The Lancet: Air travel for global health: flying in the face of sustainable development? (2)

24 December, 2019

Dear Neil,

I could not agree with you more. I have seldom learned much at conferences. They do serve a social need and that should not be neglected. I can’t say the same for project visits. Though where they require flights, they should be minimized, I have found that face to face exchange is so valuable that it would be a risk to dispense with it completely. When visiting our project in Afghanistan, members of the project team have told me, sometimes on the last day of a visit, important things which they had for some reason held back from mentioning even on Skype. And when there are very difficult issues to discuss, there is no substitute for meeting face-to-face in getting the ‘chemistry’ right.

Though we know the harm to the planet from flying and any travel that burns fossil fuels, it seems that most of us tend to see what we ourselves do as being so important that we should be an exception. For each of us the main person we have to convince of the necessity of our flying is ourself. That can be rather easy – so long as we don’t think of the harm to the planet which our children and grandchildren will have to contend with and how they will, in the future, judge our decisions on air travel. So rather than riding on a sense of our own self-importance, that our contributions are so important that we must fly, can doctors and nurses actually use such respect as we may have in the public eye by setting an example in reducing our flying?

I am glad that you have brought this up at the end of the year, a time for reflection of what we have done or not done, and when we sometimes resolve to do better in the year ahead. I suggest that it could be a time for counting up the flights we have taken and reckoning whether each was worth the cost to future life on earth. I have flown one return journey from London to Afghanistan and one internal return flight there, and my internal jury on whether it was justified is still out.

Best wishes.


HIFA profile: Stewart Britten is advisor to the British NGO, HealthProm, on its project to reduce maternal and child deaths in Northern Afghanistan. He has worked for the reduction of institutionalisation of babies and small children in Russia by introduction of parent support programmes. stewart.britten AT