Travel responsibly – stay at home

Baby elephant

I’d like to travel responsibly. I mean, who wouldn’t? It would be nice to think that wherever I choose to go I make a positive impact on the places I visit while at the same time the process of actually getting there involves me burning up as little fossil fuel as possible.

But how do I go about achieving this laudable goal? Let’s start by trying to make as small a negative footprint as is possible. Flying is a big no-no, what with the gazillion tons of carbon dioxide emitted on every flight. On a one-way 12-hour trip to SE Asia for example I am personally responsible for the emission of 3 tonnes of CO2.* A tonne of CO2 is equivalent to the weight of 10 baby elephants and would fill a typical 25m swimming pool**. That makes 3 tonnes sound like a frighteningly high amount. Add that again for the trip home and add the same for my wife; that’s one hell of a lot of baby elephants and gas-filled swimming pools just for a simple return trip for two.

Trains are a little kinder on the emissions, cars less so; cycling and walking are better still, with only the fuel used in the manufacture of our bikes or hiking boots to worry about. In short, the slower we move, the less trouble we’re causing for the future of the world.

So shouldn’t we all just stay at home and explore our own back yards instead? Many avid travellers argue that the positive impact of visiting other countries outweighs the negative effect of the oil-burning greenhouse gas-creating process of getting there in the first place. So how does that work?

If you spend a few months delivering medical services, training essential workers or building basic services in a community in need, the argument is probably a strong one and your good v bad equation is probably in credit; polish your halo and move on. But what about the rest of us, going as tourists to see what we’ve come to see, or even as travellers to see what we see?

It’s pretty hard for me to measure any positive impact from a trip and try to claim I’ve justified all those elephants and swimming pools’ worth of gas. Even if I’ve spent my time working with elephants for a week or two, the good that I’ve done is compromised by my getting there in the first place. But enough of elephants. What about our interactions with local people – our acts of commerce, of cultural exchange, of learning and spreading positive values that help create a better world? How much benefit do we create for others or for ourselves when we visit a place for a week or a month? Does it justify the environmental harm we do in getting there? Could we not have just as good a trip, experience as many new things and leave as positive an impact by throwing on a backpack and heading off for an adventure near to our homes? Just think: fewer airports, fewer big hotels, fewer gas-choking minibuses tearing around packed holiday resorts. Consider all those elephants of gas that would be saved.

And then, even if we’ve decided that our travels are necessary for ourselves and the rest of mankind, we need to think about where our money is going. Are we rewarding rogues and scoundrels with our money and propping up their corrupt regimes, immoral practices and intolerant ideas? Shouldn’t we avoid countries with a record of poor human rights, a lack of basic freedoms, repression of minority groups or questionable foreign interventions? What about those where animals are exploited in the name of entertainment? That’s at least 90% of the world off the list already and we’ve barely started; dig a bit and we can soon find reasons to exclude the rest.

Can travel ever be a responsible act? Tour operators, whose business depends on you thinking about faraway lands of smiling people rather than elephants and gas, would have you believe it does. But if the figures are to be believed, the return flights alone for our recent trips to Brazil and Japan account for a whopping 24 baby elephants’ worth of CO2 emissions. The simple act of travelling, especially by air, creates such a negative balance that we’d need to do a massive amount of elephant-sized goodness for our wanderings to have a positive effect. Perhaps to get on a plane and then hope to travel responsibly is a contradiction too far; instead of talking about responsible travel we should perhaps aspire to nothing more grand than the act of travelling less irresponsibly.

*Source: Carbon Independent 
** Source: University of St Mark and St John, Plymouth 

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Freelance travel writer

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