See The World, Ruin The World – An Unpopular Observation

I grew up valuing and even idolizing the idea of world travel. When I was young, I envied the few friends whose families took them to different countries. I was awestruck by high school friends who became exchange students. I chose a college with a focus on Internationalism and wanted desperately to study abroad. It never happened, for various reasons. In my 20’s, I finally did travel outside the United States, to Montreal, Paris, and London. I also saw some of the cosmopolitan cities of the US – New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston.

The cachet of foreign travel had me sold, although I rarely had the money or time to pursue it. Meanwhile, my childhood family vacations amounted to piling five kids into the back of a station wagon and driving across the Midwest (which was exciting to me, if more modest than my dreams). I didn’t fly anywhere until a high school trip to Washington, DC. I have only flown a handful of times since the increased travel restrictions following the 9/11 attacks. The process of getting through any airport is very unpleasant now, with long lines, invasive searches, and extra hassles. To me, that has taken much of the joy that I once had over flying.

But I still want to see so many places. I have years worth of unused frequent flyer “miles” to use and I decided a while back that in a few years (the year I turn 50) I want to go back to Europe. I want to check off a few more places on my long list of places that I want to see. In part this desire is still tied up in my own striving to be what I see as a worldly person, well-traveled, sophisticated. In part, it is because I have actually gotten significant enjoyment from my travels in the past, even in spite of the hassles of the logistics of travel.

But there’s a problem with this. I increasingly have begun to wonder if, as an environmentalist, I can support our current culture of cheap and easy airline travel. I know this is not going to be a popular thing among so many of my friends, but flying is incredibly destructive to the environment, and I need to radically rethink its virtues and desirability.

Take a look at these recent articles that I have come across. They will be better at presenting the data about it than I could be:

Every Time You Fly, You Trash the Planet from Fivethirtyeight.com.

A Climate Scientist Who Decided Not To Fly from Grist.org.

Travel broadens the mind and challenges one’s assumptions, as common wisdom goes. On some level, we believe that seeing the great sights and sitting down for a coffee with a person from another world paving the road to world peace and understanding. And of course – it certainly can do these things, when minds and hearts are open. I hardly think that most people who fly repeatedly for business, to very tourist-driven resorts, to events filled with people who are quite similar to themselves – these are probably not travel experiences that expand and challenge who we are.

But flying has become so commonplace, so expected. People even speak of airline travel as a “right”, which is a strange concept – do we really have a right to trash the planet?

Various organizations, including government agencies, talk about flyer’s “bill of rights”. I know, the rights are to be treated fairly as a consumer, and I’m behind that, but should participating in such a destructive practice be thought of as a “right”?

But, in truth, we may not need to travel around the world to experience others. For me, I live in Chicago and people from around the world are here. I have people speaking Spanish or Polish on virtually every train ride. We have ethnic enclaves all around the city. And of course there is great diversity in our domestic population – people of different races and economic classes, different religions and subcultures. We can drastically cut down on flying and still be open to people who live radically different lives than we do. Of course, I do understand that if flying becomes less commonplace, there may be less diversity in cities in the longer term.

I am still struggling with this. I know I have already on some level made a choice to back away from flying. As I said, I haven’t done it in years, and the last time was for work. After that trip, I made it clear to my supervisors I didn’t care to do that kind of trip if it can be avoided. But I have not yet totally rejected the possibility of airline travel in the future. There is still so much in the world that I would love to see. But I will not take it for granted, or treat it as something to be taken on casually.

2 comments on “See The World, Ruin The World – An Unpopular Observation

  1. Woods Wizard says:

    An interesting reflection, and something I have thought about as well. My occupation has taken me all over the world, though I do less traveling now than 20 years ago. Even though I have been to some places without seeing the tourist sights (like Rome twice and never visited the coliseum, I can say that traveling has made me more appreciative of other cultures and has expanded and challenged who I am. My work is mainly field-oriented so I am mostly outside of civilization where I see the culture.

    I can also say that immigrant culture is not the same as native culture. I know many Russian immigrants that have nothing like their homeland counterparts. Ditto Mexican immigrants. Ditto Iraqi immigrants.

    So the question really comes down to a trade-off. Is the Enlightenment I have received through travel worth the damage that my travel is apparently doing? If I stopped traveling altogether, would that mean there would be even one fewer air flights in my lifetime? I think the answer is no.

    But if I have a larger carbon footprint than others, am I hypocritical for criticizing the production and transportation of carbon-based energy? I think I would be, but I would not be hypocritical for pushing for cleaner, less damaging transportation. This doesn’t mean moving the source of pollution from my vehicle or an airplane to a generating facility far away, but maybe using natural gas instead of gasoline, wood instead of propane, solar instead of electricity. Those are places where we can make a difference and not be hypocritical.

    • Adrian says:

      I agree that it is a question of trade-offs. I’m not ready to give up on flying entirely, but I think we need to be thoughtful and reevaluate.

      Your point about the differences in immigrant culture vs. native culture makes sense. Certainly housing, food, many other aspects of culture change in an immigration situation – the resources available are different. And just the experience of becoming an ethnic, linguistic, religious (etc.) minority can change social and personal dynamics.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, as always.

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