Lydia Davis on Making the Decision
Not to Fly

In Conversation (at a Distance) with Johanne Fronth-Nygren

I came to know Johanne Fronth-Nygren first as the translator of my fiction into Norwegian, then as a friend, an occasional coach in the Norwegian language, and finally author of some short texts of her own that I in turn translated from Norwegian into English. She and I began our exchanges about not flying and other life choices nearly two years ago, via email and also, more formally, at an event for the God Natt Oslo festival last September—I via Skype on a giant screen like the Wizard of Oz and Johanne there on stage.

Although we seem to have arrived at similar mindsets, Johanne and I belong not only to different cultures—mine American and hers Norwegian—but also to different generations. I am close to the age of her mother, she is close to the age of my older son. She lives in the city of Oslo with her young daughter, but has family and friends in the UK; I live with my husband in a small village in rural New York State a few hours by train from New York City.

This conversation, of course, predated the coronavirus emergency. And yet, despite the drastic upheaval our world is and has been experiencing, I feel that climate change is the greater emergency. The virus causes us to take more urgent actions, we are losing loved ones more swiftly, and we are more bewildered—it came upon us more suddenly. But climate change will do far more lasting damage—eternal damage—and take away many more lives, entire cultures, and whole populations of people, plants, animals and insects.

Our emergency responses to the COVID virus should, really, be the prologue or the dress rehearsal for a more extended action to counter climate disaster—since we still have a little time to avoid the very worst of it. Some of the limitations we are accepting now should, probably, become part of our way of life.  That is the question: when the immediate danger of the virus passes, will many of us, those of us who can afford to, go right back to our heavy consumption, our wasteful spending, our extensive traveling, our environmentally destructive “normal”?

The conversation between Johanne and me as it unfolded was more fragmented and intermittent than we’re presenting it here. The decision to stop flying continues to feel, to both of us, positive and beneficial, rather than a deprivation.

–Lydia Davis

*

LD: For the last few years I’ve been uncomfortable continuing my literary life exactly as usual, particularly flying to places both in the US and overseas and talking about literature as if there were no grave problem facing the world. And I didn’t know what to do about it. I think I was either too polite or simply not decisive enough. I felt I had to meet expectations, participate by reading and talking about my writing, instead of standing up behind the podium and saying: During these 45 minutes I’m only going to talk about the climate crisis. I would have felt I was throwing cold water on the conviviality of the festival or disappointing the organizers.

But an interview with Greta Thunberg sparked something in me, and then, when a writer friend of mine said she wasn’t flying anymore, I immediately reacted with a firm Yes: this was the right thing to do. I tend to have a habit of judging, appraising—myself and everything else. And if I recognize the value of an action or a way of living, I want to try and adopt it for myself. Studying how to live, how to create habits that I consider of value, is something I’ve tried to do for a long time. It’s not a new thing, but the climate emergency has given it a different perspective and made it more urgent.

JFN: To stop flying was actually the easiest of the decisions I’ve made in an attempt to live more sustainably. The gap between what I knew—and increasingly felt in my guts—was right, and what I did in fact do became too wide to bridge by “rational” explanations. My then nine-year-old daughter started reading about climate issues and about Greta, and decided that she was going to join the climate school strikes in Oslo. Her question: “what are you doing to secure my future?” brought my past in environmental organizations back to me and woke me from my grown-up complacency. We live a fairly sound life: a small flat, no car, no second home, meat about once a week, organic produce, most clothes are second-hand and get mended, everything that can be recycled gets recycled, etc. But I knew I couldn’t justify our air travel. Many would probably say I had valid reasons to fly: to visit family and friends abroad, to do work, to attend weddings and birthdays, the odd holiday trip. Nothing too frivolous.

But I found this rationale bothering me more and more. It is the privileged middle class speaking, we who will always have “good reasons” to fly, our relations and our work being so important that their value somehow cancels out the destruction we inflict on our and everybody else’s environment as we maintain them at the level we have become accustomed to. There’s an arrogance, an injustice and a stupidity in this that I couldn’t perpetuate. Of course flying is just the tip of the iceberg of global inequality, but I think it’s a good place to start making changes, because it affects both the concrete level of emissions, and the dangerous sense of entitlement and detachment that the wealthiest part of the world treats the rest with. Most estimates I’ve read say that only 5 to 12 percent of the people alive today have been on a plane. The majority of air travel is undertaken by a mere 2 percent of the world’s population.

“If I’m not willing to spend a few days journeying somewhere for something, it means it’s too far for that particular purpose.”

LD: I’m fascinated that giving up flying was the easiest bit for you. For me, it has been the largest, the decision that changes things the most, not so much in practical terms as in existential ones. The very monumentality of the decision, after a lifetime of traveling and involvement with foreign cultures and languages, shocks me into other actions. It’s a bit like the neat (and oft-repeated) formulation: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” My version would be: “I only realize how serious the situation is when I see what I’m doing.” And following from that is: When I see how serious it is, I take more and more actions.

