New book by Kimberly Nicholas on being human in a time of climate breakdown

Review of Kimberly Nicholas, Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021).

By Joseph Nevins

Feelings are a not a subject one typically encounters in a book on climate change, especially a book written by an environmental scientist. But as Kimberly Nicholas, a professor at Lund University in Sweden, asserts in Under the Sky We Make, “this is a different kind of climate book, one that’s not only about the science.”

Nicholas presents the overwhelming scientific case for anthropogenic global heating in compelling and lucid prose for a non-specialist audience. She also shares many stories from her personal journey, contending that scientific understanding is not sufficient to meet the challenges of climate breakdown. We already have the technical knowledge we need, she insists. In addition, we must tap into “the strength of our feelings about what we most fear, grieve, and love.” Only by being fully human “can we start to head toward the solutions at the speed and scale we need.’

The ”we” that Nicholas invokes is differentiated by profound inequities in the people and places most responsible for the climate crisis and how the resulting harms are experienced. In terms of the resolution of that crisis, she says much depends on the United States—as the world’s largest economy and the biggest historical emitter of CO2. If U.S. Americans begin taking climate change seriously, it would serve as “an enormously powerful accelerator of climate action worldwide,” declares Nicholas, not least because of the global influence of the U.S. model of consumption.

At the same time, Nicholas emphasizes that power, wealth and privilege do not insulate us from the ill effects of climate change. The fires that devastated large portions of California’s wine grape fields “happened in rich neighborhoods, in a rich state, in the richest country on Earth.” This shows that “no one is safe in a destabilized climate”—an assertion that has proven painfully true as evidenced by this summer’s floods in Germany and Belgium, devastating wildfires in Canada and record-high temperatures in the U.S. Northwest resulting in hundreds of deaths .

Nicholas grew up in Sonoma, California on her family’s vineyard. And her grandfather was a highly successful industrial turkey farmer. She calls modern agriculture “the main driver of the biodiversity crisis.” The huge physical footprint of modern agriculture—human beings use about half of the world’s ice-free land to feed ourselves, Nicholas reports–and its chemical intensity combine to destroy habitat and poison wildlife, while intensifying the climate crisis.

Until fairly recently, Nicholas confesses, she was a very high-level consumer, largely due to her frequent flyer status: In 2010, her “peak flying year,” she took fifteen round-trip flights for reasons of both work and pleasure. Seventy-two percent of global climate pollution is due to household consumption, she points out.

Professor Nicholas implicitly rejects the position that producers are ultimately responsible for what we do. Producers and consumers “are part of the same system” and, thus, consumers, particularly the world’s top ten percent (which includes anyone in the United States with an income of more than $38,000 per year), have an important role to play. Drawing on the work of climate scientist Kevin Anderson, she notes that if the richest 10 percent of the world’s population were to reduce their emissions to the current level of the average European (still a high standard of living on a global scale) that by itself would result in a one-third cut in global emissions.

Nicholas says “responsibility scales with power.” Yes, there are certainly people and institutions with a lot more responsibility and power than she has, but she refuses to let herself (or her well-heeled, high-consuming readers) off the hook. Rather than “sweating the small stuff,” Nicholas urges hi-emitters to focus on big actions on the personal front. She thus calls upon herself and others to do their utmost to go flight-, car-, and meat-free. As she sees it (and she draws on considerable research to back up this position), such personal-level change is necessarily part and parcel of collective, systemic transformation.

Kimberly Nicholas, Senior Lecturer, Center for Sustainability Studies, Lund University

The transformation entails a shift from what Nicholas calls an exploitation mindset—one predicated on the domination of people and nature as well as convenience and efficiency (of a narrow sort)—to a mindset of regeneration. The Regeneration Mindset focuses on “working with rather than against nature and bringing out the best of ourselves and one another.” It is based on three simple ideas: Respect life; stop harming life; and strengthen life. These ideas provide key elements of the effort to “create a world we love rather than one we fear.”

