Flight shame – being sick as a dog


“I cannot sleep.”
“I know, just keep trying.”
“I feel so nauseous.”
“Try to get it out, you’ll feel better afterwards.”
“I can’t vomit …”, my daughter keeps squirming and whining in her seat. The lights are dimmed down, it is 2 am German time. We have left Germany 3 hours ago and are now somewhere over the Atlantic on our way to Costa Rica, where we’ll be living for half a year.

My poor child has not even touched the kids’ dinner, decorated with pirates, quizzes and sweets. She is still suffering from a severe tummy bug, that kept her at home on her last day at school in Freiburg. How unfortunate. Her class had prepared a farewell surprise for her today …

“I feel so sick”, she clutches her sea sickness bag under her nose. But we are not at sea. We are high in the air.

I feel very sick too. Flight shame? Yes, partially. A feeling of shame like the one that creeps up from the stomach to the throat when cheating in school, stealing from the shop or not giving to the needy.

But overlapping I too feel the tormenting tummy bug that my child has caught surging in my own body. It had kick-started a few hours later than for her. My stomach suddenly churns in circles, trying to break out in all directions.

Before our departure, I had planned to redact a sharp ‘flight shame’ blog during the evening hours of the long-haul flight. But so far I have been occupied with a sick child, while Amiram was keeping the chirpy and excited younger sibling away from her sick sister. And now I feel far too miserable to even think – yet feel properly ashamed.

She hands me the paper bag and notions me to throw it into the toilet.
“But the bag’s empty!”, I exclaim.
“No, there is something inside. It’s just that there is nothing much coming out anymore”, she groans exhausted.

As I return on wobbly legs to our seats and squeeze back into the tight space, I recognise in the dark that her head has finally leaned over to the little oval window, where she has fallen asleep.
I try to relax my screaming stomach muscles in order to capture necessary hours of sleep myself. In vain. But instead of haunting thoughts around carbon emissions and climate crisis, I fight my tormenting urge to run to the bathroom every 15 minutes.

When she wakes me up at 7 am German time (midnight Costa Rica time), I notice that I must have finally managed to fall asleep as well.
“I feel a lot better. And I am hungry!”, my daughter exclaims upbeat. I grin weakly, as I notice that she is still ahead of me on the sickness curve. At least she is starting to recover. I shall still need a few more hours to get to that point. Just in time for the landing…

In retrospect I find it difficult to add some meaningful thoughts around the carbon footprint of flying and the shame of being responsible for it. A lot has been said already. We are producing 1.6 tonnes of CO2 for the one-way flight to Costa Rica. This is less than driving a car for a year, which we don’t. In 2019, we managed to cut our carbon footprint further with measures such as: Moving into a very low energy house, by continuing to eat a vegetarian and organic diet, as well as by more radically adapting our consumption habits (clothes, gear, presents, etc) to 3.5t CO2 per person p.a.. By comparison the German average is 11.6t p.a.. But as our societies need to achieve 1.2t of CO2 per person p.a., we acknowledged that the 3.5t are still not good enough. And for the first time we compensated for the remainder of our emissions, hence have gone net carbon zero.

The fact that we were not able to find a lower CO2 transport option for the way to Costa Rica, keeps nagging me. Container-ships to the Caribbean would not take us and our young children, and we did not feel die-hard enough to cross the Atlantic through winter storms on a sailing boat with the kids.

When mentioning this to an activist friend of mine, she had responded:
“Remember, the most important goal at the moment is to change the system. So that it is not only up to the individuals’ sacrifice, if we meet our climate goals or not, but up to a fairly distributed share from everyone, north or south, rich or poor, old or young.”
It had comforted me, a bit … But it did not remove the feeling of shame. Shame is important.