Illustration by Mark Boardman represented by meiklejohn.co.uk
A flying shame Richard Orange learns why more Swedes are boycotting flights and taking the train
At the end of 2018, Anna Maria Hilborn decided that the next time she and her young son went to Innsbruck in Austria to visit her brother they would go by train. “I had been thinking about it for a long time, and I think I was affected by the fact that so many other people were also doing it,” said the 33-year-old art teacher from Eskilstuna, a small city near Stockholm. “There was a hashtag #stayontheground. It made a difference that there was a movement you could attach yourself to.”
So, a few months ago she and five-year-old Alvar spent four days of their 10-day Easter break making their way through Denmark, Germany and Austria. “It’s been awesome. It’s been great,” she said on the last leg of her journey home. “We haven’t had an argument in 10 days. I couldn’t run away and do something else – it was just being with him in a completely different way.”
Hilborn is one of more than 100,000 Swedes touched by the flygskam (‘flight shame’) movement. The movement has taken off over the past year, pushed by celebrity backers such as the TV ski commentator Bjørn Ferry, the opera singer Malena Ernman, and Ernman’s now world-famous activist daughter Greta Thunberg.
The Tågsemester (‘train holidays’) Facebook page has gained more than 90,000 members, and according to a survey by WWF 23% of Swedes avoided a flight in 2018 to reduce their impact on the climate.
The trend is having a real-world impact. Passenger numbers at Sweden’s 10 airports had, by the start of May, dropped year-on-year for eight consecutive months, sales of Interrail tickets in Sweden surged 45% in 2018, and national rail operator SJ reported a record 31.8 million passenger journeys in 2018, up 5%.
According to the calculator on the Loco2 train booking website, Hilborn and her son each reduced their carbon dioxide emissions by 336kg as a result of her decision, reducing their total annual emissions by 8% in a single trip.
“My personal impact won’t change a lot,” she conceded. “But when a percentage of people starts doing something, it creates a new norm. So just by being a part of that movement and sharing it, I’m doing something.”
It cost her about €280 for an Interrail pass, her son travelled free of charge, and flights from Sweden to Innsbruck are expensive, so, unusually, their journey turned out cheaper than flying.
In Sweden there’s been a predictable backlash, with right-wing politicians and newspaper columnists accusing the movement’s members of being uppermiddle-class snobs seeking to shame working-class Swedes for their charter trips to Thailand and the Canary Islands.
Hilborn brushed off this criticism: “Of course it’s a middle-class thing. There’s always a class aspect. But it’s better that the middle classes take the train than that nobody does it.”
Now, she said, some of her friends are going to copy her when they next go on holiday. “People thought it was brave of course, but nobody thought it was very strange, and a lot of friends have been inspired by it and now they want to do it.”
As for her, she hasn’t yet booked her next trip. But she is fairly certain that when she does, she won’t be going by plane.
Richard Orange is a freelance writer based in Sweden.
14 Resurgence & Ecologist