Nobody contests the devastating impact flying has on the environment. Enough has been shared by researchers and academics to know that it’s not possible to cram hundreds of passengers into a hunk of metal and suspend in the air without using tremendous amounts of energy – a process laden with toxic emissions that are the root cause of global warming.
When challenged about the impact of their choices on the natural world, the frequent flier can therefore have only one of two responses: pained acceptance, perhaps mentioning attempts to engage in carbon offsetting – no easy task when flying with major airlines – or fiery denial. Either one is rooted in shame.
So it’s perhaps fitting that the newest internet buzzword – borne out of a country in which the average annual temperature is rising twice as fast as the global average – is the Swedish term ‘flygskam’.
Translating as ‘flight shame’, the term describes the specific feeling of guilt felt about the environmental impact of travelling by plane. And it’s been powerful: according to a recent survey by the World Wildlife Foundation, almost 20% of people in Sweden admitted choosing to travel by train rather than plane for environmental reasons.
‘Flygskam’ has been closely linked to young environmental activist Greta Thurnberg, the Swedish 16-year-old who has refused to attend school since 2018 in protest at the futility of learning about a world that political leaders seem unable to protect. Her passionate intransigence has inspired millions, leading to school strikes across the world and regular appearances at parliaments and protest movements.
Her ‘flygskam’ manifests in a decision to take a political tour of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Italian Senate in Rome and the UK parliament in London entirely by train. It’s also led to a boom in business for Swedish rail-only travel firms, with one company telling the Guardian newspaper that business was eight times bigger in January 2019 than it had been two years previously. At the end of the first quarter of 2019, train trips with the Swedish branch of train company SNCF were up 10% on the previous year, while the number of Swedes buying plane tickets was down 4%.
‘Flygskam’ has become an internet phenomenon, encouraging users on Twitter and Instagram to share experiences of using alternative forms of transport to travel across Europe, or to muse on eco-friendly business solutions – such as avoiding the need to fly people out to international conferences by delivering more presentations online.
The wider social movement has also led the Swedish Government to introduce higher taxes on plane tickets and promise an investment of around five million euros in night trains to large European cities.
Could this be a trend that takes hold across the globe?