The Adventurous Environmentalist's Paradox

by Gemma Totten on March 12, 2019


Sustainability is a term that has been used and overused, diluted to the point of misunderstanding. The word often leads to confusion because it includes more than just environmental sustainability, as it also encompasses culture, social, and economic factors. Tourism affects all of these sectors positively and negatively, making the concept of sustainable travel even more subjective, since the term has been implemented in the marketing world contextually used with monetary agendas. How can we as travelers ensure that our impact is a positive one? Is it possible to travel and still care about the environment, or is traveling inherently unsustainable? Using myself as an example throughout this article, I will touch upon these questions from opinions formed by both my mistakes and experiences. Although we all make mistakes, it is time to identify and seriously reconsider our environmentally unsustainable habits when we travel, especially when we fly.

I must begin by pointing out that environmentalists like myself are often put on a pedestal and held to an unattainable standard of living, something I have experienced firsthand. For example, when I get into a car, sometimes friends make snide comments on how I shouldn’t be supporting fossil fuels, even when a car ride is my only choice of transportation. (Keep in mind that everywhere I go I typically carpool or utilize public transport.) I constantly have to remind myself, as well as my friends, that we are all responsible for the choices we make and that I take full responsibility for my many irresponsible travel habits. I also have to remind them (and myself) that holiday travel, in particular, is a luxury and that when we do travel for relaxation that we should not allow our personal standards to slip.

But first, I have to confess that I LOVE to travel. The knowledge I gain from exploring other cultures and immersing myself in a new environment is often the reason I get on a fuel-guzzling airplane. Recently, I graduated from a four-year “travel” university in Lugano, Switzerland, where traveling multiple times per academic year was considered normal. These trips changed my life in so many ways that mere words alone could never do them justice. But, at the same time, for the past four years I conveniently forgot to factor in the impact that my air travel was having on the planet I love to explore. Here I was, an environmental science major, freely roaming the planet whenever I could and ignoring the reality that flying was the biggest contributor to my carbon footprint!

Although flying has recently become a much more inexpensive mode of transportation, the negative externalities, such as fossil fuel usage and waste, are often overlooked when we think about traveling. Whenever I see a cheap flight, the only thing I care about is booking it before the price changes. I now remind myself to step back from that amazing deal and reconsider my reasons for traveling. Furthermore, I have to tell myself that sometimes there are alternatives ways to being a more conscientious traveler, while still allowing us to explore the world. Here are some questions to ask yourself before you book your next trip.

Ask yourself why are you traveling in the first place? Do you really need to leave your city? What are the benefits you will receive from traveling? Just asking myself these questions has helped to keep me grounded. Instead of immediately booking a holiday flight, for instance, I now seriously consider if I really need to jet off to Fiji to enjoy the ocean, or if I could fulfill my adventurous desires closer to home? There are so many adventures to be found around you, so consider taking a road trip. It is a great way to discover something new without all the negative ramifications that come with air travel. Although most automobiles are still not the most sustainable form of transport, fill the car so there are no empty seats and each passenger can split the responsibility of emissions used.

Could you take public transport? Instead of flying by air, can you utilize the train in your country? Or possibly use a series of public transportation options that connect together? Sometimes the best part of any adventure is the experience of traveling to the destination, arriving a bit lost and frazzled.

How long will you go for? If the trip is shorter than seven days and the flight is longer than five hours, I would reconsider. I totally made up that time frame up, but seriously, it’s not worth the cost to the environment to unjustifiably jet around the world for just a few days. Even for business, options like group calls and Skype are now extremely efficient modes of communication.

What will you do when you are there? Are you going for an educational purpose? Are you going to vacation? Are you going for business? When you arrive will you help or hinder the area you are visiting? Furthermore, think about what items to bring with you that might minimize your personal impact, like a reusable water bottle, your favorite travel mug for coffee or anything else that will reduce your environmental footprint.

How can you maximize your experience? If the location gives you something you just cannot get nearby, seriously consider what will it give you and how you could utilize that experience to create positive change and influence others.

Most importantly, if you really need to jet off, FLY DIRECT! Planes waste the most fuel during take-off and landing, so keep that in mind when you are booking a ticket. Even though those cheap, non-direct flights may be enticing to your budget, how much is the planet worth to you? Something else to note, many airlines are switching over to using biofuels, which do make an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, so check to see what type of fuel your airline is using as well.

Honestly, this laundry list of possibilities only briefly skims the surface of things to consider when attempting to travel with a conscience, but I hope it motivates you to make thoughtful decisions when booking your next flight. The bottom line is that just like your day-to-day sustainability efforts, travel is all about personal choices. Our planet needs more sustainable travelers, so please don’t let your good habits slip when you leave home on an adventure.

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