The Peterson No-Fly Zone

Over the last two months, I have made a drastic and dramatic decision. No, Glen and I are not adopting a human child; our cats, Wally & Emma, are more than we can handle at the moment. And, no, I am not coming out more, although there is always room for more coming out.

For those who do not know, I am a performance artist and queer Bible scholar who travels throughout North America presenting at universities, seminaries, conferences, theaters, and churches. I live in Central Pennsylvania, a gay Quaker in Amish Mennonite Country, and I communte to California and Tennessee and a bunch of other places to do my work. And within that context, I have made a drastic and dramatic decicion.

I have decided that for the next five years or more I will not travel by plane within North America. No more flights from Pennsylvania to San Francisco or Vancouver or Memphis or Mexico City for business or pleasure. Other than in the case of an emergency, I have officially grounded myself.

Why? Short answer: It’s because of Climate Change and the excessive individual role flying has in pumping CO2 and other Greenhouse forming gases into the atmosphere. I have already flown much more than the average earthling. My individual contribution to the climate change compared with most people is off the charts, even with over ten years of being a vegan and seven years living without a car. For me, I cannot ethically fly any longer.

I recognize that this choice in and of itself will not drastically change the world at large. Nations, lawmakers, institutions, and businesses will have the largest impact in addressing the current global climate crisis. I have little to no power over what they choose, but I exercise vast amounts of agency over my own choices.

And with a choice like this, well, the world becomes a different place for me. In fact, it opens up opportunities previous unknown to me. (More about that in a future post.)

Notice I stated I will no longer fly within North America. I said nothing about flights to Europe or the UK or South Africa. The grief at the thought of possibly never seeing some of the dearest people I know, people who happen to live in Sweden, Malta, Northern Ireland, Wales, England, South Africa, Spain, and Norway, seizes up my heart and brings a tight sob immediately to my throat. I do not know about that yet. I understand that longer flights oddly have less impact than multiple shorter ones (something to do with disproportionate amount of fuel needed in take off and landing.) I know that I could also look into purchasing carbon off-sets to help balance out the carbon I expend. Today I do not have to make those decisions.

Instead today I am looking into train schedules for trips to Greensboro, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Albuquerque, and I’m planning a bus ride to Nashville. The choice to ground myself limits me, and it opens doors.

I welcome your comments.



This post has 27 Comments

  1. Jonathan Gillette on January 31, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    Last time I was on a flight from DC to Phoenix, the pilot told us how much fuel we used, but per person it came to about 20 gallons a person. Driving would use a whole heck of alot more!

  2. Dharma Kelleher on January 31, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Good for you, Peterson!

  3. Jennifer Corgan on January 31, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    The earth has gone thru cooling and heating since it was formed. Ice ages and warming periods..What is happenng is natural. We are more likely to go into an ice age then becoming much more warmer…Remember that movie? I forget the name….You are entitled to do this though. BUT when governemnts start telling people how to live, that is where th line is drawn……..

  4. Kelly on January 31, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Props to you, Peterson. It’s hard to make large sacrifices based on personal ethics that hardly even occur to other people. I’m proud of you and I love you. Try to schedule another train to Vancouver 😛

  5. Gil Skidmore (@gilskidmore) on January 31, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    So glad that you will still consider flying to Europe – we would miss you so much! I’ve always enjoyed travelling by train, both in America and in the UK and as I can’t drive a car I’ve done a lot of it.

  6. Tanya Jones (@decombustion) on January 31, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Thank you for doing this – you are quite right in your analysis and mildly heroic in walking the walk (with locomotive assistance). Individual actions are necessarily small, but have a huge impact. I must confess, though, that my heart fell when I first saw your tweet, as I waded through mud at Greenbelt to see you last year and do hope to do so again. By the way, we’ve been nine years without a car now, and never been happier or healthier.

  7. p2son on January 31, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Jonathan, you don’t know how much I want to believe that! But air travel is distinctly different from ground travel in several ways. It not only uses fossil fuels–petroleum-based jet fuel, it also emits methane directly into the atmosphere during the flight.

    Calculating carbon can be like looking at large budgets with multiple options. Individual drivers traveling long distances by car often use the most carbon per person. A train full of passengers versus a mostly empty one will expend less carbon person than driving or flying the same number of people there. In some cases a bus can be more efficient.

    Americans typically use more carbon than Europeans, so the good news is that we all have plenty of room to figure out how to reduce our individual contributions, as we seek ways to use our spheres of influence over our employers, our congress people, and the groups to which we belong.

  8. p2son on January 31, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Hi Jennifer, even if you do not believe that planet is warming and that earthlings are primarily responsible for the steady and growing increase in global temperatures, you may still find compelling reasons to encourage a move away from fossil fuels.

