Shaming for the Climate

By October 8, 2019 No Comments

“Oh, you’re coming from the airport? I just assumed you were taking the train.” My friend sounds surprised on the phone. Something in her tone hints that my chosen means of transportation is an unconventional one.

A new country-wide mindset greets me as I return to Sweden after a year abroad. Greta Thunberg seems to be redefining what it means to be Swedish, effectively outdating meatballs and H&M. A recent addition to Swedish dictionaries makes it clear that, as an expat, my vocabulary is not up-to-date: flygskam, directly translated as flight shame, has settled comfortably into every nook of my oblong country.

On a cool May night, my friend shifts in her chair as a guy next to us at a bar brings up his interrail plans. She is doing a similar route by train but hasn’t told people that she is taking a flight to come back. Flygskam manifests itself in the form of a Facebook group titled “Train vacation” (Tågsemester) that features new posts every day with half its members seeking advice and the other half underhandedly bragging about their successes as on-land voyagers. One couple prides themselves on having caught the Trans-Mongolian line from Beijing to Moscow with their nine-month-old baby. Another outlines not one, not two, but four whole train trips planned for the summer. I don’t know whether to feel impressed or exhausted.

Still, the planet is surely grateful that flight shame is trending. The facts are clear: 2 % of climate change globally can be attributed to flying, 4-5 % if higher altitude emissions are included. A recent press statement from the Swedish Ministry of the Environment reflects a wish to advance the tackling of global warming in the 2020 budget bill. Having received broad political support, such an undertaking is required if the goal of net-zero emissions is to be achieved by 2050, as indicated by IPCC’s special report. “We cannot leave these enormous problems to our children; we need to take responsibility here and now. This is why we are again proposing historically large investments in both the environment and climate,” remarks Isabella Lövin, Minister for Environment and Climate.

As an obedient, norm-respecting citizen, I have been taught to Instagram my falafel but never my kebab. These are the unspoken rules of the millennial environmentalist. Yet, falling into this category, I can’t help but wonder if shame-driven activism is the way to go. George Mason University psychology professor June Tangney, Ph.D., describes the difference between guilt and shame as private versus public respectively. She states that guilt, giving rise to healthy introspection, is more efficient in preventing people from future negative behavior. Shame, on the other hand, renders us ‘powerless.’ To illustrate this distinction, consider the following: guilt would have us consider other travel options besides flying and shame would make us reconsider posting from the airport on social media. It seems the latter is simply forcing environmentalists to adopt new strategies for online image-building. This can hardly be conceived as a robust source of motivation. A distinction must be made between the motivation to promote sustainable travel and the fear of being judged as the catalyst for change.

Moreover, even if we accept the compelling nature of guilt as a premise, it will only affect those already convinced by the cause. Critics of the grassroots approach further claim that individual action is of marginal importance and that the bulk of responsibility should be borne by corporations. By this logic, Thunberg taking to the seas is a heroic enterprise, but not one that will transform the transportation industry. Another bitter twist in the argumentation consists in the fact that, as a country of fewer than ten million people, Sweden being on par with the goals for reduced emissions will have little impact if other countries do not follow suit.

Even so, the EU elections in late May showed the Greens solidifying their hold on European politics. It is with equal parts frustration and hopefulness that Swedes look to their southern neighbors to share in the cause. Will transnational high-speed trains be an option in the future? Can governments keep the price of train travel down to ensure its appeal across all sectors of society? Only time will tell – and perhaps it is already telling us that the future is greener. As youth around the world are marching for the climate, the prospect deserves consideration.

Meanwhile, I am at a mental crossroads. Should I, by default of nationality alone, adopt this new mindset? Or, in the spirit of living abroad, am I better off remaining somewhat skeptical of its transitive nature? While browsing different flight companies’ websites for my winter break tickets, I have Greta on one shoulder, the devil on the other. Either way, consider my vocabulary one word richer.


This article was written by Opinion writer, Lillebil Wallner Lindberg.

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