today and in some way (without the extravagant resource use of cruise ships) interesting – that is, about the experience, as well as getting from A to B. Any long-haul flights in these circumstances might be as short and efficient as possible – Norwegian Air is setting a good example on this front.

Real-world non-flying options today are paying for a cruise ship (higher carbon footprint and more polluting than flying), crewing a sailing boat (good if you are confident about sailing!), paying to be a passenger on a sailing ship (though can cost upwards of £2000 per person per crossing – beyond our budget) or paying to be a cargo ship passenger (piggybacking on a craft going for another reason). We picked the cargo ship.

If our decision rule had been more strongly Mode 3, we’d have rejected this choice, as our ship is still running on fossil fuels. However, the transition thinking approach (mode 4) made it something we could live with – modelling the kind of trip that is accessible now and aligns well with our vision of the tone of future transatlantic travel (slower, costlier, for-the-experience). We’re also doing it as part of a long trip (six months) and I’m personally looking to integrate work and leisure in this trip – again exploring a different model for long distance travel. Another bonus is that the unusual travel mode offers a great starting point for discussion with friends, colleagues and the wider world.

Pulling the four modes together

So, we decided to make the trip (and the crossing was enjoyable and productive), but I think it was genuinely up for grabs whether or not we’d go. If the emotional pull was stronger, with close friends or family overseas, it would have been much harder to be open to not making the trip.

I see so many other strong feelings and values being bound up in this issue, in particular our sense of whether our actions are meaningfully contributing to a wider change in society (mode 4), our perception of whether we’re on our own in taking action (mode 2), our sense of doing the right thing by our own values (mode 1), not to mention our judgement on where the science of travel is going.

This is tricky territory, so I’ve got the greatest respect for anyone who’s wrestled with these questions and are finding a path through. This post is about one trip and one rationale, but I’ve been influenced by many other folk grappling with the same questions – these include some good friends making transatlantic trips around the same time and choosing to sail as crew, sail as passengers or to fly. Rob Hopkins, Kevin Anderson and others have written good reflective pieces on this, and the book ‘Beyond Flying’ is a great exploration of engagement with this question by individuals, businesses and campaigners.

Whether or not you see lifestyle change around this issue as having value, it’s certainly a great topic for illuminating the challenges and trade-offs of moving towards a lower carbon society.

Further Reading:

Beyond Flying: Fourteen short essays on how to engage with reducing the impacts of flying, published by Green Books.

Rob Hopkins’s thoughtful engagement with the question of if and when to fly to serve action to care for our climate is really inspiring. Some links: a piece explaining a choice to give up flying, and a later pieces on a rationale and evaluation of flying to the US for a potentially transformative speaking tour, and a more recent piece on making a European flight for a speaking tour arguably worthwhile.

Hypocrites in the Air – a provocative blog piece by Prof Kevin Andersonquestioning the value of long-haul travel in academia, in particular by climate researchers such as himself.

Influencing Behaviour Change by not flying: this dissertation by Steve Westlake looks at whether people in leadership roles influence their peers by giving up flying and unpacks many of the common patterns of thinking around this issue.

On the Divided Self: From Jonathan Haidt’s book the Happiness Hypothesis – a good overview of aspects of human decision making that informed my thinking around four modes.

Pioneers in Sustianable transatlantic travel: