The Carbon Conundrum
With so much publicity about the ill effects of travel, what's the responsible adventurer to do?
One of the prime lessons you learn as an adventure traveler is just how precious – and fragile – the riches of our planet are: Whether remote tribes, pristine wilderness areas, or exquisite wildlife, the treasures we travel hard and far to appreciate are increasingly threatened, their very existence increasingly precarious. Of course, the irony that intrepid travelers have begun to acutely appreciate is that the very people who travel hard and far to learn these lessons are an inherent part of the problem.
This is why the whole ethos of responsible travel has taken on such presence and importance in recent years. In my own travels over the past quarter-century, I’ve seen time and again how travelers impact the places they visit in innumerable ways, some obvious, others extraordinarily subtle. The ubiquity of these effects – and their concomitant responsibilities -- is daunting, but I find it helpful to think of them in terms of three broad categories.
Cultural/social: By our very presence we influence the communities we visit and the people we encounter; we introduce new ideas, behaviors, styles, and values. To minimize our impact, it is essential that we educate ourselves about and respect the traditions and practices of the places we visit, and that we try to support and preserve their cultures. If we travel with sensitivity and understanding, we can minimize the negative effects of that interaction and maximize the good that we do, in everything from encouraging local crafts and traditions to helping fund needed schools, clinics, and other programs.
Environmental: Wherever we travel, we impact the environment. We should strive in all ways to minimize our impact on the environments we visit and the species we encounter; we should seek to conserve and preserve the condition and heritage of nature whenever and wherever we can.
Financial: The money that we spend as travelers can accumulate into a substantial portion of a place’s income. By making sure that our dollars go to local businesses and programs, we can significantly benefit the communities that we visit.
Such responsible travel notions and goals have been widely promulgated and refined over the past 25 years. Recently one more impact of travel has attracted considerable attention: the “carbon footprint” we create whenever we travel, particularly by air.
While this is an important consideration, and the resulting goal of carbon-offsetting or carbon-neutrality is worthy, it raises some thorny issues.
One is the accuracy of the organizations that offer and oversee carbon offset programs. “Carbon footprint” calculations vary. For example, using four widely reputed web sites to calculate the footprint and offset cost of a one-way flight from London to Sydney, I got four different results:
Carbonresponsible.com – 16,859 km; 1.85 tons CO2
Carbonneutral.com – 17,010 km; 1.9 tons; offset cost: 17.11 pounds
Climatecare.org – 2.81 tons; offset cost: 21.06 pounds
Sustainabletravelinternational.org -- 3.23 tons; offset cost: $49.26 (25.37 pounds)
A second issue is the efficacy of the programs that are being utilized. As many of these programs have begun only recently, their long-term effects are still unknown. In addition, at least some have had inadvertent consequences that may make their net effects more harmful than good. (As an example of the latter, a Feb. 20 article in the New York Times cited a tree-planting program in Uganda that had resulted in villagers being beaten over land ownership disputes.)
A third issue is the psychological effect of carbon offsetting. Some dedicated travel professionals worry that focusing travelers’ concerns on simple offset calculations will encourage complacency about other responsible travel issues and concerns and the needs of local communities.
While none of these issues implies that we should disregard carbon-neutrality as a worthy concern or goal, they do illuminate the intricately complex nature of the responsible travel equation and the potentially harmful result of isolating any one travel effect as the epitome of travel responsibility. This is the carbon conundrum, and for me its ultimate expression is the ideal espoused by some thoughtful and well-intentioned people that we should simply stop traveling by air, or by any means that sends carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
For the most part, such propositions are hyperboles designed to make a metaphorical point rather than to ground entire industries, but the metaphor raises another, equally important, point: Would the world be a better place if we all stayed in our respective homes, or traveled only as far as we could by foot?
As a lifelong adventurer, I understand the consequences of travel, near and far. I appreciate the need for travelers to be thoughtful, sensitive, and respectful wherever they go, and to be mindful of their effect on the places they visit. I know that we are the stewards of the planet we explore – and I know this deeply and fervently, in my heart and my head, in the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet, because of the world-wanderings I have been able to make.
And I continue to believe – deeply, fervently – that the positive effects of travel far outweigh the negative. Travel builds bridges of understanding and connection; travel teaches us to cherish and cultivate diversity of thought, belief, and creation; travel illuminates and animates the fundamental human truth that we are all alike: that wherever we live, whatever our backgrounds and beliefs, education and economic situation, we share the same human needs and dreams.
I believe that all of us who are privileged to be able to travel should – must -- do so. And I believe that in doing so, we must assimilate and embody the principles and practices of culturally, environmentally and financially aware travel, including an awareness of the carbon footprint we leave. But I also believe that we should be mindful of the carbon conundrum – and not be discouraged or dissuaded by the thought that we do more harm than good when we travel. If we are to pave the planetary pathway to peace, and if we are to conserve and cultivate the grand diversity of things we cherish, we must embrace the world with open arms, minds and hearts. For me, that’s our highest calling as citizens of the world: That’s responsible travel.
What do you think? I’d like to hear your opinion about the carbon conundrum and other issues of responsible travel. Send me your comment in the box at the top of the right hand column on this page. Thanks.
[Tags: Don George, Don's Place, responsible travel, adventure travel, carbon offset]