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“The main reason why we stay grounded is… to be part of a movement that searches for alternatives to just and better ways of living beyond fossil fuels”.

October 5, 2020

Giulia Fontana grew up in Zurich (Switzerland), where she studied environmental science. Lorenz Keyszer is from Halle Saale (Germany) and moved to Zurich to study environmental science. That is where he met Giulia in one of the many voluntary projects where he is active.

Giulia is interested in social change and the role of grassroots movements in it. She is involved in different sustainability projects and as a side job works as a caretaker for children with disabilities. In 2016 she decided to never fly again and did not regret it. Lorenz has not flown since 2015 and has no plans to do so in the future – he prefers to be on his bike anyway. Lorenz is interested in the degrowth / post-growth discourse as well as in plural economics.

The two were invited to a wedding in Sydney. How did they make it there without flying at all – makes a fascinating story? Something they have put together as a book in German! The young couple literally shares a playbook for how ‘to be part of a movement that searches for alternatives to just and better ways of living beyond fossil fuels’.

Giulia and Lorenz: Glimpses into the future of carbon free travel.

Praveen Gupta: Without boarding a single plane, you both travelled from Zurich to Sydney. Why Australia?

Giulia & Lorenz: A friend of ours, Rosa, who is Australian but lived for many years in Zurich, was going to marry in Australia (and moving back to Australia). She not only invited us to the wedding but asked Giulia to be her maid of honour. We had already quit flying well before Rosa invited us to her wedding. An idea came up: maybe we could travel without taking a plane to Australia. First, we thought that travelling to Australia without flying would be impossible, but then we researched a bit and found many good reports from other travellers that it was actually possible. Step by step we organised the journey, all the visa and hostels and just suddenly it started. But it still feels a bit unreal.

PG: What is it that you were trying to achieve in the process?

G&L: We decided to quit flying because it has a highly negative impact on the climate. We became aware of this due to our studies. Flying is one of the most CO2-intensive activities that individuals can do. Flying is also a huge injustice: while only a small minority globally flies, many people are affected by its consequences, mostly in the global south (see Stay Grounded by Ivanova & Wood, 2020). In addition, CO2 offsets are highly uncertain and problematic, because they inhibit social change, and it is unclear whether they will lead to emission reductions at all. Technologically, it still looks very bad as well (electric planes are still a daydream and will remain so for quite a while). Aviation must, therefore, be reduced in order to maintain our livelihoods. Through staying grounded we want not only to directly minimise our share in this climate crisis but also initiate greater cultural, political, and systemic change away from fossil fuels.

Flying is one of the most CO2-intensive activities that individuals can do. Flying is also a huge injustice: while only a small minority globally flies, many people are affected by its consequences, mostly in the global south.

PG: What did it take you to plan this trip? What was the travel like (in terms of time, countries, means of travel, cost, and safety) and what did you finally achieve?

G&L: With the help of the internet, guidebooks, and the knowledge of other people we slowly organized the trip step by step. We organised our journey backwards, since crossing the ocean was the hardest and most uncertain part. As soon as we knew we could go on a cargo ship from Qingdao to Brisbane and would be in Sydney in time for the wedding, we organised our journey to Qingdao via trains through Russia, Mongolia, and China.

Onboarded at the port city of Qingdao, China.

We also had only roughly one and a half month for the way to Australia, since we were still studying and working till mid-June 2018 and knew we need to be in Australia in August 2018. So, for both of our travels (to Australia and back to Europe) we needed around 1.5 months. We made some breaks and definitely got to know a bit of the culture and countries, but of course you could travel all the countries and places much more than we did. In Sydney, Australia, we stayed nearly 11 months and were studying and working (no travelling). Our way back was quite similar to our way to Australia. We went with the train from Sydney to Brisbane. In Brisbane we took a cargo ship, this time to Japan. From Japan we went with a ferry to Vladivostok in Russia. Then we travelled all over Russia with the train again, took the train to Riga (Latvia), a bus to Warschau (Poland) and back to Germany with the train.

Safety was never an issue during our whole travel. But here must be added, that we are in a privileged situation with enough money, the “right” passport, sexual orientation, and skin colour. Cost however were more of a problem since travelling on train and cargo vessel for so long requires a lot of money. Happily, we managed through our savings from previous work (but putting aside money while studying was only possible through the support of our parents). We ended up spending 4000 Euro per person (everything included: food, hostels, visa, train, cargo ship) which is a lot of money.

PG: Did you put yourself through this rigour because you were studying to be environmentalist, thus trying to prove that you practice what you preach?

G&L: The main reason why we stay grounded is to not support the aviation industry and fossil fuels derived lifestyle but instead to be part of a movement that searches for alternatives to just and better ways of living beyond fossil fuels. Through this we want to trigger cultural, societal, and political change. Practicing what we stand for, as studies show (see Westlake, 2017),  gives more credibility and affects friends and family but also other people (e.g. through social media).

