Discarding my hair-shirt

by Stephen Tall on January 10, 2007

The problem (and joy) of being a liberal is the duty to consider issues in 360 degrees. So I have some sympathy with Mr Blair’s comments, when the question was put to him that the government should encourage people to take holidays closer to home:

I personally think these things are a bit impractical, actually to expect people to do that. You know, I’m still waiting for the first politician who’s actually running for office who’s going to come out and say it – and they’re not. It’s like telling people you shouldn’t drive anywhere.

The ability to travel – to explore new regions, understand different cultures – is a natural and healthy human impulse. It is not one government should seek to curtail. What government should do, of course, is ensure the negative externalities are borne by those enjoying the benefits: that the polluter pays.

I recall – always with a grimace – George Monbiot passionately exhorting last year’s Lib Dem conference to give serious thought about whether we should (eg) fly to New York to witness a son/daughter’s wedding because of the damage we would wreak en route. It was the kind of bonkers, hair-shirted remark (in an otherwise very good speech) which taints the environmental movement.

The Labour Party has failed to tackle global warming sufficiently seriously. We need higher taxes on pollution; and compensating lower taxes on income (one might almost call it a Green Tax Switch). But we won’t begin to save the planet by seeking to dis-invent the wheel.

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It probably won’t surprise you to know that I disagree with you totally on this. Monbiot’s comment was neither bonkers nor hair-shirted…it was simply the logical conclusion of a full understanding of the seriousness of climate change, the steps that need to be taken to mitigate it, and the vast gulf between our current lifestyles and sustainability.

Flying to New York and back emits more CO2 than an entire annual carbon ‘ration’ will be in 2030 (if we are to keep CO2 levels down to a manageable level). Thats simply the truth, and ignoring it because it is too hard is simply not acceptable. Calling the people who acknowledge it ‘bonkers’ isnt helpful.

I wouldn’t rule out flying for everyone at all times – of course not – but we are going to have to make large reductions in the amount of flying that we do as a society, and that applies to everyone. Even Tony Blair and perhaps even Cllr Tall. 🙂

Best wishes,


P.S. I am of course not claiming that this an easy message to sell. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t the right message.

by Matt Sellwood on January 10, 2007 at 10:17 pm. Reply #

Indeed, Monbiot was just ‘telling it like it is’. Just because people don’t like the message doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As for what we can do about it, taxing flights much more heavily is a start. It’s sad to say, but people don’t have the God-given right to cheap holiday flights…

by Dominic on January 10, 2007 at 10:36 pm. Reply #

I don’t have a passport. Haven’t had for twenty years. And have no burning ambition to get one.

Mind you, living the ex-pat life as a child probably knocked all that wanderlust out of me.

by Jock Coats on January 10, 2007 at 11:06 pm. Reply #

I agree, Mobiot’s suggestion was ridiculous.

If the LibDems are to be liberal, we must be about freedom. It is not government’s place to tell us what to do with our money or time. That is why taxing pollution is a good thing, it enables us to make the decision much more easily.

I for one will be glad to have my family at my wedding (those who can make it). I will also go to the US to visit my mother-in-law-to-be and my godparents.

I’m still not sure what ‘telling it like it is’ means when it comes to climate change. We don’t know the effects and costs, the best guesses are currently moving towards a less alarmist view.

Monbiot has his own agenda, which is illiberal. He dresses much of it up in ‘green’ terms but underneath it all he is someone who wishes to dictate to us what he thinks best as we’re too stupid to know it ourselves.

by Tristan on January 11, 2007 at 11:46 am. Reply #

“the best guesses are currently moving towards a less alarmist view.”


Where do you get this from? I work full time on climate change, and my impression of the developing science is that completely the opposite is the case…


by Matt Sellwood on January 11, 2007 at 12:11 pm. Reply #

Matt – we disagree on this, but, still, I think you might be misinterpreting my reasons for calling Monbiot’s remark bonkers.

I’m not denying flying to New York creates CO2 emissions. But you yourself accept you wouldn’t rule out flying to New York for everyone at all times.

Monbiot’s proposal we should avoid a close relative’s wedding was a ludicrously OTT (and deliberately provocative) example to choose, and undermined his other, sometimes persuaive, arguments.

by Stephen Tall on January 11, 2007 at 2:33 pm. Reply #

Monbiot’s remark was bonkers because it basically was pitched so high as to say “never fly to New York, ever, ever, ever”.

A son or daughters wedding – well, that’s possibly a once in a lifetime event. So it’s not something you’d compare to your annual CO2 emissions, but your lifetime. It wipes out any moral high ground you’ve gained from car avoidance for the next three years, yes, but if you’ve been biking to work for a decade, is it really that fair to say no?

And which is a more reprehensible act, environmentally – to fly to New York once in a lifetime or have more than one child?

by AverageEarthman on January 12, 2007 at 6:37 pm. Reply #

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