We need to talk about aviation…

Barry McMullin, DCU School of Electronic Engineering
Twitter: @autofac
email: barry.mcmullin@dcu.ie
November 2018

[This is a slightly revision version of a post that first appeared on the DCU Brexit Institute Blog.]

I recently received an invitation from the DCU Brexit Institute to its next seminar, on the subject of Brexit and Aviation. It seems like an important and timely topic, with an excellent line up of expert and well informed speakers. Unfortunately, due to other prior commitments, I was unable to sign up to attend. Nonetheless, it did stimulate me to wonder what the scope of the discussions may be; and whether, in particular, it may venture into the truly challenging conversations that, I believe, we all need to be having about aviation (and much else besides!)...

The conversations I have in mind would go rather far beyond the most immediate headline concerns of aviation licences, approvals, certificates, and specific aerospace projects or collaborations (e.g., UK-Ireland flights will be grounded without post-Brexit deal, Irish Times; Hard Brexit will fail UK aerospace, Flight International; European Aerospace Braces for Hard Brexit, AIN Online). Instead these more profound conversations would start with the pressing global context of existential threat to our shared living environment: most urgently in the form of rapid, human-caused, climate disruption, but more generally in systemic overshoot of multiple planetary boundaries. It’s not that this context is unknown, hidden, or even seriously contested: but nonetheless we seem to still be sleepwalking in a parallel universe of cognitive dissonance and implicatory denial, where we can “know”, fully, that human society is plunging rapidly into deep ecological crisis, while simultaneously celebrating the joys of ludicrously “cheap” flying visits to Kiev, Kraków, Lisbon or Transylvania, and aspiring to seemingly insatiable growth in our collective aviation appetite.

But is it fair to pick on aviation as a special target for such difficult (and, let’s admit, potentially rather dismal) conversation? Even if we focus on climate specifically, and acknowledge that, of course, aviation does contribute to some extent, it is still surely only a small part of our overall planetary footprint (perhaps only 2-3% of current annual climate pollution? pffft!). And anyway, surely this is all well under control, and isn’t the aviation industry already leading the way in setting ambitious and robust targets for fully “green and sustainable growth”?

Sadly, of course, it is not as simple as that. In truth, the aviation sector has a number of more or less unique features which mean it really does need to be singled out for special discussion:

And then again, in “good news” (of a sort) our conversation might go on to reflect on the fact that aviation is, after all, not absolutely essential to human health or wellbeing. It is actually perfectly possible to envisage highly fulfilling ways of life that involve a lot less flying: and many people are actively starting to explore this.

Recent progress in communications technologies mean that many professional and business activities can now be effectively decoupled from long distance physical travel. There is an active petition for Universities and Professional Associations to reconsider their practices in relation to flying. And, without abandoning flying completely, the fundamental social inequity of the current model of global aviation could actually be actively moderated — if we can muster the collective will, and collective solidarity, to do so. And perhaps — just perhaps — if Brexit were to have the effect of slowing or even reversing some of the recent headlong growth of aviation in these islands, there may be ways to ensure that this is not the wholly negative outcome that might at first appear!

In closing, let me wish the participants in the seminar on Brexit and Aviation every success in your discussions and explorations. Managing a creative and constructive response to the challenges of Brexit is a worthy endeavour across all sectors, and is, of course, acutely impactful for those of us living in all parts of the island of Ireland. But I do hope you will still find some time to look beyond Brexit, and even beyond aviation, to view those specific topics in the wider context of our shared global predicament, a context that will necessarily transcend this (relatively) localised upheaval. Regardless of our current political affiliations and divisions, our cultural or ethnic backgrounds, our creeds or genders, this wider context surely suggests ethical demands that must (ultimately?) unite us in securing the future of our common home.