An Indian-American couple's yearlong flightless adventures

Last Updated: Fri, Jul 15, 2011 05:45 hrs

I heard of Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee many months before I actually met them. All through last year, their names would crop up now and then in scattered conversations with fellow Indians around here. Seemed to me that between them, the couple knew pretty much every other desi I met in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Barnali is a landscape architect and a transplant from Bangalore. Anirvan is a born-and-bred Northern Californian and a tech geek who founded, a search engine for new, used, rare, and out of print books, when he was only 19! The reason I kept hearing about them but didn't get to meet them was because they were traveling. Around the world. For a whole glorious year!  

Before you go labeling them jetsetters, a little piece of info. They were trying to accomplish this whole round-the-world, across-the-seas, thing without getting on a jet plane. I finally met them in person recently, over half a year after they finished their trip, and they told me how it all came to pass.  

One evening back in 2008 they watched An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's grim documentary on climate change, and became curious about their carbon emissions footprint. So they found an online carbon calculator, plugged in some basic information about their lifestyle and reeled back in shock as the computer informed them that their footprint was bigger than 90 percent of Americans!

Now, Anirvan and Barnali are very eco-conscious people. They don't own a car, they turn out the lights when not needed, eat mostly vegetarian and separate their garbage into landfill, recyclable and compost. In other words, like many forward-thinking Berkeley residents, they try to tread lightly on Earth. So their ranking as top energy consumers was a real bummer. (Especially since even Americans with the lowest energy usage have a carbon footprint about twice as large as the average global citizen.)

They looked at the numbers again and discovered the cause – annual air trips to India to visit family. Emissions from each trip amounted to driving a car for two years!

"The numbers were very depressing," says Anirvan. "Our efforts to live sustainably were being undone by our trips home. Even if I drove a Hummer all the time and didn't compost, my footprint would be lower."

And then they read environmentalist George Monbiot's Heat that really broke down aviation numbers for them. They learnt that aviation was the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases that, unless curbed, would soon overwhelm all the cuts in emissions we manage to make elsewhere. They learnt that only 5 percent of people in the world have actually traveled by air and that cheaper and more frequent flights didn't make flying socially inclusive. And despite all this, the global aviation industry was rarely mentioned in international climate policy discussions. 

Rather 75 percent of people using budget airlines were the middle and upper-middle classes, who ended up flying more than they actually needed to, using cheap deals for quick weekend getaways etc. They learnt that people who are most vulnerable to climate change - the poorest inhabitants of the poorest nations - would most likely never board an airplane. 

"It got us thinking. Could we really cut flying out of their lives? Was it feasible?" says Barnali. "So we decided to find out."

Barnali quit her job with an architecture firm, Anirvan sold off his Bookfinder baby and in September 2009 they set off on a year-long attempt to cross continents "aviation-free". The idea was to also meet with climate activists and regular folks who were exploring low carbon travel solutions in different countries along the way. They blogged about their travels and what they were learning from each place on

The journey started by road from Berkeley with the couple hitching a ride to Seattle with a friend. From there they hopped aboard a cargo ship bound for Japan. "We were the only two passengers on board," says Barnali. "We watched the ocean go by, read books, and learned about 10 words of Japanese in the 10 days it took us to get to Japan. I'd been worried that I'd be bored, that I wouldn't manage without Internet, but I found myself really enjoying the slow pace of travel. I began to appreciate the whole idea of going slower – valuing the journey as the destination."

They spent a month in Japan, where among other things, they learnt how global warming had changed the time the country's iconic cherry trees blossomed. From there, on to China by ferry, then Vietnam by train, and Cambodia and Thailand by bus. It was all going pretty well until they tried to get to India from Thailand by land and were stymied by India's security fears.  

"Basically, that was the most difficult part of our trip. The most sustainable routes were blocked by either politics or winter," says Anirvan. How could they go round the world and not go home? Besides, Anirvan didn't want to miss visiting his 93-year-old grandfather. So after a lot of soul searching, they broke their "aviation fast" and got on a plane to Calcutta. They were flying, what Monibot calls, "love miles" - long-distance air trips to visit friends and family.

Here's how Monibot describes the ethical dilemma of "love miles" that many of us expats struggle with:

"If your sister-in-law is getting married in Buenos Aires, it is both immoral to travel there, because of climate change, and immoral not to, because of the offence it causes. In that decision we find two valid moral codes in irreconcilable antagonism. Who could be surprised to discover that ‘ethical' people are in denial about the impacts of flying?"

Indeed, who could? Not sure where I feature on the ‘ethical' spectrum, but I definitely can't imagine not going to visit my ageing parents in Calcutta at least once a year. And with only three weeks off a year, I can't afford to take the slow travel route. At least not on a regular basis.  

Anirvan and Barnali agree. Love miles are important and there's also the question of time and costs, says Barnali. "Which is why we aren't saying people shouldn't fly at all, but rather that they should think about why and where they are flying and use other travel modes if possible. For instance, flying is usually worse than driving (in terms of emissions) when it comes to short distances (from say, San Francisco to Los Angeles)."  

Anyway, back to their trip. Except for another flight from India to China, since all ground and sea options were closed, they did manage to complete the rest of their journey - through Bangladesh, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France, Netherlands, UK, Belgium and back to the US - flight-free. Check out their route and travel modes here.

"The whole year was interesting for us because we got to play citizen journalists. We got to meet people and ask questions," says Anirvan. In Hanoi, for instance, they met a group of 18-24 year-old climate activists who were trying to figure out ways to combat sea level rise which will soon begin to affect rice production in their country.

In Bangladesh, that's already bearing the brunt of climate change via increasingly severe floods and storms, they met villagers who sent out a message to the First Word - "stop giving us money, we can hang on for another couple of decades if you just fix the problem."

In India, they met US returnees and techies who were using their expertise to bolster social and policy change. In England, they met regular folks who fought and won a 10-year battle against a Heathrow airport expansion project and realized they weren't "totally crazy" for worrying about the impact of their sky miles.  

"The youth in all the countries took us completely by surprise in their awareness of these issues, though we were inspired by many older people too," says Barnali. They were especially impressed by the work being done by members of Indian Youth Climate Network, who were trying to get officially recognized as representatives of "the future" so that they could have a say in India's next 5-year planning process.

"I always thought India these days is a very apathetic country, but seeing young urban and suburban Indians working on climate change issues, and doing it in a smart way, was great," says Barnali. But they also worried that in general, most Indians weren't aware of just how climate vulnerable their country was.  

Back home in Berkeley now, and back at work - Barnali has gone back to her old job and Anirvan's taken up a new one as director of information architecture as University of California, San Francisco - the duo are trying to figure out how to build on what they learnt during their "year of no flying".

For starters, they are trying to develop a movement around the impacts of aviation and have set up a new organization called Aviation Justice for that. "We need to focus on alternatives – slow travel and local travel," says Anirvan. "My favourite alternative is video conferencing, especially for work. With free email and Skype it's pretty easy."

It'll be interesting to see how their campaign develops and spreads. I'm already hearing whispers of interest in their work and the whole idea of aviation justice from a few established environmental groups here.  

Good thing I have a ringside seat. 

Also read: Have a boy! How US clinics are courting Indians

Justice? Not for those I saw plunge to their deaths

Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of Earth Island Journal, an award-winning US environmental quarterly based in Berkeley, California. In addition to her work at the Journal, she writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India.

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