At the time of this writing, climate-change-intensified wildfires rage from California and Canada to Greece and Siberia. This is a world of our collective making. But we can remake the sky under which we live. Through her captivating and inspiring book, Kimberly Nicholas has helped us see the necessity of doing exactly that, while providing many of the tools to do so. She also illuminates the beautiful potential of pursuing that journey.

End-of-2020 Update, Part 1

It has a been a while since our last update, so we have a lot to share! As such, we are dividing this update into two parts. This first one focuses on developments outside of academia. The second part—which we’ll post in a few weeks—will concentrate largely on goings-on in and around the academy, not least in terms of new publications that speak to the concerns of the FlyingLess movement.

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Youth of Dehradun, India protest proposed expansion of the nearby Jolly Green Airport, and the associated felling of over 200 acres of forest, October 2020. Photo from @Youth4ClimateIn on Twitter.

Without question, the pandemic’s impact on the travel industry, and on passenger airlines in particular, has been devastating. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), there were 900 million fewer international tourists in January -October (2020) than there were during the same period of 2019; this constitutes a 72 percent drop in international arrivals, a decline back to 1990 levels.

Not all these arrivals happened through air travel. Still, the tourism drop serves as a good proxy for the decline experienced by passenger aviation. In late September, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecast  a 66 percent decline in air passenger traffic for all of 2020; And even though many airports saw an increase in passengers around Christmas, it unfolded in the larger context of decline. Thus, in the United States for instance, air travel on Christmas Eve was about 60 percent less than it had been in 2019.

The dramatic decrease has had large impacts on jobs. In the city of Boston, for example, Logan Airport (the 16th busiest airport in the United States) had a 61 percent decline in flights in October over the previous year and an 80 percent drop in the number of passengers. As a result, the Massachusetts Port Authority (MassPort), which owns and operates the airport, announced a 25 percent cut in its workforce in November.

For proponents of the passenger airline industry, the hope is that such downturns are temporary. Indeed, entities such as the UN’s International Civilian Aviation Organization (ICAO) , assert that a resurgence in air travel (of a supposedly “green” variety) is key to the recovery of the world’s economy from the coronavirus-related downturn. And among the privileged classes—those who enjoy air travel—there is a clear desire to return to the pre-pandemic normal.

One manifestation is the popularity of “flights to nowhere” during the pandemic. Another is a recent piece in The New York Times “Opinion” section—part of series of commentaries on what life will be like in 2021. The author, Tariro Mzezewa, a travel reporter, writes that she looks forward to her first post-pandemic flight, “to [sliding] into my window seat on the plane “ She also suggests that “perhaps” the biggest lesson from the pandemic“ is that instead of waiting 20 years to go on that big trip, go as soon as you can.”

These embraces of aeromobility suggest an ever bigger,  or more important, lesson: it will take a lot to dislodge the assumptions underlying a presumed “right” to fly, consume lots of resources, and generate large amounts of co2 emissions in the process among the hypermobile—even in the pages of a newspaper that regularly reports on the ravages associated with climate breakdown.

That said, there are signs of shifting attitudes as well as changing practices in various places. June, for example, saw Switzerland’s parliament vote in favor of a tax on all individuals departing from the country by plane, with the tax increasing n the basis of the distance and class of travel. (France is now considering even higher taxes on air travel.) Also in June, the Swiss government instituted a new rule, effective July 1, 2020, requiring that its officials travel by train rather than plane if the journey does not exceed six hours. The regulation is part of Switzerland’s mandate to cut CO2 emissions from air travel by 30 percent by 2030.

Around the same time, two deputies of France’s National Assembly proposed a law that would give individuals a “carbon quota” as a way of limiting air travel and flight-related air pollution. Meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron announced that the government would “redevelop” night trains as part of a national effort to reduce co2 emissions, pledging to restore overnight lines between Paris and Nice, as well as with Tarbes in the Pyrenees, by 2022. Similarly, in Sweden, the government announced that it would launch overnight trains linking the cities of Stockholm and Malmö with Hamburg and Brussels, also in 2022. And in the United Kingdom, the rail industry’s High Speed Rail Group has called for sleeper trains to pass through the Channel Tunnel to allow for overnight, international travel as way of helping the country main in climate goals.