I think of it this way, that I take action in a widening circle: first, in my own home and yard—my husband and I are growing fruit trees and other plants useful for us and the wildlife, we’ve installed rain barrels behind an outbuilding for watering the garden, we’re researching options for solar panels. We’re trying to buy as little as possible—moratorium on new clothes, for now—and then as locally as possible; we go to the farmers’ market more faithfully, my diet is vegetarian, we’ve joined a food coop. We’re trying to eliminate plastic and reduce our quantity of trash.

Widening the circle a little, within our small community, I’ve been on the governing board of our village for a few years now, working with others to certify it as a climate smart community, which puts me in touch with like-minded people who have taken similar action in other communities. Beyond the immediate community I complain to organizations that have practices with negative impacts; and I’ve cut ties to companies that support fossil fuel, including canceling the big-bank credit card. And so on! And yet I’m not doing nearly enough—I keep discovering more. (A visiting friend says, “Do you realize how much water it takes to grow those almonds you like so much?”)

JFN: That the decision not to fly spurs more actions holds true for me too, but more as in “now that I’ve been able to make that one decision, I’m able to make others.” To me it was empowering to reject an aspect of life that had seemed integral to my sense of freedom, something I thought I couldn’t give up. I used to feel that if I stopped flying, I would be rejecting the rules of the social and professional web I’m part of and which supports me, and that I would cut myself off from the world, limit myself, forfeit possibilities. But once the cognitive dissonance between values and practice got too big to bear without going crazy, and I’d made the decision, it felt the opposite of restricting, it felt—and still feels—liberating. I realized I didn’t need to fly, and to be free of needs is always a privilege, a source of pleasure and possibilities. I felt empowered by the fact that I’d managed to put up this small act of resistance against the world view I’d been caught up in. It felt like I’d reclaimed the concept of choice from its current consumerist definition, where it merely describes the action of buying one product instead of another, and had restored choice, in this one very small instance, to what it used to be: a decision that carries meaning, a choice to do or not to do what one considers right.

All the “smaller” actions—attempts to feed us more sustainably (as I live in the city and can’t grow my own food, I’ve joined a cooperative farm on the outskirts of Oslo, in addition to a coop working with nearby farms), to minimize the amount of rubbish we produce, to buy less stuff, to work politically on green housing and city planning—I find more difficult than the “big” action not to fly. These changes require daily effort, and are dependent on huge systems of people (how and where do we grow our food, how do we package it, transport it; how is our energy produced, how are our houses built; how do we get our clothes repaired if they’re not made for repairing; how do we change the rituals of gift giving from exchanges of things to exchanges of time and attention?), whereas the decision not to fly was a definite choice I could make on my own from one day to the next. In that way it was the easiest one so far.

LD: The decision not to fly does imply a limitation, but in a positive sense, I think. It results in a greater concentration on the local, on valuing what is here. Once I am not expecting more and more, looking outward farther and farther, a circle is drawn around what I have, but within that circle there is more attention, I look deeper inside the circle, and what remains has greater value.

It was hard to face the idea of never going to Europe again, particularly France. I have had so many years of close involvement in the literature and culture of France, I lived there for more than two years when I was in my twenties, and I’ve gone back many times. It has figured in stories I’ve written, I spent months last winter writing a long essay about the southern French city of Arles, and the South of France is central to an upcoming project… Other European countries and cultures have been important to me, too—Austria, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain. And I have close family and friends in the UK. I envy you for being at least within train-trip distance of so many other countries.

But, really, I can do a good deal of my research without going anywhere. I have books, movies, libraries, notes I’ve taken, and memories of Europe. And then I have many valuable pleasures right here, like, the book club I belong to, the great local radio station, virtual visits with faraway friends and remote attendance at festivals, the library’s twice monthly ukulele “jam sessions” led by a kindly professional performer—a recent pastime that requires only a ten-minute car ride and no electricity—as well as concert series and museums within a 45-minute drive, the cities of Boston and New York by bus or train. And trips across the border into what will be our only foreign country now—Canada!

Another, more practical drawback of not flying, in fact, has to do with income: part of the way I was earning my living was to fly to, say, Virginia or Los Angeles or Georgia to give a reading or visit a class. There was one fall during which I flew to five different destinations—though that was the worst, I think. Now that I’ve stopped flying, there goes that part of the income, unless I’m willing to take a long train trip, to Chicago, for instance—which I might be. But in exchange for reduced income, I am at home more of the time, writing more, working more in the garden, being more at peace, because of course each of those visits required preparation beforehand and recovery afterwards, and time. They were stimulating and enlivening, but also wearing. By not flying, I’m simplifying my priorities and gaining in the peace and thoughtfulness of my life.