    Fossil fuels are limited sources of energy. One day they will run out. Instead of running the bank dry, a responsible consideration is to prepare for that day so that our children or grandchildren are not stuck with a global energy crisis. It can also serve to protect the country from being suddenly beholden to foreign sources for our energy.

    George W. Bush famously spoke about Americans addiction to oil–and he wasn’t talking about delicious extra-virgin olive oil, thank God! We need to consider ways to break our habit and find more efficient ways to harness the energy around us.

  9. Jonathan Gillette on January 31, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    That’s true, it depends on how full the flight is. Ours was filled, so it was less per person, a less empty flight means it cost each person more fuel (although by that standard, every time you drive instead of fly you are costing those other passengers to use more co2 per person, plus adding by using your own car, since they won’t cancel a flight because of one person).

  10. Rhoda Henson on January 31, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Well done Peterson. It’s 22 years since I last flew. (In fact it is the only time I have ever flown.) It is at least 15 years since I held a valid passport. This has no doubt been primarily for financial reasons. Nevertheless, being limited to your own country and even regions will give you time to explore it properly in a way that you can’t when you’re galavanting all over the place.You’ll be surprised what you discover.

  11. Renée Altson on January 31, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    california will miss you.

  12. Auntie Doris on January 31, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    I am so glad you haven’t ruled out flying to Europe. Edward needs to meet his Uncle Peterson!

  13. David Roberts on January 31, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    As you indicate, this is largely symbolic but acts like this do raise public awareness and inspire others. Human influenced climate change is simply a fact we cannot weasel out of by treating it like a belief system — it won’t go away because we don’t believe in it. Still, I would like to see the average fuel usage and impact of air vs train travel from coast to coast.

    Unfortunately, as is evidenced even in the few comments here, there is this bizarre feeling that living in a free society means we all have license to do anything, no matter how it affects our planet and therefore our society and our progeny. There is an odd libertarian streak in this country that boils down to the almost adolescent rejection of responsibility, as if our national motto were “you aren’t the boss of me!”

    The truth is that life has never been like that and mature, rational citizens understand this — as did the founders. We must deal with the results of our actions on the climate collectively, through our government, as well as individually. Does this limit individual freedom? Perhaps in the same way that one is not free to poison the water supply or to discharge toxins into the air of a community. But more importantly, it provides for the basic freedom of future generations to live on a planet that can sustain them.

  14. Wess Daniels on January 31, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Good for you. The last few years I limited myself to no more than 2 flights per year. Given all our family (our kids grandparents!) are on the other side of the country we felt we needed to leave some space for flying, but wanted to drastically cut back.

  15. Jennifer Staples on January 31, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    Great idea to cut down on your carbon footprint! Alas, what will you do though if there is a track washout, train derailment, etc. between where you are are where you are heading? That is a dilemma I see with the traveling by rail, though I have done it myself quite a few times.

  16. lizopp on January 31, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    When I was volunteering for Friends General Conference in the early part of this millenium, one Friend from Canada shared a message about his choice to step down from service rather than travel such great distances in light of climate change and his personal ethic. Shortly after that, I also made some significant changes to my travel schedule and travel methods.

    Just like with recycling, the more individuals who participate in changing their reliance on fossil fuels and who share their experience and reasons for doing so, then the more others in our circle will begin to reflect on their actions and choices as well.

    Liz, The Good Raised Up

  17. p2son on January 31, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Jennifer, I have had so many flights seriously delayed or cancelled because of weather or maintenance issues. I practice the Zen of travel. Eventually I will get there and fussing about it won’t make it happen any faster. On air or by train or in a car, all kinds of things can go wrong to disrupt the journey. It comes with traveling.

  18. Alison P. Nylund on February 1, 2013 at 9:55 am

    The flight will leave with or without me, so I’ve felt guilty about driving instead. My reason for not flying is the way the government/corporations treat us from ticket purchase to baggage pick-up–cheating, bullying, threatening, & starving us while damaging & losing our goods. I believe the main purpose–certainly the main effect–of “security” procedures is to make us submissive.

  19. kevinmillerart on February 2, 2013 at 7:21 am

    Congratulations on your decision, Peterson. Like you, I am an artist and a businessman — raised in the Church of the Brethren (cousins to Quakers) and living in Amish/ Mennonite farm country here in South Central, PA. Will you and your husband be joining Jerry Lee Miller and our group of about 100 demonstrators bussing to D.C. on Feb 17? It sounds like I and my husband should met you and yours sometime soon. We seem to have a lot in common.

