Recently I feel as if everywhere I am in a position to hear folk chatting I will hear how the weather was some kind of problem but the holiday was great nevertheless. This has happened at the local organic shop, at the gym and while having a haircut. (I realize I appear to have a pleasant middle-class existence but I think that entitles me to speak as typical of the people I am eavesdropping on.)
Of course, the destination might actually be China, Vietnam or Sri Lanka but the 10-day aspect is less likely to change. Even journeys to the other side of the world might only sometimes stretch out to three or four weeks.
Australians are apparently making these short-term departures (statistically defined as less than a year) at an unprecedented rate. 2013-2014 saw almost nine million Australians briefly depart. Ten years earlier, 2003-04 saw 3.9 million similar exits. This decade saw a 130 per cent increase in the number of flights.
Between 1970 and 1975 the average annual rate of departure was just 631 446. This means that Australians are flying more than 1 400 per cent times as much as they did 40 years ago.
My suspicion that the departures were for literally flying visits also appears to be true. Apparently the median length of the millions of short-term departure in 2013-14 is in fact 14 days. This means that 4.5 million flights were undertaken for periods lasting for two weeks or less. In contrast, in 1975 out of 974 000 departures only 146 000 were for two weeks or less. This is a dramatic difference. Fifty per cent of current departures are for these literally flying visits compared to about 15 per cent of 1975's total. If we include 1975's absences of between two and three weeks (an extra 211 000 exits) the total visits under 21 days still only made up just over one fifth of the annual number. Obviously the way Australians make their overseas visits has changed significantly. The year-long tour of self discovery has evolved into a few two week dashes to collect selfies with a few different landmarks in the shot.
I think we must examine the more serious implications of this new lifestyle. The average annual consumption of an Australian single person household is 8.9 tonnes of CO2 equivalents. The economy return trip from Melbourne to London creates emissions of 7.8 tonnes. This means that the flight represents an additional 87 per cent on top of our already high emission rate. It is worse if a couple takes a holiday. This is because at home they often find two can live as cheaply as one, at least in regard to energy for lighting, cooking, heating etc. There is no discount on the two sets of flight emissions. The result is that the couple's quick holiday more than doubles their annual emissions. (These figures are courtesy of the Moreland Energy Foundation Ltd. at http://www.mefl.com.au/services/sustainability-advice/transport/item/684-the-lowdown-on-flights-and-offsets.html)
So why are we all flying so much when most of us are concerned about the effects of climate change?
Apparently, the key to understanding this cognitive dissonance lies in the antagonistic relationship between two parts of our brain. A primitive part of our brain is responsible for governing our basic survival and instinctual activities. It can motivate us to achieve important goals such as food or sex. In part it achieves this by motivating us to recognize and seek situations providing novelty and status. Quick international holidays therefore constitute a highly desirable goal for this part of the brain.
It is not the so-called lizard brain's job to consider consequences. In 2004 a Princeton University experiment used brain scans to prove this. The offer of immediate rewards caused the subject's lizard brain (more correctly called the limbic region) to become active. Delayed rewards, even significantly larger ones, were 'discounted' by the lizard brain and it remained 'dark'. The future apparently doesn't exist for the lizard brain.
Of course, evolution has provided another section of the brain to help us understand the future and the idea of consequences. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for more rational responses to stimuli. It is the part of our brain which reminds us that while that donutis delicious it will probably work against us having the svelte body that we want tomorrow.
Unfortunately, while the cortex likes to be rational it can also be persuaded by the lizard brain to go along for the emotional ride. When we decide that the family holiday in France looks both novel and good for our status the cortex can provide the reinforcing and socially acceptable argument that travel is excellent for broadening young minds. It will tell us Paris will help the family to bond. A trip to Cambodia is of course almost like our own personal foreign aid contribution. These highly selected consequences reinforce the already strong motivation provided by the lizard brain. The notion that our special time might actually increase the odds of bush fires in a few years time (and maybe another suburb) simply cannot get airtime. The full consequences of climate change are simply to complex to visualize. They are therefore invisible to the part of the brain from which the initial motivation came.
It seems our lizard brain wants us to fly and there's probably not much we can do about that. However, we can use the more thoughtful parts of our brain to devise ways to help us keep our home planet from overheating.
Maybe we can start a new trend. We live in a place that tourists from elsewhere visit, so maybe we could take more holidays locally. I'm sure the good folk in the Australian resorts and regional areas would be very pleased to see you.
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