This week, I’m getting on an airplane for the first time since I heard the term “social distancing” last March.
I’m excited -- as a Peace Corps evacuee, it is naturally thrilling to go back to the Central American country I was forced to leave. But it’s also terrifying, not only because of the strangeness of traveling mid-pandemic (it’s not over yet, people!), but also because of the high environmental cost of air travel.
At an individual level, our flight miles are one of the largest parts of our carbon footprint. Back in college, before Peace Corps and COVID, I used to take around eight domestic flights a year as I traveled between home and school, and I thought little of it. But after a year in quarantine, it’s hard to imagine boarding a plane that many times, much less to justify the fuel cost.
Just the thought of liftoff now gives my stomach a nauseating jolt.
Many of us are excited to fly again. Not only fly, but drive, travel, eat out, work out, get our hair cut, catch a movie, see a football game… all of the activities that we once considered normal. But as the vaccines roll out and society gets back on the horse, so to speak, we ought to look back at this last year, in its totality, and ask ourselves which parts of our "normal" lives were maybe not so normal. Which parts of our normal lives were unsustainable and consumptive? What did we live without in the last 12 months that maybe we don’t need at all?
A year ago, as organizations, social media accounts, celebrities and regular folks looked for silver linings amongst the overwhelming dread spreading across the world, many landed on the environment as a point of positivity. Not only did we suddenly appreciate fresh air, long walks and canoe rides more than ever, but we also saw nature healing in real time. Remember when air pollution rates came tumbling down as even L.A. highways cleared? When animals started wandering about?
When I first moved to Bemidji last April, it was an eerie ghost town. I was one of seldom in cars on the road; each shop downtown was closed until further notice. Lake Bemidji, the state park, and the farmer’s market, on the other hand, were in full swing. Roller-bladers, cyclists, fishermen and gardeners abounded. Unity was felt throughout the community as we stayed home as an act of love.
But it wasn’t all peachy. Despite the grounded planes and quiet streets, we also saw environmental crises that added stress to an already consuming pandemic. California and much of the west coast burned. Australia burned. Texas froze. Hurricanes Eta and Iota absolutely demolished communities and infrastructure in Central America where I’m headed, though little news coverage was dedicated to it.
While we stayed at home, Earth was trying to tell us something: that she is sick, but radical and expedited change are wholly possible. If we can convert to a masked, work-from-home, Zoom-university, takeout-only society in just a year, imagine how quickly we could change our habits and our economy for the wellness of ourselves and the planet.
Getting on my flight this weekend is going to provoke thought and reflection. I will think more about how farmers are essential and underpaid workers who kept grocery stores full while the rest of us stayed home. I will think about how many flights I ought to take per year, and whether or not the carbon I’m consuming for a vacation is really necessary.
I will think about the good habits -- the gardening, the cooking, the fermenting, the walking, the composting -- that I was able to start during the pandemic, and which I would like to continue. I will think about the habits I’ve had to give up -- like bringing my own reusable mug -- and how I want to bring those back. And I will think about the pre-pandemic things I used to buy and do that maybe I just don’t need anymore.
The pandemic has, for me, been a catalyst for personal growth, and we must consider our environmental impact before simply going back to business as usual.
Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.