People are going to think about such practices, discuss them, they see that other ways of living, ways of travelling are possible, normal, interesting, which can lead to ripple effects and is part of a needed cultural change. In the end we are aware and stress this wherever we can that individual changes are far from enough, that we need to agitate, educate and organise if we want to have a chance at achieving the systemic changes beyond our current capitalist growth system. But individual and cultural change plays a part in this.

PG: How to make it possible for everyone to change their travel culture and spark wider societal change towards less, slower, and better travelling?

G&L: During our travel we realised that there are many barriers to reducing flying and travelling more slowly such as: 

  • Price – often times flying is cheaper than travelling without a plane
  • Time – a very rare resource in our societies and travelling without a plane usually requires a lot more time
  • Missing or awfully bad alternatives to flying or simply no connections
  • Massive publicity for flying
  • Incentives for frequent flying such a “miles and more”

If these barriers would not exist, it would be much easier for people to travel less, slower and without a plane. These are points that need to come about through political and systemic changes. That is why in our opinion it is crucial to organise politically and demand e.g. investments in alternatives to flying, incentives that train rides become affordable for everyone and that frequent flying is disincentivised, for instance through banning airline advertising. One could also think of a frequent flyer levy that increases with the number of flights a person takes per year, basically a counter program to frequent flyer discounts. This would be an important step, since also in rich countries the majority of flights is taken by relatively few people that fly multiple times a year. The revenues could go into making train rides better and cheaper or set up a sailing ship passenger line to replace long haul flights.

The main reason why we stay grounded is to not support the aviation industry and fossil fuels derived lifestyle but instead to be part of a movement that searches for alternatives to just and better ways of living beyond fossil fuels... A transition to a post-capitalist de-growth society, where people have more free time and which is not so much driven by competition, speed, profit and global outreach.

One would also need to address the time scarcity many people experience, since train rides usually take longer. A four-day week or longer holidays could be a start for this. Of course there are many more things which would need to be done, such as taxing aviation fuel, stopping airport expansion, bring back night trains and even more fundamental points such as a transition to a post-capitalist de-growth society, where people have more free time and which is not so much driven by competition, speed, profit and global outreach.

Besides these political and structural changes we could try to trigger slow and less travelling by education and showing that one can experience a lot by travelling less and feel the distances – to highlight the benefits of travelling flight free (we guess that’s what we are doing right now). We like the example of bicycle lanes: if there are none, people are not going to bike wherever they need to go. But if there are no people biking on dangerous streets and demanding bike lanes but instead everybody happily using cars, bicycle lanes are not going to be installed. 

PG: Governments are bailing out airlines with tax-payer money. They do not seem to be reconciling with the new normal?

G&L: In our opinion this is the reason why it is so important to think   beyond individual actions and to demand political and systemic changes. States are forced to compete with other countries, to economically grow in order to stabilise employment, stay legitimised, finance military etc. For this growth, the airports and aviation industry are crucial, e.g. for tourism, trade, and skilled labor. (See example of the third runaway in Vienna and the argumentation for it). So, to us it is no surprise that governments are not reconciling with the new normal. Even when the pandemic started, aviation was largely allowed to continue, meaning more spread of the virus. In order to change something, social movements are crucial, which not only start building alternative institutions and adopt different lifestyles but organise collectively to push change.

So, to us it is no surprise that governments are not reconciling with the new normal. Even when the pandemic started, aviation was largely allowed to continue, meaning more spread of the virus. In order to change something, social movements are crucial, which not only start building alternative institutions and adopt different lifestyles but organise collectively to push change.

PG: Do you believe this amazing example has rightfully made you a role model?

G&L: For us it was important to not only do “our thing” but also talk about our travel and to hopefully inspire others, friends, and family. To show that other ways of travelling are wonderful and possible. But every person stands at another point and has other possibilities. We live in a world with many constrains and injustices, some people are forced to travel for work, others need to visit families living far away, others have physical disabilities and again for others it is just not doable to travel at all because of their origin.

For us it was important to not only do “our thing” but also talk about our travel and to hopefully inspire others, friends, and family. To show that other ways of travelling are wonderful and possible.

We address people who due to our unjust world have possibilities to stop flying (at least people who fly often usually have these possibilities). People who can make the decision to stop flying just for fun. There are many other people for whom this decision is not possible and for us it is important to acknowledge that too and also to acknowledge that not every flight is the same (there is a difference between jetting for holiday shopping to New York and visiting family once every two years). So again, these considerations about barriers to slow travel make us stress the need for wider system change and collective organising.

PG: Would you like to share your thumb-rule for measuring carbon footprint?

