Dr Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs
It’s 2020 and I am debating whether my lupin seedlings are ready for transplanting. Like Barnacle goslings leaving the nest, the transition is a bumpy cliff.
They are the height of my thumb, two only have their seed leaves still and aren’t identifiable. I use a spoon to scoop them up and plop them in individual three-inch pots. I want to put them outside, though I’m unsure if it’s down to my own impatience for sun and rain to spur their growth or my desire to tidy up my windowsill. Like the wedding we’re planning, I swap one worry for another. On the one hand there’s the guilt of initiating dozens of transatlantic flights involving a hundred tonnes or more of carbon. On the other is the guilt of not having my extended American family join us when we tie the knot. The phrase “tie the knot” comes from Scotland, where we’ll marry: it’s from a ritual called hand-fasting, where a strip of tartan from each clan is wound around the couple’s hands in a way that creates a knot when pulled apart, symbolizing the union of two families.
In the end, the Covid-19 restrictions free me from the heartache and agony of my wedding being responsible for expanding my environmental impact – and from the need to reveal that this fear was keeping me awake at night.
Recently, I was scrolling through Twitter and was surprised to recognise an artist I knew in a neon orange vest getting arrested in London. I’d met her at an academic event on the climate emergency and felt an instant connection. She spoke in a calm, level voice when several police officers asked her to stand. “I’m sorry,” she said, leaning back. “I’m choosing to go floppy because this extends my nonviolent civil resistance. This is the most we can do non-violently.”
As they carried her away, she raised her voice above the cheers and shouted: “I refuse to cooperate with a government which is sentencing billions of people to death!” Her feet dragged like a corpse and it made me shudder. I watched the clip three times in a row. Out there, people were blocking the entrances of oil depots, throwing soup on famous artworks, and spray-painting the headquarters of oil and gas lobbyists so as many people as possible will hear them saying, “It’s an emergency situation and we’re treating it like an emergency.”
What could I do?
I can tell people why I’m flying less, I thought. And so I have.
Since my wedding, I’ve wanted to fly many times to see my family and friends 5,000 miles away. But I’ve wanted something else more. I’ve wanted to cultivate a feeling of groundedness in my local environment: a curiosity for what is growing at my feet. Not flying means that for the first time, perhaps in my whole life, I’ve spent a spring and summer in the same place. The love and joy I feel for the plants in my vegetable patch brings me strength to talk about my carbon footprint and flying.
It’s like growing lupins. You look at the seed packet and decide not to sow them because they don’t flower for two years. Or you take the easy option, like carbon offsets, and buy a couple lupins from a garden centre instead, because you want those pink petals this summer, not next. But I’m done with that. Or at least, I’ll make flying exceptional, it’s not a mundane annual activity. I’ve learned to take action now for what I want to see in the future. We all have to start somewhere.
If staying grounded is about acting like it’s an emergency, then I’m ready. When someone mentions having time off, instead of asking, “what exciting places are you going to on your holiday, I’ll ask: ‘What are you cultivating at your feet?’”
It may be a small thing. But I’ll be growing lupins.
Dr Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs is a Chancellor’s Fellow in Sustainable Design at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, and the host of the Joyful Climate Writing podcast. Her quest for answers on how to live sustainably led her from the Evergreen State on the west coast of the USA to study Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews on the east coast of the UK.
Call to action
Join the Make Them Pay Campaign, to support the demand for bans on private jets and the creation of Frequent Flyer Levies. Unlike many carbon taxes that burden lower income people, Frequent Flyer Levies are progressive because most people don’t fly. For example, in the UK, the richest ten percent of the population used more energy flying than the poorest used overall in 2019. https://makethempay.info/
Fly less yourself or at least start talking about how flying is not normal.
More than 80 percent of the global population has never set foot on an airplane. In the UK, 15 percent of the population take 77 percent of the flights. Flying less makes a big difference.