Flygskam and Church 2.0

The word flygskam and the Swedish trend

Flygskam is a Swedish word, literally translated as flight shame. It is intended to describe the feeling that one has or is supposed to have when flying. It is clear that flying has the largest impact on CO2 emissions of those who do fly (e.g. academics and middle and upper class people flying for leisure).

The result of this debate in Sweden was a reduction in flights and a shift towards train trips. The following figures from Bloomberg show the decrease of passengers at Swedish airports and the increase of passengers on SJ, the Swedish train company.1

Bloomberg: As ‘Flying Shame’ Grips Sweden, SAS Ups Stakes in Climate Battle, 14. April 2019
Bloomberg: Passenger numbers at Swedish train operator SJ

Since then there has been a lot of discussion in the German media (Spiegel: pro, contra, Zeit: pro, contra, both, taz: pro, contra, heise: contra, Welt: pro, contra, FAZ: pro, contra) but the outcome is very different in Germany. The number of passengers in Germany in 2018 was 4.2% higher than in 2017 (Mobility report of the DSF). According to an article in the Zeit, the number of passengers on transcontinental flights from Germany increased by 3%. The number of passangers on the global level increased by 7,1%.

Number of take-offs and landings in Germany according to the mobility report of the DFS, 2018

This increase took place despite a bankruptcy of a major airline (Air Berlin). The bankruptcy had an effect on inner-German flights though: they went down by 0.8% since the slots could not be filled quickly enough and other airlines raised their prices.2

The discussion in Germany and in social media

Prof. Dr. Dr. Martina Schäfer from TU Berlin started an initiative to collect self-commitments of academics to not fly short distances in July 2019. University of Potsdam and Humboldt-Universät zu Berlin joined in July and August respectively. I wrote letters to my colleagues asking them to sign and most of them were enthusiastic and signed right away. But I also was pointed to a contra flight shame article in the Zeit by Niels Boeing with the telling title Verzicht rettet die Welt nicht (Sacrifice does not save the world). This article was also repeatedly pointed out to me in private discussions. The Zeit is a weekly journal and has considerable influence among German intellectuals. So I took the time to discuss this article in detail. There is a general problem in this debate: those who argue against flying are fighting the aviation industry, a billion dollar industry, and the oil industry at the same time. So big money is involved. Lobby organizations spread the myth of green flying. Lufthansa and SAS offer green kerosene now (myth of green flying, power to liquid, Die Mär vom klimaneutralen Fliegen). People are told that there will be new and better planes and that there is no reason to worry. Of course, there will be future developments, but the industry thinks this will be standard in the middle of our century3 and we have to reduce CO2 emissions now. As you see from the numbers above: the number of flights starting from Germany increases and this is a global trend (according to ICAO 6,1% in 2018).

Personally, I think that those journalists who give us good reasons to calm down and continue flying as if the world was not on fire are guilty. They support a billion dollar industry that is about to kill us. Of course it is perfectly legitimate to discuss concepts like shame, guilt and moral and this is expected from journals with the respective profile like the Zeit but enough is known by now about alternative fuel, about energy consumption and costs of Power To Liquid and so on, so that it can be said that using this to pacify our sore conscience is illegitimate.

LGBQT and Church 2.0

I am active on twitter and post about FridaysForFuture and our self-commitment initiative. I post about meat. And sometimes I get emails asking why I address this individual level and if it would not be better to demand more general changes for instance in taxing CO2. I fully agree that this is the most important aspect, but the average carbon imprint of Germans is 11,61 with 10% of the Germans having above 17,7 tons and individual measures like flying less and eating less meat can reduce it down to 7 tons (10% of the Germans are in this region) or even below this. So there is some personal responsibility for this.

My Belgian colleague Remi van Trijp repeatedly commented my posts and remarked that this concept of shame is fundamentally wrong. Replying to a retweet of a Spiegel article claiming that shame is a good entrance point to climate protection4, he wrote:

A similar argument against shame can be found in the article Gesetze statt Scham by Tadzio Müller published by the newspaper taz. He argues that shaming was used on LGBQT people and that it did not have an effect on them apart from feeling bad and that gay pride is the result of this. I fully agree with him on this and this is basically the Church 2.0 aspect. Remi wrote in another tweet:

I think “shaming” people because they take a plane is a counterproductive and harmful strategy. It is increasingly used as a strategy in the fight for more social and environmental justice. Shaming should be used as a last resort, e.g. for horrendous acts such as racism and assault. In all other cases, you try to exert power and “moral superiority” on other people … which breeds resentment. In my native country, the Left fought such attitudes by the Catholic Church, whose strategy existed in shaming people for everything and pretending to have moral superiority. You were born a sinner, and now I see everywhere the idea of “the original sin” and other dirty tricks of religious institutions used by the very same people who fought those tactics before. You have to grow a common consciousness about big issues such as climate change so that people act sensibly based on their own moral compass rather than based on shame. Because shame doesn’t change your behaviour at all, it only makes you do you behave in more secrecy, which causes all kinds of additional stress and frustration. It is why the Church invented confession, and just like you could buy your ticket to heaven, rich people and countries can now buy additional carbon emissions.