G&L: Reduce or stop:

  • flying (instead ask yourself: do you really need to go there and if yes are there other possibilities)
  • using cars (instead use public transport, your bicycle or walk – and improve your health)
  • eating meat and dairy (instead discover colorful and yummy vegetarian food)
  • purchasing electricity from fossil fuels (instead change to renewable energy providers)

Also see this article. These are on average the worst activities in terms of carbon pollution. But again, we need these changes alongside systemic, collective change. So not only focus on your footprint, but engage, educate yourself and get organised! See also this wonderful article.

PG: So, where would you wish to head-out next?

G&L: To a just and sustainable world!

Travelling wise: for the moment we get to know the countries we grew up and our neighbor countries. There is so much to discover in front of your door.

The train ride via Russia.

PG: As young people what are your thoughts on having to inherit a sick Planet? What needs to be done to make it sustainable again? 

G&L: We think that we need to build a just society beyond fossil fuels that works for everyone and not just the 1%. Where every human person is having a live-in dignity. From our understanding about how our society is working at the moment and what is hindering this vision, this means that we must overcome capitalism and growth-based economies by changing ourselves, educating others and organising collectively to push for change with prefiguration, with civil disobedience and by establishing new institutions of direct democracy, mutual aid and solidarity.

Without a massive upheaval of many people, who are ready for change, we will not make it. But change is coming, and we believe that it can happen fast if enough people want it enough.

Without a massive upheaval of many people, who are ready for change, we will not make it. But change is coming, and we believe that it can happen fast if enough people want it enough. There are so many books and thinkers who already are thinking about these questions and finding transformation strategies – we would refer to them since we also are fairly new to this topic. See:

1) Alexander & Rutherford (2014). The Deep Green Alternative: https://simplicityinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/The-Deep-Green-Alternative.pdf

2) Alexander & Gleeson (2019). Degrowth in the Suburbs: https://sustainable.unimelb.edu.au/publications/books-and-monographs/degrowth-in-the-suburbs-a-radical-urban-imaginary/degrowth-in-the-suburbs

3) D’Alisa et al. (2015). Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a new Era: https://vocabulary.degrowth.org/

4) Hickel (2020). Less is More – How Degrowth Will Save The World: https://www.jasonhickel.org/less-is-more

Finally arrived in Brisbane, Australia.

PG: Do you see any sense of urgency to restore our only home back to a healthy state? 

G&L: No. We need to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to stay below 1.5 degree warming starting right now and better yesterday (see IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degree). There is absolutely no time anymore, in nine years we need to be down by more than 50% of global emissions. Moreover, when taking climate justice seriously (what we do) the global north/rich counties would need to be on an even deeper trajectory path already. Instead we see rising greenhouse gas emissions, discussions over discussions on some minor matters. And still, it will never be too late to do something. But in order to avoid the worst of suffering we better started yesterday, and since we didn’t we should do all we can right now: educate, agitate, organise and start building a different society which can displace the unjust and unsustainable system we are living in (prefiguring)!

We need to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to stay below 1.5 degree warming starting right now and better yesterdayInstead we see rising greenhouse gas emissions, discussions over discussions on some minor matters. And still, it will never be too late to do something.

PG: I am sure your amazing adventure will open many eyes and spur lots of people to shed fossil fuel from their passion for travel!


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2 Comments
  1. V Raghunathan permalink

    Praveen, you do pick up on very interesting themes for your interviews. The interview of Giulia and Lorenz was most interesting. I do complement them on their ‘adventure’! But that said, I must also say that such a trip may make sense from the limited view point of minimizing one’s carbon foot-print. Greta Thunberg made a similar point, travelling by sea for 15 days for the UN summit from Sweden to New York, in a million dollar yacht (whose cost in foot-prints in the process of manufacturing we’ll never know). Giulia and Lorenz spent 45 days for a journey that could have been done in hours albeit at a far higher cost in carbon foot-print. But shouldn’t we be looking at the totality of costs – including the opportunity cost of time over those 45 days? How many people can afford to travel at their own cost, without earning, for 45 days, for a wedding, even if the opportunity cost is assumed to be negligible? Can regular work and business-related travel be done the same way, realistically? Frankly, I for one am not a big fan of making such points which are uni-dimensional, though of course pushed by COVID, we do see that a significant amount of air travel can be avoided using on-line connectivity. That’s a far more powerful statement at minimizing carbon-foot print than the Greta Thunberg or the Giulia-Lorenz way!

    • Point well taken, Sir.
      These two undertook a project whilst in Oz, as they mention in the interview.
      The idea is to open the minds of all concerned to think outside of the fossil fuel mindset which we have all gotten super addicted to. Why travel to fill the coffers of airlines and the travel industry – at the cost of the Planet’s health! They are urging for alternatives till such time a fossil free solution appears.

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