English Gradusta asiaa

Shame and Guilt in Flight Shame

This text was written as an assignment for the course The Politics of Emotions in Environmental Protection and Sustainability Actions, which was offered at Tampere Summer School. More information about the course can be found here.

In 2018 Flygskam became a social trend in Sweden. It describes the bad feeling of using a plane due to its high carbon footprint. In social media it was used to propagate one’s decision of not taking the plane. Pictures showing alternative travel options like trains or hiking paths are tagged with “#flygskam” or equivalents in other languages such as #stayontheground. In 2018 the trend might even have contributed to the 3% decrease in Sweden’s domestic flight passenger numbers [1].

Flying and ecological awareness

The emissions caused by air traffic are substantial. According to one calculation, a person flying from Frankfurt to Helsinki and back generates about 255 kg of carbon dioxide emissions. There are 20 countries where the average inhabitant produces less CO2 in a year [2]. The climate effect of flying is so extreme that it outweighs many other small steps that individuals can take to live an eco-friendlier life, such as garbage separation and avoidance of car journeys. By that, plane journeys cannot be part of the environmentalist package. However, this is where it gets contradictory and where flight shame seems to have struck on a nerve.

It is my own experience that people who consciously lead an environmentally friendly lifestyle including the purchase of second-hand clothes and organic grocery, still like to travel abroad. Usually they are also interested in foreign cultures and the original experience. Traveling seems to be perfectly combinable with anti-consumerism or conscious consumption. A backpack is all you need for your travel adventure! However, traveling can also generate an ecological awareness as one is more informed about the situation in other parts of the world and can form an own understanding of global interconnectedness and the global climate crisis. Therefore, I would argue that flying is the sore point of the ecologically concerned.

In modern society we can see a general trend of fetishizing mobility. The good life is propagated as one that includes journeys and holidays in far-away countries. Those who never left their hometown are eyed skeptically, because they might not be interested in other cultures or regions and are thus backward, boring or even intolerant. Fueled by the hype for the best self-display in social media and the societal imperative to be happy, long-distance journeys have been the perfect way of showing other people one’s own open-mindedness, happiness and economic success at the same time.

Most people on the planet, however, will never see a plane from the inside, for most people even a holiday trip will be out of reach. We could approach these simple facts with Kant’s categorical imperative. Our lifestyle could not become a universal law, as the planet would not be able to support eight billion people living like we do. Something we considered to be good suddenly becomes bad if all people did it. The famous philosopher, interestingly, never left his hometown Königsberg.

The emotions of guilt and shame

The societal framework and power relations play an important role in the formation of emotions. Therefore, a collaboration between psychology and sociology is needed. Shame and guilt tend to be paired, sometimes so much that they are hard to differentiate. Guilt is a negative evaluation of one’s action. A certain behavior is considered as wrong by a societal framework. The wrongdoer will perhaps face a punishment or will by himself be motivated to change that wrong behavior.

Shame originally means covering the face. Shame is impressed upon the skin. The bodily experiences of shame are highly uncomfortable and painful. Shame is also about appearance; in what way the subject appears to others. Shame concerns the being and not the deed. A person is ashamed of what she is and not only what she has done. The covering of the face would offer a hideout from the surrounding society.

Shame can be used to tell more about the individual person, as it can reveal values, hopes, and aspirations. The fact that flight shame exists shows our constant struggle to be good and conscious consumers. On the one hand, we are expected to travel because we are supposed to be mobile, but on the other hand we realize that this very behavior has a bad climate impact. It reveals our hope to be able to change this deficiency to the better by our small actions and at the same time fulfill the requirements that are demanded by society.

The individualization of the problem can also help airline companies that occasionally declare a feeling of worry. The emotion is delegated to a lower level, represented by their customers who now feel flight shame. Companies and governments on the higher level can thus continue business as usual with a somewhat relieved conscience while flight shame at the individual level cannot lead to the major changes needed.

The fact that flight shame exists shows our constant struggle to be good and conscious consumers.

Shame can expose and conceal wounds. It exposes our wish to save the planet by our actions which conflicts with our desire to travel the world. The ever-increasing fetishization of mobility and self-display remains concealed. Rather than questioning the taken-for-granted truth of constant mobility, we only discuss the means. By that, flight shame perfectly fits with the capitalist framework that does not like non-consumption.

How flight shame is (mis)used

Climate compensation is the attempt to free flying from shame. Providers of carbon offsetting consciously use that emotion to offer their services. It is thus the perfect tool of a consumerist society, as it is the consumer who is blamed for their behavior and who should by additional consumption save the planet. Guilt lacks the negative intensity of shame and can be tackled by reparation. After paying the fee, the guilt is gone, and it will be irrelevant until the next plane journey.

Another reaction is known as #tågskryt, or train pride. People boast about taking the train. Shame and pride are closely linked. It is like a state that we reach after having overcome shame. Appearance is important, as we want to communicate our pride. Pride is presented to others and is for its existence also dependent on others. Taking the train is stylized to a heroic deed as the same journey could also have been made by plane. But this action seems worthless if we cannot get recognition for it. We want to restore an identity which we can be proud of.

Before becoming the spokesperson for the German Fridays-for-future movement, Luisa Neubauer posted pictures showing her in far-away countries. As she became more prominent in the German public, people started a shaming campaign on her calling her #Langstreckenluisa (“long-distance Luisa”). People could not accept that an environmentalist used to fly and show it off. “Shame on you” was used against her. According to their opinion, environmentalists can only criticize the current lifestyle if they themselves are without sin. As Neubauer flew before in her life, people do not consider her to be a trustworthy person to talk about climate change, let alone make demands or be angry about political ignorance. Shaming environmentalists can thus be a tool to silence them. It opens the question to what extent environmentalists need to live according to their ideals. Who has the legitimacy to speak about global warming? If only people with a clean slate can demonstrate for more environmental protection, there will hardly be anyone in the Global North.

What flight shame might help us understand

Flight shame is an unpleasant emotion. If it only concerns a journey that is compensated for, flight guilt would be the more appropriate term as the uncomfortable bodily feelings are missing and the bad deed is easily indemnified. If the term is used to post pictures on social media, it is not likely to include shame, as it is not easy to openly talk about shame. If flight shame makes us feel uncomfortable in our skin, not only because we used a plane, but because we critically question all our taken-for-grantednesses, everything that enlarges our ecological footprint, then flight shame is a form of shame and could even lead to some change in our lifestyle.

However, the emotion is only partly helpful in leading to the change needed. In only focusing on ourselves as being the mistake we tend to miss the larger structures that enable us to act in that way. The society at large should also feel shame as it declares constant mobility an ultimate goal, as it does not tax kerosene and as it supports companies that make more profit the more people fly. If flight shame can help individuals understand that, it might even serve a greater purpose.

PHILIPP KUHN


[1] Henley, J. 2019. #stayontheground: Swedes turn to trains amid climate ‘flight shame’. The Guardian. 4 June. [accessed 28-08-2019].
[2] Kommenda, N. 2019. How your flight emits as much CO2 as many people do in a year. The Guardian. 19 July.

Further reading
Ahmed, S. 2014. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Probyn, E. 2005. Blush: Faces of Shame. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.


Philipp Kuhn

Philipp Kuhn studied Human Ecology and Geography at Lund University.