Such UK-based advocacy speaks to the findings of two surveys conducted in May by the University of Manchester and Cardiff University for the Centre for Climate and Social Transformation (CAST). They found that concerns about the climate had grown in the United Kingdom during the pandemic lockdown. In fact, many said that they intend to fly less for holidays and there was a marked increase in support for limiting flying for reasons of climate change. For CAST director Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, the results “highlight that policy makers need to act now to lock-in low-carbon routines that people have adopted during lockdown and avoid people slipping back into their old, high-carbon ways.”

Central to efforts “to lock in low-carbon routines” is the transformation of infrastructure. This involves efforts to prevent the expansion of airports and the building of new ones. (To facilitate such efforts, the Stay Grounded network hosted a webinar on “lessons learned” from anti-airport actions and campaigns. Below is a video of the illuminating event, which took place in November.)

But as the campaign to block the expansion of India’s Jolly Grant Airport reminds us, efforts that seek to prevent the expansion of airport infrastructure are not only a matter of climate change. They also concern the protection of habitat and biodiversity—the destruction of which, it turns out, is a key factor in the emergence of the coronavirus. The plans to grow the airport near Dehradun (in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand) is said to necessitate the felling of more than ten thousand trees.

On this front, London City Airport’s announcement in August that it had decided to put “on hold” its plans for expansion is welcome. However, the announcement made clear that the Airport intends to resume the expansion if and when demand for flying returns post-pandemic.

The refusal of many in the epidemiologically threatening times in which we live to alter their behavior to protect the well-being of all shows that we cannot rely only on individual goodwill in the fight against climate breakdown. As demonstrated by many deciding to fly during this holiday season despite official warnings of the dangers of travel for public health, strong regulation is needed.

In the case of aviation, this means altering the infrastructure that allows for flying—radically downsizing (and, in many cases, eliminating) airports in other words. A lesson from the Covid-related economic recession and the associated pain experienced by many is the sooner we recognize the need for downsizing, the better. Only through such recognition and appropriate action we will be to plan and implement a transition in infrastructure that protects workers as well as their families and communities, while responding adequately to the demands of intensifying climate change.

Christopher Hore, Alstair Chestermn and Drew Long of Extinction Rebellion hold socially distanced protest against expansion of Leeds Bradford Airport outside Leeds Civic Hall. 21 May 2020. Picture: Bruce Rollinson, The Yorkshire Post.

Greenwashing Aviation: A Webinar on Industry Efforts

Stay Grounded: Global Action Week against aviation expansion |

With global air traffic markedly down, passenger airlines are doing their utmost to lay the foundation for a return to “normal.” One way they’re doing so is by touting their allegedly “green” endeavors. Fortunately, such “greenwashing” has not gone unchallenged.

Last month, Stay Grounded hosted a webinar titled “Greenwashing and False Solutions.” Stay Grounded is a global network made up of organizations fighting airport expansion; it also includes climate justice groups, NGOs, trade unions, and initiatives fostering alternatives to aviation and struggles against offset projects or biofuel plantations. Its November 6, 2020 webinar explored “the various elaborate ways in which the aviation industry is seeking to talk about ‘green aviation’.” The webinar featured invaluable presentations by five individuals:

Finlay Asher (Scotland), former aerospace engineer & aircraft engine designer, Rolls Royce;

Alethea Warrington (London, England) Campaigns Manager, Possible;

Almuth Ernsting (Edinburgh, Scotland), Co-Director of Biofuel Watch;

Gary Hughes (San Francisco Bay Area, California) California Policy Monitor, Biofuel Watch; and

Simone Lovera (Asunción, Paraguay) Executive Director, Global Forest Coalition.

FlyingLess is happy to be able to share the webinar with you here.