Remi van Trijp (@RemivanTrijp) August 11, 2019

Before we go on, I would like to suggest another word instead of flight shame. Maybe flight responsibility is the right word for this which should be used. Tadzio Müller also made a remark pointing into this direction:

Shame differs from “bad conscience” which invokes a reflective and decisive subject: “do not use the N-word because it reproduces racisms” is a completely different statement than “be ashamed of this racist word”.
It is therefore shame, not the conscience, with which heteronormative majority societies have attempted to control queer people and deter them from deviant behavior since the beginning of capitalist modernity.5

Tadzio Müller, Gesetze statt Scham, taz, August 03, 2019

So, maybe Tadzio would be happy with the word Fluggewissen `flight conscience’ rather than Flugscham.

Here, is what I replied to his article about LBGTQ and shame in a reader’s letter:

Tadzio Müller compares flying shame with shame created or attempted to be created in queer humans. He distinguishes between rational arguments and shaming and writes: “Shame differs from ‘bad conscience’ that calls upon a reflective and decisive subject: ‘Don’t use the N-word because it reproduces racisms’ is a completely different statement than ‘be ashamed of this racist word’.”
Two points to this. First, it’s nobody’s business who loves whom, publicly or not publicly. When two people love each other, they do no harm. On the contrary: usually both are better off than without love and thus the whole environment of the lovers has a more pleasant life.
That is unfortunately different with flying. People who fly harm other people. They harm themselves, their neighbors, but also those who are affected by the melting of glaciers or the rise in sea levels. They deprive these often much poorer people of the basis of their existence.
Secondly, the rational arguments have been exchanged. They have been repeated for 30 or 40 years, and increasingly so in recent years, when the consequences of the climate crisis have become visible and tangible. So to those who are not accessible to rational arguments, one can only shout: shame on you! Societies change slowly, probably too slowly in the case of the climate crisis, but if people who invite others to an evening with slides from their China holiday only reap horrified looks, then perhaps something will change after all.6

Stefan Müller, reader’s letter, August 07, 2019

So, I think that those who know what they are doing since they follow the discussion, since they know about the damage they do should feel guilty since they are guilty. They knowingly destroy the basis of existence of their fellow human beings. Shame 1.0 (the Catholic Church version) is probably the wrong concept. The church 1.0 tried to make believers guilty for eating too much, for having sex with people outside of marriage, for sex without reproduction, for masturbation, for wanting control over their own body. Some of these rules may have been reasonable in the history of mankind, but there is no point insisting on them in present days. People who masturbate do not harm anybody. People who love each other and have sex, homosexual, straight or whatever do not cause any damage for society. On the contrary: Usually they are more pleasant people to interact with. But what we are talking about here is a behaviour that causes damage. And here one commandment of the church is relevant: Thou shalt not kill! This is not just one of the ten commandments, it is a rule all societies have. And this is the difference between masturbation and flying. For males masturbation results in a stain on the blanket while flying causes an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere leading to the death of people who do not even fly themselves. The stain is nothing to feel bad about, the CO2 is.

Sin and sale of indulgences 2.0

The term climate sin is used a lot in the media. It does not mean anything to me. I do not use it. I was brought up areligiously in East Germany. I do not believe in God. Well, maybe a bit. In the evening. But I know the concept of shame. For me it is independent of religion but I understand why people who had to suffer from the church fight the concept.

Another term is related to the Catholic Church: Ablasshandel (sale of indulgences). The differences between the real thing and the fake 2.0 version is that 1.0 made a powerful institution even more powerful so it could intensify shame 1.0 put on people. This is different for the sale of indulgences 2.0: This money actually supports projects avoiding CO2. It helps people in Kenia, in India. I flew a lot and I feel bad about this. I compensated these flights. I think there is a crucial difference here. The compensation is directly related to what one did. Having sex with your partner without marriage is not something bad to do in the first place but how could payment to some institution make this undone or compensate for it?

