Improving Choices, Improving the Environment

Upon finding out I had been accepted to participate in the Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training in Berlin, I had a decision to make. Namely: how do I get there?

From my home in Herning, Denmark to the Maritim Hotel, where the training was being held in Berlin, is 609 km. It was a bit long to walk, or bike, unfortunately. But public transportation options were not much better. By train, it would have taken between 10 and 12 hours, including at least 3 or 4 exchanges, and at a cost of 1000 DKK (€134) each way.

By comparison, I found a direct roundtrip flight between nearby Billund Airport and Berlin on Ryan Air for 77 DKK (€10.32).

As someone who was (and still is!) unemployed, the decision was practically made for me. Spend hundreds of euros and a day traveling each way? Or forego a couple of beers in order to pay for the short flight? Obviously I chose to fly.

I consider myself to be environmentally conscientious. I have the desire to do the right thing, and to leave as small of a carbon footprint as possible. But at the end of the day, I’m subjected to the same economic pressures as the rest of us. Actually, more so because of my limited financial capacity right now.

The matter of “choosing” to fly (and its negative environmental impacts) was brought to my attention the very first morning of the training, while we were still milling about, awkwardly socializing with strangers. A couple from Germany lectured me for several minutes about how they would have chosen to take the train, regardless of the time, cost, or number of exchanges they had to make. In fact–they continued–they wouldn’t go on vacation anywhere if it meant taking a plane! 

It was, frankly, the obsessive and unrealistic kind of worldview that environmentalists are often accused of. I might cut down on my individual carbon footprint by choosing not to fly anywhere, but this also eliminates the possibility to learn about the world and explore new cultures first hand. And, as an American citizen, it would essentially mean no more trips home for me. Sorry mom and dad, it was nice knowing you.

Worse, this particular sentiment plays right into the hands of those who wish to do nothing about the climate crisis. Why don’t you just make better individual choices? 

This, is in fact, a microcosm of the entire problem of climate change: no one wants to be put at an unfair disadvantage. Why should I spend an exorbitant amount of time and money compared to the next person? The flight is still going to go, whether I’m on it or not, I might as well take the flight! But this might not be the case if there were other viable alternatives.

The choice to spend ten times the time, and twenty times the money isn’t really a choice at all. And in order for individuals to make the “right” choices, we need, as a society, to provide better options.

Trains can be a far more convenient option, but only with an increased investment in infrastructure and subsidized fares. The answer isn’t necessarily to make flights more expensive (though, I think we can all agree that ~€10 to go anywhere is absurdly low), but to make other forms of travel cost-competitive.

And this isn’t just between countries, or over long distances. It’s understandable not to have a direct train between little Herning and Berlin. However, there is a direct train between Herning and Aarhus, which is neither cost-competitive, nor convenient. The trip by train is an hour and a half, and 151 DKK (€20.23) each way. Traveling by bus isn’t much better. It can be less than an hour by car, and a fraction of the cost in gas, even when not carpooling. When commuting on a daily basis, as many do, cars win hands-down.

Of course, it’s not just in transit that we face these choices that have a direct impact on the environment. We face similar choices every single day in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the companies and politicians we support, and so on.

The best way we can make strides in all of these areas, is by not only being conscientious, environmentally savvy consumers, but by having the right options available to us. Buying organic food, for instance, is much more palatable if the price and availability is at least comparable with its non-organic counterpart.

These kinds of choices don’t come around by accident. They are the result of continuous consumer and political pressure to force these changes. Over the last five years, Denmark saw a whopping 25% reduction in food waste, largely because of the continued efforts of one Russian immigrant on a mission. It is this kind of story that should give us all hope that we can continue to make environmental improvements by improving consumer choices. We need not only to try to make better choices individually, but to collectively push local leaders to make these choices available, period.

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