I love travel as much as anyone - I am just feeling increasingly guilty about how my choices and actions impact other people and ecosystems, now and in the future.
As we approach the dawn of 2019, I would like to offer what may be one of the grumpiest, most dislikable and curmodgenly posts I have made. In this post, I am going to attack the idea - more or less sacrosanct across my entire network - that there is anything beneficial or valuable about most travel, particularly tourism (whether intentional, “spiritual,” or not), but also most forms of business travel. This includes speaking at conferences, going to Davos, attending TED, going to the World Social Forum, also flying to retreats in Bali, leading retreats, visiting ashrams in India, drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon, New Years in Tulum, collecting butterflies in Irkutsk. Whatever. All of these forms of travel have become, for the most part, self-serving indulgences that the Earth can no longer support.
The opportunity to travel at the drop of a hat is one of the most cherished privileges of the financial and cultural elite of the First World. It seems as if one’s cache and glamour in our society is related to the amount of exotic travel one gets to do - ideally, almost casually. This time of year, my feeds on Instagram and Facebook are glutted with pictures of friends and acquaintances visiting exotic sites around South America, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and everywhere else. Travel - part of the prized “experience economy” - has become the most desirable form and expression of what the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “culture capital.”
I admit I also love to travel but, right now, I am questioning and seeking to overcome this addiction because I feel it is detrimental to the health of the Earth. The first problem with flying all over the place by jet is that it is ecological devastating. Each cross-country flight uses up about 1 metric ton of CO2 per person. In the US, emissions of CO2 equal around 20 metric tons per person per year, which is grotesque. In Nigeria, for instance, average CO2 emissions per person is .77 metric tons, and in Vietnam it is 1.09.
In other words, when we take one long round-trip flight we have already used up double the CO2 of an average person in many “developing” (the term is such a vile misnomer) countries around the world. When we are lucky enough to take five or ten such flights a year, we have added a horrific extra burden to the planet. It is not only the case that the people in those “developing” countries don’t get the opportunities to jetset or “gypset” around the world like we do. It is also the case that our profligate use of fossil fuel energy may very well doom these people to earlier and more miserable deaths.
Everyone knows climate change affects the world’s poorer and more vulnerable populations first. Essentially, every time we indulge our addiction for exotic travel, we are pushing the world as a whole closer to the brink of climate apocalypse. This may soon kill all of us but will certainly kill poorer people first as it accelerates the Sixth Extinction across all forms of life.
The CO2 burden of flying doesn’t even take into account all of the extra plastic crap one consumes as a result of travel - also the massive waste of resources created by the hospitality industry, resorts and hotel, even “ecologically sustainable” ones. Tulum, for instance, offers the image of a spiritual and ecological resort area. But most of those resorts are powered by generators running on diesel fuel while a lot of the sewage and trash from tourism ends up in the oceans or polluting underground aquifers. This kind of situation is common for “hot spot” destinations in poorer countries. These resorts hide any visible sign of the ongoing destruction from wealthy, spoiled tourists and transitory emigrants.
Much exotic travel is actually our refined postmodern version of colonialism and imperialism. Instead of conquering with guns and converting the heathen to Christianity, we now control these cultures with our dollars, debt obligations, extractive economic and social relations a.k.a consumerism. We take photographs and trinkets back with us instead of other kinds of trophies like actual slaves (although actual slavery is on the rise around the world, as well). It is still a form of violence rooted in economic exploitation.
If the devastating ecological cost is one problem, the second problem with our incessant consumption of exotic destinations is that it feeds our culture of disconnection and irresponsibility. For the financial and cultural elite who can fly anywhere at a moment’s notice, the sense of freedom and the rush of euphoria they reliably get by surfing another culture makes them less likely to feel responsible for any particular locale or community. If we are going to confront the ecological mega-crisis, we are going to have to commit to place and support local progress which requires a lot of patient dedication. We need urban gardens, permaculture, renewable energy projects, vertical farms, community organizing, etc. All of this incessant travel just makes the financially and culturally privileged feel they live above everyone on a more or less disposable planet. It is unhealthy, parasitic.
Let me be clear: I totally believe that a certain amount of exotic travel is very important for expanding one’s worldview. Personally I gained so much from visiting India, the Amazon, Mexico, etcetera. But I think, like anything, there is diminishing returns when people keep seeking out this addictive rush, year after year. Would it really be so terrible if all of us were restricted to, let’s say, two trips or even one major trip per year? We would then have to choose our spots wisely and carefully. Some exceptions can be made for people doing important research or actually helping local communities in ways they can’t do for themselves.
You actually don't need to go to an Ashram in India for enlightenment. There is just as much of that here - or wherever you are.
What if privileged people with extra capital, instead of constantly feeding their own jaded appetites and excessive sense of cultural self-importance, reduced their own travel and, instead, funded less-privileged people who don’t have the resources so they could experience the expansion of worldview that comes from visiting an indigenous or traditional society at least once in their lives? How many young people in the inner cities would benefit from getting the chance, once, to go to an ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon or visit a traditional society? What if we had a culture that focused on such reciprocity rather than all the opportunities going to a small smug group at the top of the pyramid?
I think we need to start questioning this whole idea of travel as some innately positive thing and see that it is often just as bad as addiction to other forms of materialist consumption and distraction. What if privileged people took all of the resources, time, and energy they use traveling and invested them, instead, in building local utopia - build it where they live and with the people around them, rather than always seeking some new experience in a foreign land that is a kind of ego trip as well as something one shows off to others as a cultural or even a spiritual badge of attainment? Perhaps people who travel excessively for personal pleasure or even financial gain should experience some public shaming for this, rather than being culturally elevated for it? (Like what happens to people who wear fur).
One might argue that less tourism and travel would hurt the local economies of other cultures that are now dependent on revenue from tourism - but this whole financial arrangement is, in the end, totally unsustainable and will soon start to break down in any case, due to ecological stress. So why don’t we end it now? If you actually care about another culture, there is no reason you can’t support local self-sufficient, sustainable businesses there with micro-loans or investments from your home. Money can be transmitted virtually these days.
As soon as we develop algae-based jet fuel that removes CO2 from the air as we fly, and start making all our plastic junk from some kind of hemp or cassava extract that is compostable, I will be delighted to change my tune. As I said, I love travel as much as anyone - I am just feeling increasingly guilty about how my choices and actions impact other people and ecosystems, now and in the future. Some of my work still requires travel and I will probably be seen as a hypocrite. However these things can’t be changed on an individual basis. We need systemic change: This requires a new social movement that uses collective pressure to change the values of the collective.
My sense of the urgency of the ecological crisis and the need to bring awareness to all the ways we need to change has led me to start working with Extinction Rebellion, a new social movement, in NYC. If you want to learn more about us and join our movement, please message me for info.