So those who have to fly should take any measure to take CO2 out of the atmosphere or avoid it elsewhere. The best thing of course would be to not fly in the first place.

Compartmentalization and smygflyga (secret flying)

Tadzio Müller writes that shaming does not help because people will just continue what they used to do but without telling anybody:

Two thoughts: First, if you want to upgrade shaming to a generalized control strategy (despite criticism of slut, fat or body shaming, for example), you should first talk to queer people, because we have considerable experience with what it feels like to live in a state of constant shaming. It feels like shit (“agonizing sensation”). But we do not change our behaviour permanently because of this – we split off: Compartmentalization is what this is called; and we continue with the collective but now invisible deviance.7

Tadzio Müller, Gesetze statt Scham, taz, August 03, 2019

A similar view can be found in an article by Die Zeit (discussing the concept of flight shame but arguing for avoidance of short distance trips):

Opinion makers would put pressure on social pressure and emphasize the embarrassment of flying. But there is a risk: that people would do it secretly, so smygflyga. Whether secretly or not, however, the climate would not care much.8

Klaus Raab, Der dumme Weltbürger, Zeit, May 17, 2019

As said above, shaming is probably the wrong word. Awareness, responsibilty is probably better. But let’s assume there would be the compartmentization that Tadzio Müller predicts and the smygflyga `secret flying’ feared by Klaus Raab. Would that be bad? Would we have gained something? I think yes. Consider smoking. Smoking was bad not just for the smoker but also for everybody who does not smoke. Kids, people in restaurants were affected. So smoking was forbidden. Advertisement restricted. Now, if flying is associated with irresponsibility, people will stop talking about it as if it was something great. They will stop showing off with their trips on Instagram. This will change society. People tend to compare themselves with others. If they do not know that their friends were in Vietnam, they do not feel the need to go there. If advertisement for flight trips is banned in addition, the demand in flights will decrease. Of course there will be forums in the net were people can exchange descriptions and pictures of their long distance trips but the influence will be much smaller. Like with smoking: it is uncool.

As for academics: The CVs are a very important part of the academic circus.9 You use it for job applications, for grant applications and so on. If your CV says that you gave talks in the US, China, South Africa, Australia, this gives away everything. So compartmentalization does not work in academia. We are all out and in the open. Check my list of talks if you want to. Objection: “But if flying is stigmatized people will not put it into their CVs anymore.” Answer: “Good. This means that the incentive to fly is gone. #FlightResponsibility won.” And even if academics continue flying and do not put their conference presentations into their CVs, their names will be contained in conference announcements and in conference proceedings. There is no way of ecaping the responsibility.

And finally: Whatever it is flight awareness or flight shame, there is a result in Sweden: even if some of the Swedes do smygflyga, the total number of flights decreased and the number of train trips increased. This shift occured against a global trend pointing into the other direction. So while the number of passangers increased globally by 7.1% in 2018, it was reduced by 9% in Sweden (comparing March 2018 with March 2019). This means that the effect of flygsakm is even bigger than just the 9% since it works against the global trend (the German increase was 4.2%).

Laws instead of shame or laws instead of responsibility

Tadzio Müller argues that we need laws to fix the situation:

Does shame convince you of paying your taxes? No. The law does. So let’s talk about ethics and laws rather than turning society as a whole into embarrassed and/or stubborn toddlers.10

Tadzio Müller, Gesetze statt Scham, taz, August 03, 2019

He asks: “Is it shame that makes you pay taxes? No, it is the law.” I think he is partly wrong here. There are perfectly leagel ways to avoid taxes and it is a question of responsibility for the society the respective tax payer lives in whether he or she tries to avoid paying or not. Do I move to Switzerland? The Canary Islands? Do I have to have a private swimming pool while the whole city decides to lower the temperature in public pools by 1 degree in order to save money? Again, shame is probably the wrong word. Responsibility may be nicer.


I guess Remi van Trijp’s and Tadzio Müller’s arguments against shame were not made in favor of billion dollar industries but they have the effect that changes are delayed. People refuse responsibilities and wait for the laws to be passed. As we know from the past decades, this will never happen or if it does, everything is painfully slow. The problem with this is: we, the human race, are facing an existential threat. And we have to act now. We have to take responsibility for our actions. We have to avoid flights, we have to reduce meat consumption and car traffic.

Let’s talk about flight responsibility instead of flight shame, lets talk about train pride to give it a positive twist. Researchers in Berlin/Brandenburg started the GretaChallenge and collect descriptions of (business) trips they did without flying.

I declared on August 05, 2019 that I will never fly again until CO2 neutral flying is possible.