JFN: Yes, by not giving myself the option of fast travel, I see more clearly what matters. This happens in two ways. Firstly, I am very aware of the fortunes in my everyday life: to live with my daughter in a sun-filled flat in a safe and clean neighborhood in a welfare state, with easy access to good healthcare, schools and public transport; to have a job I enjoy and can do pretty much on my own terms; to have parks, forests, the fjord nearby—and have time to enjoy all of this. This daily appreciation makes me wonder if cheap flights perhaps function as a safety valve for the frustrations of many people who lead stressful, cramped lives they need (and can afford) to escape from.

A friend of mine in London put it bluntly: “If I couldn’t fly on weekend trips and holidays to get away from the daily grind, I’d go mad.” To me it seems that air travel helps to distract the attention of the middle and upper-working classes from the real problems at home. If we couldn’t escape them, we might not put up with them. We might challenge working and living conditions that don’t provide everyone with happy lives. For the last year I’ve been thinking a lot about what would happen if we all stayed at home for a while—and now this is happening, albeit in a forced and rather extreme way! I’m curious to see the long-term effects of our current groundedness, if they’ll be good or bad—probably both.

The second aspect has to do with the act of travelling itself. If I’m not willing to spend a few days journeying somewhere for something, it means it’s too far for that particular purpose. An example: I was asked to have a public conversation in Tromsø with a Syrian writer I’ve worked with. This is the kind of event I would like to take part in, but the distance I would have had to travel was grotesquely disproportionate to the 45 minutes the conversation would have lasted (Tromsø is roughly as far away from Oslo as Paris is in the opposite direction—about two hours on a plane, but with trains and buses, the return trip would have taken me five days!). To stay on the ground means that I adjust my way of life to the real distances of the world, not the other way around, so to speak.

LD: Yes, the decision not to fly has given me a real appreciation of how far away Europe actually is from the US. When you can fly there, it’s only one uncomfortable night in the airplane, but when you can’t fly, when you have to stay on the surface of the earth, you would have to go slowly by boat if you went at all, and then you would really see how far it is and how big the world is. An ancestor of mine was a merchant seaman who would sail from Boston to Marseille, Shanghai, wherever, and it would take him a very long time. Often he would have only an approximate idea of his latitude and longitude. If one ship came within sight of another in the middle of the ocean, they would hail each other and ask, in effect: Where do you think you are? They would compare coordinates and that’s how they would figure out where they probably were.

I think of my ancestor and then of other family, and I keep coming back to the realization that our current habits of over-consumption and incessant travel are very recent—maybe about 60 years old. Historically, most people, including people who could afford it, were content with much less. The vacation that a middle-class family might take in the 50s in the US was often just to drive a hundred or two hundred miles from Connecticut or Massachusetts to Vermont, to a lakeside cottage for a week or so, and that would be it for the year. A meal out in a restaurant would be a special occasion that happened once or twice a year. That was it, and they weren’t unhappy. That’s what amazes me, that we could be perfectly happy with much less, including much less stuff, stuff shipped from all over the world and delivered the next day, and we might save so much pain and suffering.

“I keep coming back to the realization that our current habits of over-consumption and incessant travel are very recent—maybe about 60 years old.”

During the years that I knew her, my mother-in-law (born in 1910) had just a few outfits. She rarely bought new clothing, or anything new at all. She did not feel the need of acquiring new things, certainly not as a source of pleasure—in fact, she grew up at a time when people weren’t being urged (by advertisers) to indulge themselves. What was preached in those days was the work ethic and doing right by others. She enjoyed life, but her pleasures were modest by our standards. She and her husband visited with their friends. She went berry picking with her two children. Later on, she listened to her favorite women’s basketball team on the radio. People can be, and are, quite happy with simple things like playing games, making music, cooking together, dancing, just talking. Most of these things don’t even require fossil fuel! My mother-in-law made some of her own clothes, as did both my grandmothers and occasionally my mother—and just think how you value a piece of clothing if you made it yourself!

We won’t necessarily return to that—or rather, some of us will—but I’ve always believed we should be able to integrate the good aspects of the older ways of life with the good aspects of the newer. For instance, I could work at the computer all morning, attend a meeting remotely, and then walk or bike to my neighbor’s place to get some fresh eggs—and I do, actually! I just think it’s important to realize how recent today’s travel and consumer habits are, how brief this consumer frenzy has been so far, from the perspective of someone born in the mid-twentieth century or earlier. My mother was born before the first successful airplane flight, when there were still more horses than cars on the streets, my father when he was a kid put together his own radio set, etc. Things weren’t thrown away casually; nothing was wasted; everything was used. I think we could return to that kind of thrift.  There’s an esthetic pleasure in it, in fact—wasting nothing. If you were born in 1980 or 1990, you may have a different perspective.

