This morning, at what felt like about 5 am, the familiar sound of airplanes descending into Schiphol Airport woke me up. You may have seen our customary campsite on your last trip to Amsterdam, especially coming from London. From your window seat, first, you see hundreds of windmills in the sea, then a picture-perfect beach, dunes, and tents scattered in one of our country’s most beautiful nature reserves. Wave, and we may wave back. Two minutes later, a new planeful gets the same view. Two minutes later, another. Etcetera.
My last flight was December 2019, Ottawa, Toronto, Amsterdam. KLM is desperately trying to get me back on a plane. Generously, they’ve prolonged and continued and extended my frequent flyer status. Not flying is not an active choice. Corona helped me do the right thing for a while. I will be back on a plane. I do not condemn flying.
This week, a lively debate was sparked about flying in The Netherlands. Is it acceptable to fly for your holidays in the middle of a climate emergency? The ensuing debate focuses on innovation, economy, behavioral science, politics, and more but so far misses — in my opinion — one crucial factor: flying as a story.
In short, I think our ability to take to and control the skies may be one of our greatest achievements. Since the story of Icarus (and no doubt before, beyond the Western canon), we dreamed of taking off. In the past century and a bit, we’ve not only achieved this technologically but made it accessible to the masses economically (albeit at a tremendous cost).
Flying to a holiday resort is as much an expression of hedonistic consumerism as it is a conquest of imagination over limitation.
Flying places the middle-aged middle-manager in a direct line with Daedalus and his son. Better still, whereas the sun melted the wax of Icarus’s wings immediately, the only thing the sun melts nowadays is the ice on Greenland. You can take another ten all-inclusive holidays in the tropics well before that has you end up in the sea.
We read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the story of Icarus appears, for Latin in high school. While hybris may be one of the themes of its stories, the tale of Icarus is a warning to listen to our elders. And how the young never do. The moral is not that we shouldn’t fly but that we shouldn’t overreach when wisdom tells us to check ourselves.
It is said that Ovid told all possible types of stories. In theory, it should be possible to find a parallel for every story ever told in the Metamorphoses. There is a story in the books to replace our Icarus. But which of the 250 transformations will it be? And how should we tell it? I don’t know.
I once read or heard that you die a little every time you opt for an aisle seat in a plane. People that opt for the quick exit instead of the view from the window have lost their appreciation for the magic of flying. By that time, I had been in the aisle seat for years.
If we want people to stop flying, we need to replace Icarus’s story with one equally enthralling to everyone who loves to sit at the window. The billionaires flying to space understand this. The climate movement, hardly. I loved the idea in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future to have a global celebration when we beat the climate crisis. Although we then still have to win it first. Can we come up with an experience equally magic, equally empowering, as flight? Something Daedalus can offer Icarus, more powerful than his love and wisdom? A story that makes us fly less, gladly?
With my frequent flyer miles, instead of more flights, I bought a durable beach tent this year. White and blue with fluorescent details. It’s easy to spot on your next descend into Schiphol. Wave if you see it, but not too often.
Until next week, take care!