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Michael Deflorian: Flying but not quite free – individuals and their (self-)government in modern societies

In a recent blog entry Gabriel Söderberg summarized the discussion about individual contribution to climate change quite well: because voluntary restrictions are not enough to achieve considerable CO2 reductions we have to hope for new technical policies or cut each others’ liberties. This resembles two of the “myths” which Mike Hulme diagnoses behind the disagreement about climate change. While the first one reflects the belief in human inventiveness to shape the world’s destiny (Babel) the second one mirrors the regret that humans have used their power irresponsibly and should refrain from it (Apocalypse). The debate about flying and climate change range between these two fundamental stories about ourselves.

What I want to do in this blog entry is to complicate that picture a bit: by taking a quite different angle on how ‘government’ is achieved in modern society. We might usually think of government as the exercise of power over people by the state, which is justified through a legal-democratic body (or not). In contrast, I would argue that we should think of government in a different way: as the different ways human behaviour is conducted towards certain ends.

Michel Foucault reflected prominently in the late 1970s on what he called the “art of government”. According to this perspective, modern societies are full with attempts to steer our behaviour by applying restrictions, disciplinary practices and also liberties. In that way we know that we ought to vote, not drive too fast, work forty hours a week, brush our teeth and not harm our neighbours. We usually do not think of these things as something that is forced upon us: most of us would say that these are beliefs or interests they would call their own and not external to them. Government in this sense does not only apply to authorities we would subsume to “the state” but is exercised in different places like schools, offices, homes and ultimately ourselves. Obvious forms of such “self-government” are vegetarianism, regular sport or time management: practices through which we bring our bodies and souls in line with certain goals. In other words: it is a bit tricky to speak of “free” or “unfree” individuals if we consider how we are part of a meshwork of governing processes which cannot be traced back to a single authority but are rather historically grown parts of our lives.

Kid-Brushing-TeethGoverning your mouth, twice a day: brushing teeth can be understood as a form of self-government towards oral health. Instead of picking it up ourselves it is achieved through disciplinary practices in childhood.

How is it then in the case of flying? Like any other way of transportation, it is governed in a certain way: airlines need to follow security regulations, pay aviation taxes, respect landing restrictions. The passenger is included in these governing processes to a certain extend (“let’s think about safety procedures”) – but she can choose where, when and how often she wants to fly. Thus, we might assume that individual flying is hardly governed in our societies. However, I would argue that this and other freedoms of individual consumption are guaranteed because they contribute to two fundamental goals in modern society: the well-being of the population and the state. Both of them rely on an increasing input of fossil resources, something that is strongly related to the emissions of carbon. Thus, the dilemma about responding to climate change might not be about conflicting interests of individuals but the ways we stabilize and govern our societies since industrialization.

Does that mean that the individual and, more importantly, the travelling scientist is without power? Certainly not. It is important to point to different strategies of government among groups: the conduct of human behaviour does not start and end with the state but involves the university, its departments and associations. It is in these places where academics can stress what Göran Finnveden called why we travel, who should travel and how we travel.

This is crucial because in order to change ways of government they need first to be problematized: they must be questioned due to certain reasons and then countered with a different logic and means. It is up for debate and trial if these should involve taxes, targets, incentives or affirmative actions. But it could also include less technical instruments: what about reducing the number of academic conferences by coordinating and concentrating them in fewer times and places? (and why not staying a bit longer and spending your holidays there?). Another step forward would be to reconsider what a change in flying could entail: not a loss of freedom but a change of freedom. Flying less would mean to have more time, money and carbon to govern our lives, jobs and universities in more fulfilling ways.Tempelhofer-Feld_Wooden-Plane

Setting off flights instead of carbon: following a referendum the city of Berlin closed down the airport Tempelhof in 2008. Two years later it re-opened as a park and is now one of the most popular places for leisure time.

/Michael Deflorian

One thought on “Michael Deflorian: Flying but not quite free – individuals and their (self-)government in modern societies”

  1. Yes, government – or at least governance – comes in so many subtle forms that speaking of free or unfree in many consumption behavioural and lifestyle choice aspects, becomes meaningless. Let us assume therefore that individual choice and behaviour in the case of flying is to a large extent a matter of unconscious self-control and cultural programming. What is desirable and right to do is what we do – if we can. So somehow, it looks like behaviour needs to be changed through changing our cultural programming: flying should not any longer be something desirable. How can this be achieved? There must be other antecedents in human behavioural reprogramming from which could learn. Can we think of any large-scale behavioural change through history that hasn’t come out of some kind of punitive governmental institutional change (thus restricting formal freedom of individuals)? I’m not sure. We stopped beating our kids only after it was made illegal. We stopped speeding our cars (well not entirely) only once speed limits were introduced. And we drank ourselves to death until sales of alcohol was controlled by the state. Can we really expect any reversal of the increasing trends of international travelling unless “government” (or the managements of universities or companies) decides to restrict it? So how can we make it easier for governments to restrict our freedom? How can we make ourselves governable?

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