Bhima Sheridan, Ariella Granett, Nishanga Bliss and Betsy Thagard organize the no-fly campaign in south Berkeley. Photo: Daphne White

It has taken a surprisingly long time for the Swedish no-fly movement — also known as “flight shaming” — to arrive in the U.S. But perhaps it’s no surprise that Berkeley is the place where the fledgling movement has finally landed. Geographically, Berkeley is just about as far as you can get from Sweden and still be on the U.S. mainland; ideologically, the two are much closer.

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen who recently took a solar-powered sailboat across the Atlantic to avoid flying, was an inspiration for Flight Free USA. But so was the seventh grade son of the group’s co-founders, Ariella Granett and  Bhima Sheridan.

“I was really awakened when my son came home recently and said: ‘By 2030, the world will be uninhabitable,’” said Granett. “It was really unsettling to hear your child say that.”

“It was really unsettling to hear your child say that by 2030 the world will be uninhabitable.” — Ariella Granett

“I was drawn to this movement when I learned that jet fuel is a big part of our carbon footprint, and much of that footprint is for pleasure trips,” added Sheridan. “It is shocking that the carbon emission of one seat on a cross-country flight — from San Francisco to New York and back — is 1.6 tons. At the same time, there are  66 countries in the world where the average person uses less than 1.6 tons of carbon in one year!” (You can calculate your carbon footprint.)

Reducing flight miles has a dramatically larger impact on the environment than other actions such driving electric vehicles, using solar power, recycling or eating a vegetable-based diet.

“One person’s share of jet fuel on a cross-country flight would wipe out a year’s worth of other environmental efforts,” Sheridan said.

And so the couple decided to contact Swedish climate activist Maja Rosén, who co-founded We Stay On the Ground in 2018. The goal of Rosén’s group is to raise awareness of the impact of flying on climate change, and to persuade people to reduce emissions by staying on the ground.

Over a series of emails in August, Rosén suggested that the couple start an affiliate organization in the U.S. America is now the eighth country to join the no-fly movement: Sweden, Denmark, the U.K, Belgium, France, Germany and Canada have already organized. Several other Americans contacted Rosén shortly after the Berkeley couple did, and they became regional coordinators for Flight Free USA. The group would like to have 50 state coordinators by the end of 2020.

The goal of each no-fly group is to convince 100,000 citizens in their own country to pledge not to take any flights in 2020.

“We want to move the needle, and this feels like a manageable change,” Sheridan said. “If you ask people never to fly again, it’s too big of an ask. But even if you live here and have family on the East Coast, one year feels manageable.” If you can’t be with the one you love, “Skype,” Sheridan joked. He and his wife consider themselves seasoned travelers, but they have pledged to forgo flying in 2020 and the foreseeable future.

Fliers on the organizers’ dining room table. Photo: Daphne White

If you can’t go a year without flying, consider a ‘flight diet’

For those who can’t commit to a whole year without flying, Granett and Sheridan suggest a “flight diet” — consciously reducing the number of airplane trips in any given year. This may be easier for people who travel for vacation than those who travel for work, especially in a country whose rail system is not nearly as developed as that of Europe.

However, Fly Free USA was preceded by another California-based organization aimed specifically at academics. “Many academics, including earth scientists, have large climate footprints dominated by flying,” states the website of No Fly Climate Science (NoFlyClimateSci). “Meanwhile, colleges and universities ostensibly exist to make a better future, especially for young people. We want our institutions to live up to that promise.” Several universities have signed on, but UC Berkeley is not yet one of them.

One-third of all air traffic globally takes place in the US, and that makes Americans the biggest users of flight miles anywhere.

One-third of all air traffic globally takes place in the United States, and that makes Americans the biggest users of flight miles anywhere.

“About 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from traveling,” including flights, hotels, food and sundries, according to Arunima Malik, a researcher at the University of Sydney in Australia who studies the carbon footprint of tourism.

Flying is also the fastest growing cause of climate change, according to the Flight Free USA site. If aviation was a country, it would be the seventh worst polluter globally, according to the group. In 2017 airlines carried 4.1 billion passengers, and this is set to rise to more than 8.2 billion by 2037. At the same time, climate scientists are warning that we have less than 10 years to make a significant reduction in our carbon emissions in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.

A new vocabulary in Sweden, including ‘flying in secret’

In Sweden, the no-fly effort has already shown measurable results. Air passenger traffic was down 3.8% in the first six months of 2019 compared with the previous year, according to The Washington Post. Train travel has increased by one third during the same period. As a result, Swedish leaders already announced they would inject new cash into the national rail company, according to the Post.

And the movement, only a few years old, has already spawned new Swedish words including “flygskam” (flying shame), “tagskryt” (train bragging), and “smygflyga” (flying in secret).

“We don’t want to shame people, but we do want to get them to think twice about flying,” said Flight Free volunteer Betsy Thagard. “I am a lifelong environmentalist, and I want to have grandchildren. But my children are both hemming and hawing about having babies, because they are so worried about their future.”

Bhima Sheridan and Ariella Granett (facing camera) organizing in their south Berkeley dining room. Photo: Daphne White

“I love nature, but last year I realized that my flying to beautiful places in nature was actually destroying them,” added Nishanga Bliss, another volunteer. “I went to the Swiss Alps, but I realized that the Sierras are beautiful, too. I love traveling, but this year I am going to stay closer to home. I’m going to take the train: it will be slow travel, like slow food.”

Granett went a step further. She is an architect who used to travel all over the country for work, but as a result of her new activism, she switched jobs and now works for an Oakland firm that only works locally.

“I was doing very creative work, and it was a difficult choice,” she said. “But I couldn’t reconcile wanting to curb my carbon footprint while flying off for work all the time.” As it happens, the Swedish no-fly movement took off after Thunberg’s mother, a well-known opera singer, announced that she would no longer fly to give concerts.

Nix on carbon offsets

Granett does not subscribe to the newly popular practice of buying carbon offsets to mitigate the effects of flying.

“When you fly, you are doing immediate damage,” she said. “We don’t have time for the trees to draw down the carbon. It’s going to be stuck in the atmosphere for 20 to 200 years. I think carbon offsets are like greenwashing — they make people feel better, so they can fly even more.”

Until recently, Granett said she was in denial about climate change.

“I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it, personally,” she said. “But the day my son came home from school  and said, ‘The world is going to end’ — that’s how he heard it — I was inspired to lead by example.”

The Flight Free USA leadership is a motley crew: Granett is an architect, her husband and Thagard are real estate agents, and Bliss is an acupuncturist. They have been active in a number of local nonprofits — Granett and Thagard co-founded South Berkeley Now! — but none of them have run a national grassroots organization before.

Fly Free USA started in the last few days of August, and is still based in Granett and Sheridan’s dining room. It does not have tax-free status yet.

“We are literally a mom-and-pop, all-volunteer grassroots group,” Sheridan said. “We use our own checkbook to print flyers, but volunteers chipped in money for the t-shirts.”

The group is looking for volunteers both in Berkeley and nationally to help them spread the word.

“If you can organize a pot luck or a hiking trip, you can organize for climate change: it’s the same skill set,” said Bliss.

“I believe what Margaret Meade said about a small number of committed individuals being able to change the world,” Sheridan added.

And Granett is inspired by the many volunteers she has already connected with across the US and around the world, all working to reduce their carbon footprint by flying less.

“I have made all these connections from my own living room,” she said. “I didn’t need to travel anywhere.”

(Featured photo: Creative Commons Zero)

Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...