Late last month, the New York Times published an article titled, "How guilty should you feel about your vacation?" The author, Seth Kugel, wrote about the expansion of blame for travel's carbon-emitting activities to include individual travelers. Until recently, airlines had shouldered the full brunt of criticism, but the flight-shaming movement in Europe is gathering steam, and perhaps soon Americans, too, will be challenged by peers to account for the necessity of every trip.
Kugel added overtourism to the list of negatives associated with travel, but he ultimately rejects canceling your annual vacation. Instead, he urges considering ways to make trips more meaningful for both travelers and hosts; to reduce on-the-road carbon footprints, e.g., traveling by rail rather than air; and to lobby officials to tackle travel-related environmental concerns. Together, Kugel believes, these are a sufficient offset to the negative impact of one's vacation.
There are a few nonideological precedents which provide some insight into how sustainable an intensifying air travel boycott may be. In the wake of the great recession of 2008, corporations searched for ways to cut costs. The enhanced videoconferencing technologies known as telepresence appeared to be attractive alternatives to costly business trips. As a result, the value of companies that produced meetings and conferences plummeted. But corporations eventually concluded that the cost of face-to-face meetings was more than justified, and today the conference business has never been stronger.
Similarly, following 9/11, recession and fear combined to depress leisure travel significantly. The industry's recovery was fueled by, in the words of the late travel researcher Stanley Plog, "cabin fever syndrome." He found that, during every travel slump, there comes a moment when people worry that life is passing them by, and they wonder what tomorrow will bring. Enjoying life now includes traveling, they conclude.
There may be a social attitudinal shift on climate change that is so powerful it will both overcome cabin fever syndrome and cause businesses to eschew potentially profitable meetings in order to reduce their carbon footprints. But the incremental nature of carbon reduction at the individual, or even corporate level, will likely continue to be viewed as insignificant versus the perceived value of travel.
It's also possible that, to address climate change, governments will compel corporate or societal behavioral change. But how likely is that? Despite near universal scientific acceptance of the threats of global warming, meaningful counter steps are few and far between. We appear to be following the fictional example of Superman's birth planet, Krypton, whose citizens were never roused to action despite warnings and evidence that their planet was about to blow up.
On that happy note, I'll switch gears and shine a light on a counterexample to the aggregate damage that travel's carbon footprint inflicts. It's a case study showing how the incremental virtues of leisure travel can also be scaled.
I recently spoke with Terri Wingham who, at the age of 30, had her life upended by a diagnosis of breast cancer. It led to a serious reevaluation of her priorities and the desire to search for meaning and purpose in her life.
She traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, and volunteered to work at a day care center in a poor township. She had arrived with anger and a sense of victimization, but her perspective shifted, and she sensed that voluntourism could help other cancer survivors and their caretakers. She founded a nonprofit called A Fresh Chapter to test a concept that would combine travel, volunteering and techniques to deal with the emotional fallout of cancer. She has since brought hundreds of people to five countries, logging 16,000 volunteer hours.
She relies on the travel industry for logistics -- G-Adventures handles a weekend add-on to Machu Picchu for her program in Lima, Peru, for instance -- and she wants to build bridges to others in the travel industry as she grows.
I asked her why she even added in a travel component; why not simply volunteer "at home," wherever home is?
"Travel gets you out of the environment where you were sick," she said. "At home, instead of looking forward, you just see more treatments and uncertainty. Life can get really small, and travel helps open you up, and you see yourself and the world in a different perspective."
The last sentence may well define travel's higher calling. But does it balance the incremental damage caused by carbon emissions?
For the time being, that's up to individuals to decide.
I'm aware that my fatalistic worry that humankind will ignore an impending environmental disaster could be seen as justification for even the most frivolous trip.
But balancing my worries is hope: hope that serious, large-scale efforts to halt climate change will be undertaken; hope that discussions about travel will take into consideration the balance of travel damage and travel virtue; and the hope that, far into the future, our children will be able to take life-affirming, guilt-free journeys of every kind.