JFN: Well, I was born in Norway in 1980, and haven’t experienced anything but capitalism and continuous economic growth. It can be difficult to look outside the world view that comes with this. But I grew up with a father who was born in 1925, had helped support his family as an errand boy through the hard 30s and remembered the rare luxury of eating a banana; while my mother was raised in the lean postwar years when everything was reused, resewn, food never thrown away, the vacations spent in a converted ten square meter kiosk on the outskirts of the town she grew up in. My parents’ upbringing formed my upbringing, so in many ways I mentally belong to your generation—or the one before! One of the best things they taught me is that creativity and frugality are closely connected.

Still, my childhood differed from theirs—most significantly in that I took my first trip abroad when I was just a year old (by car and train to France), and flew abroad at least once a year from the age of five. These were the days when air travel was still the fairytale exception, best captured in William Eggleston’s iconic photo “En route to New Orleans”, of a jewel-like sun caught in an iced drink by a blue-skied window, specks of fluffy clouds beneath. Maybe because my otherwise thrifty and socially conscientious parents allowed us the luxury of these trips (mainly to European cities), and the places we visited filled me with such wonder, I continued to see my own flying as a teenager and grown-up as something close to a cultural necessity. Bringing up my own daughter now, I realize that this historically rare and brief moment of untroubled mobility is over, at least for me. In some ways the decision to stop flying meant that I abandoned a stubborn childhood fantasy, maybe the very last.

LD: Yes, you are standing back from this moment in time and taking the long view of our habits and cultures, and that is revealing. I’ve also been thinking about our individual actions in relation to the larger culture that surrounds us.

If so many people we know are flying, that makes it easier for us to ignore the facts and continue to fly ourselves.  It is quite commonplace for people to begin, or shift, a conversation with, “So, will you be taking any trips this year? Are you getting away to someplace warm this winter?” And every time you hear this sort of question, it reinforces the idea that to fly somewhere, wherever you like, is perfectly all right, and normal. The only challenge is to find a relatively affordable flight. “I found a cheap flight, so I went for the weekend,” you hear someone say. And the numbers of flights every year, and flying for pleasure, have been increasing, not decreasing. And yet the carbon footprint of each overseas flight is enormous—an emission of something like one ton of carbon dioxide per passenger for a single flight from New York to London.

And of course you will come home again—that makes two tons. And maybe your partner goes with you. So together you have “spent” four tons of carbon dioxide. Add in your possible two children and you have spent eight tons—and that’s just the beginning of your vacation, and that’s only a small part of your total year’s worth of carbon expenditure. And yet we are supposed to stay under two tons a year per person worldwide if we are to avoid the worst of the climate emergency. One round-trip flight to London would use the entire year’s allowance for each of us. Flying is the single worst thing we can do, personally, in terms of carbon emissions.

Of course people will say, and do say, about my decision, that one person’s action doesn’t make any difference. Our individual actions can seem so isolated. But a single action can have an effect on other people, we are influenced by the people around us, and one action can begin to change the larger culture. It is at least something we can do as individuals. Many of us need other people to set an example before we can do what is so clearly right. Your individual decision not to fly, Johanne, has a ripple effect on others, including me, perhaps in widening circles.

After all, it was obvious to me even a number of years ago—the scientists weren’t hiding the facts—that the climate emergency was the most urgent thing we humans faced, that we would be doomed if we did nothing.  And yet, the years passed, month after month after month of business as usual, while I felt uncomfortable but did not make any radical move. Then, all it took was one friend, making the decision not to fly, to propel me into a more radical action. There are many more things I still need to change, in my life, but by deciding not to fly I have at least refused to be part of a willful ignoring of the very harmful effects it has on the world’s health, and that is a beginning. The airlines and the tourist industry, and the “travel tips” in the newspaper, and the friend who says, “I found a cheap flight” or “I’m using my frequent flyer miles…” make up, together, a culture that says it’s all right to fly, but it is not. We can start to change the culture.

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Johanne Fronth-Nygren, born 1980, is a journalist and writer of short fiction as well as a translator. She has translated into Norwegian, besides Lydia Davis, Sheila Heti, Miranda July, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the South African playwright and novelist Damon Galgut, and most recently Vivian Gornick and Audre Lorde. She lives in Oslo, where, among her other literary and civic commitments, she is a member of Norwegian PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.

Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections, most recently Can’t and Won’t. Her collection Varieties of Disturbance was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award, and her Collected Stories was described by James Wood in The New Yorker as “a grand cumulative achievement.” She is also the acclaimed translator of Swann’s Way and Madame Bovary, both of which were awarded the French-American Foundation Translation Prize. Among many other honors, she received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003 and the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, and was named both Chevalier and Officier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government for her fiction and translation.





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