By Adam Brock
Having spent much of the summer volunteering in India, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the implications of international travel for sustainability. Do the things we accomplish by visiting foreign countries justify the outrageous environmental impact of airplane flights – ten times worse than a train, and one of the fastest growing sources of CO2 emissions? As I catch myself up on blog chatter after (gasp) two months without, it looks like I’m not the only one that’s begun to ask these questions: two great posts from the last few weeks have beat me to the punch.
First, green marketing blog Two Steps Forward ran an essay in July with the provocative title “Could Air Travel Ever Be Green?” Joel Makower, the author, usually lies on the paler side of grass green, but this one dug deep. Makower notes that air travel continues to be a rapidly growing mode of transit, yet the recent climate change commitments by major airlines continue to be all sidestep and no action. Meanwhile, eco-conscious consumers are getting fed up, the EU is imposing a cap and trade market on European air emissions, and fuel prices are all but certain to skyrocket. His conclusion: “Can we figure out ways — really, truly effective ways — not to fly at all? As an unabashed road warrior, I’ll be the first to admit that this is a journey that’s going to be one bumpy ride.”
Last Wednesday, Worldchanging contributor Micki Krimmell’s Travel Lightly followed up with a slightly more optimistic perspective – at least for travel with a conscience. Acknowledging the ghastly footprint of global air travel, Krimmell suggests that the positive change it can incur, in both the visitor and the country visited, might outweigh the drawbacks. “World travel breeds intercultural understanding and respect for our global environment,” she writes, “planetary thinking, at a time when we need a lot more of it.”
I found myself coming to this same conclusion frequently while in India. Exposing ourselves to ways of life drastically different from our own allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the way we live, and connect us to the planetary organism. It’s a singular experience, incomparable to any book, conversation or high-def live webcast, and it’s one that each person deserves to have.
At the same time, though, Makower’s conclusion can’t be denied: we need to seriously reconsider the commonplace status that air travel has in contemporary life, and ask ourselves when enough is enough. While there’s something irreplaceable about interacting with the foreign, there’s also a limit to how many times that interaction can meaningfully occur. There’s something to be said for a certain amount of awareness-raising foreign exchange, but we should also be looking for means to develop planetary thinking in ways that aren’t so, well, anti-planetary. There’s also a balance of priorities to consider. Every week spent mingling with the global community (or the business community) is a week spent away from our geographic and genetic communities, the ones that, in the long run, matter the most.
For my part, I’ve decided to embrace the precautionary principle, and not to fly again if I can help it. I’m prepared to make India the last stamp in my passport for a while – after all, there’s an incredible amount of biological and social diversity to be seen just within the States. And when I head back to Denver for the holidays, I’ll leave from Penn Station rather than LaGuardia, ready for a much more relaxing and – no pun intended – grounding journey home.