I am an environmentalist. But I am also a traveller. A few years ago, before people started to realise that we’re zooming at top speed into a Red Alert zone, the word “but” wouldn’t belong before such a statement. Avid travellers were typically people with a keen investment in the planet and therefore in its state and health. Now, we’re part of quite a different conversation.
My main issue with this whole debate is the way in which it often seeks to demonise all travellers. It’s easy for those who don’t travel to sit on a high horse and claim they’re better for staying put, but I personally couldn’t conceive of a life without air travel. The way I see things, there are a few different “types” of traveller. And when we recognise the variances between each one, both ethically and in terms of statistical impact on the environment, we begin to notice the actual problem behind this contradiction of interests.
Firstly, there are people like me: culture and adventure seekers, who take long-haul flights to get to destinations which we then explore with all due respect. I eat at small, stand-alone restaurants, go on trips run by people I have met along the way, and I shop at stalls or stores run by locals. I want to make friends for life and genuinely try to contribute to the places I visit. For me, therefore, travelling is a way of cultivating my understanding of, and appreciation for this beautiful planet.
Next, we have the business traveller. There are few things I consider to be as unnecessary as travelling for business, unless it is absolutely essential. In a world where technology is so advanced, we don’t need to travel to another country in order to contribute just as effectively to a meeting. And if an employee really is needed in person, surely it makes sense to avoid hiring someone who needs to fly to a different country every week in order to fulfil their simple duties.
And finally, there’s the problematic in-between. The traveller who buys a plane ticket, typically underpriced, to fly to a destination which boasts the daily arrival of hundreds of aeroplanes, with the sole intention of sitting on a beach all day and drinking overpriced cocktails in fancy hotels. Granted, when I travel with my parents we do a bit of this—but it’s our treat at the end of a jam-packed exploration. What’s the point in travelling if you’re going to spend every minute avoiding what lies beyond the walls of your hotel? And yet, who am I to say that people shouldn’t fly across the world just to frazzle by the pool and never exchange more than a drinks order with a local?
If we are going to start considering the effect of travelling on the environment—and we are, because we don’t have a choice—we need to consider our behaviour when we get to our destination first, and whether it warrants the damage. If you’re going to lounge on a sun-bed all day, why fly to the Maldives when you could take the Eurotunnel and do the same thing in the south of France? If you hate Indonesian food, don’t travel to Indonesia just to sit in chain restaurants—either find local places which serve the stuff you like, or think twice about your destination. Considerations like these seem futile in the long run, and it’s easy to say, “Oh, but I’m only one person and this is just one holiday”, when in fact, according to Notz’s 2016 scientific paper, each seat on a six-hour flight is responsible for melting the equivalent of three square metres of summer ice cover. And let’s not forget that this weirdly nihilistic “I’m just one out of billions” outlook is continuing to driving us further into this whole mess.
This is all rich coming from a 21-year-old girl who’s only one week into her first solo trip, but I’m not a newbie to travel. I was brought up on it, and I’m not growing out of it any time soon. I value every single trip I take, I choose my destinations wisely and I show nothing but respect for a country’s environment when I’m on my travels, and I’d expect that to be the case for jet-setters across the board. And if that isn’t your style, question your intentions before you pack your bags.