Zero Altitude – Review
Zero Altitude: How I learned to fly less and travel more, by Helen Coffey, May 2022. Flint, ISBN: 978 0 7509 9572 6, 288 pages. RRP: £16.99 (hardback)
Until May 2019, Helen Coffey, as travel editor of The Independent, was a frequent flyer. Then she stumbled across the Swedish Flight Free Movement, and the many prominent people going “flight free” for environmental reasons. This book describes Helen’s experiment going from frequent flyer to abstinence. Flight-free journeys are described in amusing detail, as expected from a leading travel journalist, but there is much more to the book than a series of travelogues.
Chapter 1 starts with useful current statistics about the climate impact of flying as compared to other forms of travel. A key message is that individual actions do matter; the influential Swedish Flight Free Movement seems to be responsible for a reduction of nine per cent in flying from 2018 to 2019. As Coffey says: “You are voting every time you open your wallet”.
Many of the journeys described in the book coincided with the pandemic, and the concept of “staycation” is represented by trips to the Highlands and Scilly Isles. Before setting off on a rail tour of Europe, Coffey seeks the advice of Mark Smith, aka “The Man in Seat 61”, who gives practical advice, and Anna Hughes, the founder of Flight Free UK, who suggests “…there has to be a slight shift in mindset”, though I might quibble with the use of the word “slight”. Coffey then undertakes a European rail tour taking in Paris, Munich and Rijeka. Other non-flying journeys described include London to Oxford by hitchhiking, and a Camino pilgrimage using ferry and rail. There is even a journey to another continent, arriving at Tangier without flying. The descriptions of the trips are enjoyable, with much practical advice and sustainability assessments. There are chapters on the benefits and downsides of tourism, and on new technology intended to make airline travel more sustainable.
Coffey shows she fully understands our current environmental and economic context. Indeed, in this pre-Covid description from May 2019, she could be writing for a Joy in Enough module: “Growth, growth and more growth. Ever expanding, no slowing down. This was true of world economics, of consumption – and, of course, of flying. Despite promises of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, airlines were doing little to curb that growth.”
The book grapples with the climate implications of our everyday travel choices in an enjoyable and accessible way, with the technical background relatively easy to grasp, some interesting mathematical tools to calculate climate impacts of travel and detailed references. These travel questions are rarely asked, even by committed Christians, and very rarely by those organising pilgrimages. Even enlightened Green Christian members might benefit from reading this book.
Previous: The Wilderness Cure