    We moved from our big house in the Philly suburbs out here to the woods, halfway off the grid 7 years ago, but we are still big hypocrites. I still fly way too much, and we have to have gas-guzzling 4wd trucks to get up and down the hills on our property and through the stream. This question of how to deal with our guild and apparent hypocrisy is a huge and constant problem for all of us environmentalists. We are all at fault as long as we are in human bodies which consume oxygen and expel CO2 every time we take a breath. As your post points out, we all have to decide where and when to reduce our carbon footprints (mine is like Big Foot) and then, it seems to me, we have to forgive ourselves for our remaining carbon sins and get on with saving the world.

    Robert and I hope to meet you guys sometime soon. Best wishes, – Kevin

  20. Virginia on February 2, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Good morning from Australia, where I picked up your comments on QuakerQuaker. Reminded me of the notion of ‘love miles’ on a recent radio programme about carbon emissions. Nice phrase to describe a growing issue as the social map of the world changes and our web of families and friends spreads ever wider. It’s the one pattern of air transport that’s increasing. For me too – I’ve committed not to fly for leisure but all my family’s in UK and most of my work’s overseas…

    And re the carbon offset thing – you might want to check out One of the oldest and most awarded ‘profit-for-purpose’ groups; does great work using carbon offsets for sustainable energy initiatives in developing countries. I’ve offset with them for years, it feels good on several levels to see my guilt-money transfered into positive capital!

  21. p2son on February 3, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Hey Kevin, YES, Glen and I will be heading to DC for the big protest/rally on February 17. This is actually my birthday, so I view the event as one giant party with a purpose. We will go on a van with students from Susquehanna University, where Glen teaches. I am as happy for the time in the van with students as for the time at the rally.

    I understand both the guilt and the defensiveness that many of us feel when one of us is talking about cutting down on fossil fuels. I hope we can all get over those feelings and get on with it. Neither of those feelings–guilt and defensiveness–promote any real positive change. We have a brilliant opportunity to come together on what will likely be the biggest issue of our collective lives. Lots of people want to make the world a better place. Lots of people want to leave this earth better than how we found it.

    The single best contribution any one of us can make is to educate ourselves. Spend time everyday or a few days a week reading about climate change and carbon. Learn, and let that knowledge grow inside of you and shape your response, which likely will be different from mine.

    Perhaps I’ll see you for my birthday later this month! 😛

  22. p2son on February 3, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    Virginia, lovely to hear from you. Thanks. I didn’t realize that this post got a mention at QuakerQuaker. I always love when that happens because well I am a Quaker but so much of what I write about is not exactly about Quakerism.

    I will check out the link. Thanks. I have had two worries concerning Carbon Offsets, which may be unfounded, but as of yet, I have not been able to get a satisfactory answer.

    1. Do these carbon offset groups really do what they say or is my money just going off and getting nothing in return, like when someone buys a star–sweet but ultimately meaningless purchase?

    2. With the crisis at a critical level, is there time enough for the carbon offsets to catch up? I mean yes, I can have a bunch of trees planted in response to my round-trip flight from New York to London, but when does the real impact of those trees kick in? 5 years? 10? 20? Do we have that time or is it so severe that we need to consider emergency measures to avert a massive catastrophe? In other words, are the next 5-10 years particularly critical?

    I am still learning. Ultimately my greatest contribution may well be to communicate with others, particularly lawmakers, about the need to act. I am a big fan of the Carbon fee and dividend plan and may just write a letter to my congressman right now 🙂

  23. p2son on February 3, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    It’s interesting the many little blessings I am experience as I look at a future without air travel in the US. No more traveling with those little bottles of toiletries–which is such a pain for trips over 10 days. No more anxiety producing security checks where I am always worried that I will leave something behind. No more cramped seats. Trains give me so much more room and even most buses are better than planes. No more body altering decompression chambers. No more hours trapped in the terminal not able to step outside for some air. Train and bus stations give me a chance to explore during layovers.

  24. p2son on February 3, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Thanks Liz, it’s good to know that the train goes through your city 🙂

  25. jessicaatmta on February 5, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    I have been struggling with the idea of flying lately, so your post feels very timely for me. I have had the wonderful opportunity of being able to take trips to India and Japan at almost no cost to myself this semester, which as a student has meant a lot to me and been very relevant to my studies. However, because I’m based in Canada that’s quite a distance to fly, and yet unavoidable if I want to travel anywhere off-continent. I don’t normally ever travel so much but I feel like I’m getting my life-time fill this year. I haven’t been sure about what to do about the guilty feelings and whether or not they were a strong enough reason for me to not go. It’s encouraging to see a fellow Friend contemplating this issue too and committing to following their personal resolves about the issue of personal responsibility towards the Earth 🙂

  26. francis elling on February 6, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    Big Congrats!!! I am impressed you are a role model for most of us.

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