As part of the Extinction Rebellion event, Emma Thompson joined the protest, spoke to the media from XR’s pink boat, and this week defended herself from charges of hypocrisy, having flown from LA to London to do so. On Radio 4’s Today Programme, she argued that we’re all guilty of some hypocrisy – and when we consider that most if not all the listeners will have environmental footprints bigger than the global average, I guess she’s right – and then that ‘We should all fly less. We’re all going to have to fly less.’ (Evening Standard 25 April). It’s this that I want to focus on, as it prompts a question of what this would mean, how this relates to individual and international justice, and then onto what form of equality we want. It takes me back to an argument I was having with a friend back in 2005: does addressing poverty imply redistribution from rich to poor, or keeping the share of the cake the same while the size of the cake is growing?
I don’t know how far, or how many times Emma Thompson flies each year. I assume it’s a great deal more than me, and I fly more than many in the UK and more than most in the world… I also assume she flies less than some others too. Using data from the UK in 2014, we know the distribution is skewed: 52% of adults had taken no flights, 22% had done one trip by air, 11% had done 2, 5% had done 3, and 10% had made 4 or more trips. 70% of all trips were made by the last 15% (DfT 2014). Let’s assume Emma made 20, and for arguments sake we’ll assume that all flights are equally far. We can also assume that at least some of that first 52% do sometimes fly, just not every year.
So if ‘we’re all going to have to fly less’, what would this mean? I presume that the overall aim is less total flying (so less carbon emissions). This could be achieved by the same reduction to everybody: that is, each person taking one flight a year less (a). Or perhaps by a proportional reduction, with each taking 25% fewer trips (b). Or those flying most often reducing their flights more than that of those who fly least (c). Obviously, for option a, people can’t take fewer flights if they don’t take any now, and those who take one a year would then be prohibited from flying at all. Option b would require Emma losing five trips a year, but someone who flies once a year being reduced to a foreign holiday three years from four. It’s hard to see how either of these can be justified: the 85% who take two trips or fewer can ask why they should be limited when some others have far more.
And this, in essence, is the question we must ask when it comes to both emissions and material inequalities in general. We cannot tell China (in aggregate) that they should have lower emissions per capita, when Western emissions are far higher. In the long run, the population of the world (in aggregate, ignoring preferences) want what we have, that is a quality of life that includes cars, technology, good food and housing, and the middle-class lifestyle takes up resources that are finite. This, though, is also the problem with addressing poverty by growing the cake as opposed to making the slices more equal. Whether we look at the UK, or the globe, it’s the case that the growing of the cake means that a lower percentage of people are going to die of malnutrition now than they did before (see Rosling’s Factfulness). However, as the sum total of stuff, resources, ‘commodity bundles’ or perhaps ‘wellbeing’ and ‘utility’ grows, the expectations of what is reasonable and fair also increases. The problems with that cake analogy is that, at any one time, the size of the cake is finite and we must ask how justifiable it is that some people have far bigger slices than others.
Drawing on Anne Philips’ work on egalitarianism, this is not to be dismissed as the politics of envy, or differences generated by choice such that the artist chooses time to paint as more important than money. If the differences created by choices, dispositions and capabilities were small they would matter less. In a society (or even world) where the difference between rich and poor were small, then the person choosing to be a frequent flier would be giving up something else, like the big house in a nice neighbourhood or a luxury car. With the levels of inequality we do have, however, we instead have 15% of people who take 3 flying trips a year, and have nice homes, cars and so on, while some others take no flights, own no homes or cars: perhaps one way to see this is in the vastly different environmental footprints between the rich and the poor, and equalisation of these is a route to a more just society.