To Fly Or Not To Fly?

I am a migratory animal by vocation. For over forty years I've traveled the Inside Passages to Alaska as a commercial fisherman. And since 1994 I've been a sea kayaking guide through Inside Passages. Being a wilderness guide in Alaska has been the most satisfying work of my life, because it has allowed me to bring together two deep callings that had seemed mutually exclusive before – my love of wilderness exploration, and my love of the human wild that one enters through meditation.

Not only do I love guiding in Alaska. It's also the mainstay of my annual income.  So it is a big dilemma as the evidence mounts that this work runs head on into my newfound commitment to low-carbon living. It is a great irony that people fly thousands of miles to spend a week in the wilderness with me, re-claiming the joys of living off the grid.

Ever since I wrote The Circumference of Home, this has been a contradiction that is hard for me to reconcile. My motivation for undertaking a carbon crash diet in 2008 was the discovery that jet travel constituted over half of my carbon footprint. It was the obvious low-lying fruit in my effort to craft a lower-c arbon lifestyle. The hard truth for people who care about the climate conundrum is that jet travel is the single most ecologically destructive activity most Americans engage in. With families scattered across the continents, and the whole world brought to our doorstep by jets, this is a hard truth to face.

Now for my true confession. I'm writing this post as I wing my way over Vancouver Island on a flight from Seattle to Southeast Alaska. Normally I take the ferry that runs once a week from Bellingham, WA, but this year I couldn't make that work. I make every effort to avoid flying, and most of the time I'm successful in holding to that resolve. Since 2008 I've averaged one jet flight per year, either to Alaska, or to visit my wife's family in Baltimore. Sometimes I feel like I've painted myself into too tight a corner with the restrictions I place on my own travel. Then I read the paper and remember why it matters.

Today's Seattle Times carries a report that over 1000 temperature records have fallen across the U.S. in the past week. The temperature is topping 110 in many areas across the plains states. Meanwhile Colorado remains in a state of siege, as it has been for weeks, as seven major forest fires rage out of control simultaneously across the state, spurred by ultra-high temperatures and extended drought conditions. Climate change seems to have shifted into overdrive. The Times quotes U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell's response to the fires, saying, “Definitely we're having a changing climate. This significantly exceeds what we saw 10, 20, 30 years ago.”

So for me to be on this airplane remains a soul-wrenching predicament.

I look forward to leading my kayak trips again this summer. As usual, I expect my clients to be moved by their encounters with wild ecosystems. My hope is that their deepened sense of connection to the natural world, gathered in Alaska, will yield dividends back home that will compensate for the carbon costs of coming here, that it will show up in daily choices to live more joyfully in place, and to create more vibrant local communities in the places they call home.

There are no easy answers to these dilemmas, and I try not to be dogmatic in my approach. But Nature always bats last, and she is hitting some towering home runs these days. What we choose to do (or not to do) in response to this reality has never mattered more.