Travel and the environment: can we see the world without killing the planet?

Watkins Glen State Park, New York. Taken on a family vacation in 2006.

Two things I’ve been thinking and reading* a lot about lately are climate change–and how we can mitigate this already-occurring disaster by developing more sustainable ways to live–and travel. I’m having trouble reconciling my feelings about them.

On the personal level, my brightest-burning desire right now is to see the world. I’ve been outside the Northeastern US only a few times in my life, and I really want to see more of both my own country and other countries. I love New England–in fact, I’m pretty sure my veins run with maple syrup–and I know I want to settle down here eventually. This is my home, my community. The land I feel in my bones. I know that’s a gift: to be so connected to a place in this age of disconnection and displacement.

But I know I can’t settle down without experiencing at least a few of the natural beauties, and the cultures, of other places. I’m still working out the practicalities, but it’s definitely something I want to do.

And yet. I know that traveling, especially by airplane, has a huge carbon footprint.**

There’s just no way that regular international or even intra-national travel is sustainable–even at current levels, let alone if everyone in the US started doing it.

When I read articles like this one, about why a gap year should come to America, I find myself nodding my head. Yes, it would be great for more young people to get outside their comfort zones, experience other cultures, gain a greater understanding of the world.***

But there’s no way it would be ecologically sustainable for a large percentage of Americans to take a traveling gap year, or even the occasional shorter trip. And that doesn’t even take into account the billions of people in India, China, and other countries who might also want to see the world if they acquire the resources to do so.

Mother Earth, I love you too! (Also taken in Watkins Glen, 2006.)

I feel uncomfortable wanting something that I don’t want the rest of the world to have.

I feel torn reading so much about the benefits of travel, wanting it so badly, and yet knowing that it’s ultimately unsustainable. That the earth is already in crisis, and every gallon of fossil fuel we use makes it that much worse.

Not to mention the paradox of wanting to see some of the world’s most beautiful places before they disappear, yet knowing that traveling to see them will hasten their disappearance.

I don’t have a conclusion. I’m not even sure I know what questions I’m asking. I just feel conflicted.

I don’t know how to reconcile my desire to see the world with my desire to save it.

*My way of processing ideas involves a shit-ton of reading. Sometimes I wish it involved more doing.
**The linked piece gets into a whole other issue that I’m not going to cover here: traveling to see family. I’m lucky that my close relatives all live in the Northeast, but that’s not the case for a lot of people, and there’s no easy answer to the question of how they can visit their family without harming the environment.
***I do have to note that 1.) there are ways to take a gap year without traveling, or at least without going very far, and 2.) there’s a lot of privilege involved in being physically, mentally, and financially able to travel. That could be a whole other essay.

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14 thoughts on “Travel and the environment: can we see the world without killing the planet?

  1. Wow – great post – totally thought provoking. I love that you are exploring what you feel around the health of the earth and travel. It’s important and not something I think a lot about when dreaming of visiting places. I wonder if there is a way to make travel benefit the environment in some way?

    The notes you ended with are so intriguing, please write more on them! I would welcome a guest post on my site if you were interested and will definitely stop by here again to read more!

    • Thanks! I would love to write a guest post for your site.

      As for making travel benefit the environment, that’s complicated. There’s definitely been an increase in eco-tourism, but that usually means that the hotels and activities are environmentally friendly–it doesn’t take away the fact that getting to them still has a major impact on the environment.

      One thing I think would help, at least within the US, would be if the government gave more funding to Amtrak and developed a much larger rail network. Traveling by train is obviously slower than flying, so it wouldn’t work for everyone (especially because US companies give so few vacation days, which is a whole other issue…). But if it were possible to tour large parts of the US by train, I think that would make a big difference.

  2. If you look at marginal cost to the environment instead of average cost, there are probably some ways to travel and be environmentally friendly. On one extreme, the average carbon emissions per person-mile of a cargo ship are probably very very high, but the marginal costs of one extra person are probably very low. If you want to travel faster, picking flights that are already scheduled but unlikely to fill up should have a lower marginal cost to the environment than other flights.

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