Shame may not be the most efficient fuel to spur action against climate change, says DW's Kate Ferguson after attending Germany's first national aviation conference in the eastern city of Leipzig.
"Are you suffering from flight shame?" I asked German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer. We were in the hangar of Leipzig airport, where the country's first-ever national aviation conference was taking place.
He'd arrived by helicopter while I, smug reporter, had traveled by train.
"No," he said emphatically, and went on to question the need to apply the word shame to an industry that provides jobs for 850,000 Germans.
I wonder if he has a point. Not because the aviation industry doesn't have an enormous part to play in fighting climate change, but because shame may indeed not be the most efficient fuel to spur it to action.
Shame vs. guilt
From a psychological perspective, guilt may be more productive. Research professor and author Brene Brown describes the distinction as follows: "Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, 'I am bad.' Guilt is, 'I did something bad.'"
Let's say you forgot your friend's birthday. If you feel guilty, you'll send an apologetic card and ask how you can make it up. If you feel ashamed, you'll conclude that you're a bad person, always have been and that this latest mortifying oversight only confirms it.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer and Economy Minister Peter Altmaier on their way to a hangar at Leipzig airport
Guilt spurs you to action, whereas shame pushes you within.
When it comes to the mammoth task of fighting climate change, which requires cooperation across industries and borders, shaming therefore seems counterproductive.
German national daily newspaper Die Welt recently reported on an analysis that the German Aviation Association, a major lobby group, had conducted on how the industry could reduce environmental harm.
It included the rather facetious proposal to scrap all internal German flights if - and only if - the national rail operator Deutsche Bahn were in a position to facilitate an equally high-speed service on the same routes. In addition, it called on Deutsche Bahn to conduct security checks on luggage so that travelers could hop straight from the train to an international flight without having to pick up their bags in between. It also underlined the need for Deutsche Bahn to take action to improve punctuality.
I would hazard a guess that these were not sincere proposals and were instead an attempt to share the shame by drawing attention to another industry's imperfections. Deutsche Bahn's response, as reported by Die Welt, described the notion of conducting luggage checks at both train stations and airports as "nonsense."
Travelers lining up at Munich airport: In 2018, a total of 222.5 million passengers boarded a plane in Germany
Concerted action required
This kind of bickering is an unforgivable waste of time. The battle to fight climate change can only be won by encouraging and incentivizing collaboration. Pitting industries against each other only serves to increase resentment. Shaming individuals who fly and exalting those who don't arguably has the same effect.
The aviation industry does have some concrete proposals to clean up its act. Investing in alternative fuels, building lighter-weight aircraft and focusing on electric mobility are all good options. Turning them from an idea to a reality requires the cooperation of both the government and individuals.
Each and every one of us should feel bad about what is happening to our planet. When we contemplate the destruction of our most precious resources, we should experience the kind of guilt that encourages us to do something. Support politicians who want to invest in climate-saving research and development. Reduce your plastic waste. Eat less meat. Avoid flying if you can.
With the future of our planet in jeopardy, our resources must be channeled towards finding creative solutions. The shame game provides none.