Appendix: More shame

If you do not have enough yet, you may watch this video by Herbst in Peking (10:18min).

Shame by Herbst in Peking, Peking Records TV, June, 14. 2012
  1. Go to the Bloomberg website. These graphics are interactive.
  2. Which shows that a tax on CO2/kerosene would have an effect.
  3. „Zero-Emissionen in der Luftfahrt sind möglich“, sagte Rolf Henke, Vorstand des Deutschen Zentrums für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR): „In der zweiten Hälfte des Jahrhunderts sollte es Standard sein.“
  4. Sich für einen Flug zu schämen, ist also ein guter Einstieg in den Klimaschutz.
  5. Die Scham unterscheidet sich vom „schlechten Gewissen“, das ein reflektierendes und entscheidungsfähiges Subjekt anruft: „benutz nicht das N-Wort, weil es Rassismen reproduziert“, ist eine völlig andere Aussage als „schäm dich für dieses rassistische Wort“.
    Es ist daher die Scham, nicht das Gewissen, mit dem heteronormative Mehrheitsgesellschaften seit Beginn der kapitalistischen Moderne versuchen, queere Menschen zu kontrollieren und von abweichendem Verhalten abzuhalten.
  6. Tadzio Müller vergleicht Flugscham mit Scham, die bei queeren Menschen erzeugt wurde oder zu erzeugen versucht wurde. Er unterscheidet zwischen rationalen Argumenten und Shaming und schreibt: „Die Scham unterscheidet sich vom ,schlechten Gewissen‘, das ein reflektierendes und entscheidungsfähiges Subjekt anruft: ,benutz nicht das N-Wort, weil es Rassismen reproduziert‘, ist eine völlig andere Aussage als ,schäm dich für dieses rassistische Wort‘.“
    Dazu zwei Punkte. Erstens: Es geht niemanden etwas an, wer wen liebt, öffentlich oder nicht öffentlich. Wenn zwei Menschen sich lieben, schaden sie niemandem. Im Gegenteil: meist geht es beiden besser als ohne Liebe und somit hat auch das gesamte Umfeld der sich Liebenden ein schöneres Leben.

    Das ist beim Fliegen leider anders. Menschen, die fliegen, schaden anderen Menschen. Sie schaden sich, ihren Nächsten, aber auch denen, die vom Abschmelzen der Gletscher oder dem Anstieg der Meeresspiegel betroffen sind. Sie entziehen diesen oft viel ärmeren Menschen die Lebensgrundlage.

    Zweitens: Die rationalen Argumente sind ausgetauscht. Sie wurden 30, 40 Jahre wiederholt, und das in verstärktem Maße in den letzten Jahren, in denen die Folgen der Klimakrise sichtbar und fühlbar wurden. Denjenigen, die rationalen Argumenten nicht zugänglich sind, kann man also nur zurufen: Schäm dich! Gesellschaften ändern sich langsam, im Fall der Klimakrise wahrscheinlich zu langsam, aber wenn Personen, die andere zu einem Abend mit Dias von ihrem China-Urlaub einladen, nur entsetzte Blicke ernten, dann ändert sich vielleicht doch etwas.

  7. Dazu zwei Gedanken: Erstens, wer Shaming zu einer verallgemeinerten Kontrollstrategie aufwerten will (trotz Kritiken zum Beispiel am Slut-, Fat- oder Body-Shaming), sollte zuerst einmal mit queeren Menschen ins Gespräch kommen, denn wir haben erhebliche Erfahrung damit, wie es sich anfühlt, im Zustand des dauernden Geshamt-Werdens zu leben. Es fühlt sich scheiße an („quälende Empfindung“). Nur ändern wir deswegen nicht dauerhaft unser Verhalten – wir spalten ab: Abschottung („compartmentalization“) wird das genannt; und machen munter weiter mit der kollektiven, jetzt aber unsichtbaren Devianz.
  8. Meinungsmacher würden auf sozialen Druck setzen und die Peinlichkeit des Fliegens betonen. Das allerdings beinhalte ein Risiko: dass die Leute es dann eben heimlich täten, also smygflyga. Ob heimlich oder nicht, wäre dem Klima aber ziemlich schnuppe.
  9. People organized in are exploring ways of changing this.
  10. Überzeugt Scham Sie davon, Ihre Steuern zu zahlen? Nein. Das Gesetz tut dies. Also lassen Sie uns lieber über Ethik und Gesetze reden, als die gesamte Gesellschaft zu verschämten und/oder bockigen Kleinkindern zu machen.

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