Small airplanes and the environment: A moral dilemma
(Why I stopped my flying lessons)

Last year, after buying a copy of MS Flight Simulator 2002 at a flea market, it occurred to me that I had always had a bit of a fascination with airplanes. At this point in my life, the cost of flying doesn't make a dent in my finances, so I decided to take lessons, just for the heck of it.

I did have a few qualms about it though - small airplanes use a lot of fuel, and the engines are nowhere near as clean burning as modern cars. But heck, there's people who commute an hour each day in needlessly big SUVs. Flying an airplane once a week or so wouldn't be as bad as that.

Still, when you do the pre- flight inspection, you check the fuel. You look for the blue colour, which indicates its 100LL avgas. The LL stands for "Low lead". Surely, this isn't like the leaded gasoline of the 70's I thought. I asked my instructor how much lead was in "low lead". Oh, its low lead, not much. He didn't really know though. Anyways, after a while I decided that I should go for a private pilot's license, as opposed to just taking lessons for the hell of it. And maybe even some day buy an airplane. And I told people of my thoughts.

Then at some point I started to wonder about the lead thing again. A quick google search got me the figures I was looking for, although not what I had hoped. Turns out that the 100LL avgas contains two grams of lead per gallon. Much more than the auto gas of the 70's. And airplanes use a lot of gasoline, 4 gallons per hour and upwards, often much more. And that's quite the amount of lead. They have to add special chemicals so the lead goes out the exhaust, and doesn't clog up the engine or ignition. Still, some of it ends up in the engine oil, you can actually see it shimmer from the lead. You aren't allowed to burn that oil - it has to be specially disposed of because of the high lead content. If the oil is so bad, what about the rest of the lead, which gets spread all over the atmosphere?

So here I was faced with a dilemma. Flying a small plane is a pretty irresponsible thing to do from an environment point of view. Especially recreationally - the argument, if I didn't do it, somebody else would simply doesn't work. But at the same time, I was starting to get into it, and I had told people that I was going for a pilot's license. It was a neat hobby. I also didn't want to be a quitter. But with this bit of knowledge, I couldn't really go flying anymore and not feel guilty about it. The thought of being responsible for so much pollution exceeded my ability to rationalize it. I did check with the other flight school in town, and they also use the 100LL avgas. If they hadn't, I would have switched flight schools. As it was, I still had a flying lesson still pre-booked, and I went for that one. It was a strong crosswind, very challenging landing conditions, and my flight instructor was impressed how I was able to handle the plane in that. Always nice to end on a high note. But I knew it was my last flying lesson, at least for the foreseeable future.

But giving it up was hard - I spent a lot of time agonizing over it. And it occurred to me - when was the last time I had actually not done something that I really wanted to do because of the environment? Is just lip service for me too, like it is for so many? Certainly, I do things like walk or bike to work when the weather is suitable, and I live close to everything I need. My car doesn't often leave my garage in the summer. But is this something I do for the environment? Fact is, I don't like getting into my car when the weather is really nice. So if you say you care about the environment, when was the last time you actually gave something up for it? Or done something you wouldn't probably have done anyways? And maybe I just didn't care enough about flying to begin with?

And then there is the question of other people not seeing it that way. It just doesn't matter much to them, almost seems a bit incomprehensible that I'd give up flying for that. Ok, maybe lead is good for us, and besides, we dispersed so much of it already, what's another half a kilogram or so that you'd disperse getting a pilot's license? I worked out, that for a cessna 152 (a small two seater), flying at around 100 knots, the amount of air raised to EPA limits for airborne lead is equal to all the air that passes under the aircraft's wings to a height of four meters! That's a lot of air.

At any rate, it seems that conscience is not enough to alter the behaviour of a significant number of people, myself possibly included. So perhaps the only hope is government policy. Tax the hell out of stuff that pollutes. But for government to enact such policy, there has to at least be some kind of general opinion that this policy would be a good thing. And look at all the people that complain to government when gas prices rise. Its governnemt's job to make gasoline expensive, not cheap. Get with the program. Drive less. We really don't need to subsidize throwing money at the middle east.

but lets take these thoughts a little further...

So I went off on a tangent thinking about this further. Suppose I spend my money instead on some sort of professional services, whatever it be. Office work doesn't pollute nearly as much. But then, maybe those professionals or whatever will then take the money and go flying, or drive a big SUV, or turn up the air conditioning in their big house. Or they might spend it on somebody else, who in turn gets more money for his SUV or whatever.

So whenever I spend money, there's a good chance that as it goes around, its going to result in more fuels being burned, energy wasted, and pollution created. Surely, some things, like flying an airplane, are worse, but it seems that pollution is an inevitable consequence of so much economic activity. And even if I spend my money on an environmentally friendly product and use it until it breaks or whatever, that's still more pollution than if I didn't buy the product in the first place. Spending money usually results in bad things for the environment eventually.

So one could then conclude that the best thing you can do for the environment is to sit on your money. But don't invest it - some company might use it and do bad things to the environment. Don't put it in the bank, the bank might loan it to somebody who then buys stuff that pollutes. That leaves putting your cash under the mattress. But if you can't spend it, what's the use of having money in the first place? Other than perhaps to deprive others of it, who might in turn use it to pollute the environment. So maybe the best one can do environmentally is to sabotage the economy by hoarding all the cash you can, and putting it under your mattress.

Ok, this might be getting a little absurd - or maybe not. The thing is, we strive for 'progress', whatever that is. But usually, 'progress' involves stuff that ultimately leads to more economic activity, which ultimately makes more pollution. So then, from an environmental perspective, maybe progress is just bad. And we care about that, don't we? Then, why strive for "progress"? What's the point of it all? Why try to make more money?

So it seems that some of our values just plain contradict each other. So lets not rock the boat. Continue to value making and spending money, and "progress". We'll pay lip service to the environment like everybody else. Its cool after all. But hoarding all of your money under your mattress is not.

And of course, I'm ignoring that you can at least control what you spend your money on first. Maybe whoever gets your money will end up using it to pollute, but you can at least make choices about what you spend your money on immediately. Still, spending money certainly pollutes more than not spending it, regardless what on. And of course I could donate the money to some environmental cause, but then, what does the money do fore me?

Anyways, this is as far as I got with it so far. Its only been a month since I stopped flying, and I can't guarantee I won't take it up again. For example, in something that uses a diesel engine, or at least unleaded gasoline. But I'd probably have to buy my own plane for that, and not just any old used airplane either. Maybe something like a new diesel powered Katana DA40. Not likely though.

A good article on the origins of leaded gasoline.

Update 2006

Well, I have found I have to be careful in terms telling people that I stopped flying because of environmental concerns. That just doesn't appear to be a legitimate reason in people's minds, or at least I have sometimes gotten strange looks from people for saying I stopped because the lead thing bugged me too much. Now I just mention it as one of the reason, and really, there's other reasons too. But its kind of interesting that environmental concerns are often not accepted as a primary reason for making personal decisons!

And another thing...
The other reason I'm adding an update - I was thinking, where could I link my freind's company Renewability from... They make drain water heat recovery heat exchangers that can recover more than half the heat from the hot water from your shower while you shower. So its like you can have your cake and eat it too (or at least, half of it!) Pretty cool environmental technology, although at the same time amazingly low tech - no electronics or moving parts. I don't have one in my house - hard to retrofit, and I take short showers already. I guess I'm being a proper hypocrite in this regard at least :)

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