Pollution, consumerism and other things wrong with the way travel

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How conscious are you of your travel habits?

At 26 years old I’ve been lucky to visit 32 countries in four continents. And I love it. To call that well-travelled or not is up to you. Regardless, I have plenty of stories from foreign countries that I love to share. I even have some where I’m not getting to awkward situations due to alcohol or lack of common language. Those real travelling moments, like experiencing a foreign religious ritual or getting to know a career mentor.

Travelling makes me feel good. It is my preferred method of consumption. Well – along with clothes (sorry planet). I aim to visit one new country every year. I’d much rather spend a month’s pay in South Africa rather than put it towards a new car. I guess you could say I bought in to the #wanderlust -lifestyle. But why?

There are plenty of perfectly acceptable reasons to travel. We might want to relax from our work. Maybe we want a change of environment. Perhaps we want to work abroad and are trying to see where. Maybe we want to gain new perspective on our life and grow as people. Or we just want to have some fun.

But I wonder: is our conscious decision to spend more money on flights rather than luxury goods, making us a better consumers or people? Is there a price to be paid for the lessons learned abroad?

As of writing I’m living in South Korea as an exchange student. Though I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here, I feel it’s appropriate to take a critical look at the way we travel.

Let’s glimpse at the environmental, ethical, and economic issues in our travel culture.

Aviation is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitting industries in the world today. I’ve been planning a flight to Mexico in the spring of 2019. According to myclimate.com this roundtrip flight alone would produce more than 3,5 tons of CO2. That is about one-third of the 9 tons a typical EU citizen produces annually. Here’s the catch. In order to halt climate change, we should keep that annual number under 2 tons per citizen. That one trip abroad is almost two years of emissions. If we want to halt climate change, we need to act now. That means no long-haul flights Mexico. Actually, that means no flights at all if you own a car or eat a carnivore diet. All those #wanderlust Instagram posts on your profile mean that you have probably used more than several years of emissions already.

Not to mention all those disposable products you get while traveling: travel sized cosmetics, endless piles of water bottles and useless souvenirs. Here’s a challenge: try living a zero-waste lifestyle while frequently traveling abroad to foreign countries.

Travelling makes it harder to be a conscious consumer. And I don’t blame you for it! Information on the true nature of products is hard to come by. You don’t have the time to research purchase decisions nor necessarily the capability to do so. Differences in language and culture make you prefer the easy way out, regardless of its environmental impact. And that is completely natural. It’s hard not to pollute. So, we just decide to try and not care. And that is even more the reason for us to make a difference.

Flying abroad offers you a whole new variety of activities you might do. Forget fishing for tiny roaches in your local pond. Why not go for some big game fishing in the open seas? Could I interest you in tackling a swordfish? Fun I bet, but also extremely damaging to these animals.

Need to go somewhere? Why ride your bike when you could ride an elephant? A swell idea, except there’s plenty of suffering for elephants who are subjugated to live their lives as fun rides.

Want to treat yourself to some REAL dumplings? Why not go to China and eat to your heart’s delight! And then realize all the money you paid in taxes and fees go to support the government and their human rights violations.

I’m not blaming you for having made these decisions. The activities might seem fun, sometimes innocent. “It’s what they do here! When in Rome…” It’s natural to want to do something different while abroad. Not to mention, their negative effects are hard to see. You’re in for the short-time, not the long-term. Luckily thanks to the information age we live in, it’s becoming easier. Even though you are traveling only for a small moment, the collective impact of travel industry lasts more than a lifetime. Take your time to research your propose d activities. It might even save a life.

Recently I’ve been increasingly skeptical of the whole “don’t buy items, just moments and travel” marketing message circulating various medias. While I appreciate the sentiment, I do wonder: who is behind this message? Who benefits from this lifestyle? I won’t deny the plentiful benefits traveling has for supporting globalism and your personal growth. But if you follow the money, it isn’t hard to find a multitude of people and businesses benefitting from your decision to fly abroad.

Think about all the people making a living serving visitors, building tourist friendly facilities and advertising the #wanderlust -lifestyle. They stand to financially gain from your decision to travel. When they encourage you to splurge on that last-minute flight to Goa to try and discover your true self, they have a monetary incentive to do so. Every ocean-side margarita and late-night bowl of ramen is money from your pocket to somebody else’s.
The average American might spend around $1,200 on vacations annually. With that money you could buy the new iPhone every year or have that Starbucks Frappawhatchamacallit it every day. Instead, they choose to spend on travel.

Let’s get to brass tacks. This industry is a huge business. Travel and tourism contribute almost 8,000,000,000,000 dollars to global economy annually. Yes, literally 8 trillion dollars. Much larger than the $320 billion professional consulting or $130 billion video game industries. A lot of people make a lot of money on your decision to see the world. These also happen to be the people who benefit from marketing the travel lifestyle. I think plenty of people genuinely believe in the happiness and joy brought by traveling and thus like to advertise it as the superior lifestyle. But I do wonder: how many of those ads are from somebody purely seeking to make a profit off of you?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t travel because all #wanderlust -posts are fake. But take into consideration: our travel budget is somebody’s paycheck. This is not to say it’s bad to help somebody else make a living. I’m very glad other people are willing to do it for me. But it does mean, that we should mindful whose business we want to support. Making your itinerary is a chance to exercise your right to be a conscious consumer. Along with multinational corporations, a lot of honest people are looking for their next paycheck. Let’s try to include them in our budget. It’s a chance to make a positive impact on the economy and culture abroad.

I get it. Now you’re thinking: “our travels destroy the planet, local economies, animal and human rights”. So, what can we do to fix this? Stop traveling? I don’t think so. Just because we’re doing it wrong doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to do it right.

What needs to change? If you want to be more mindful and contribute, here are seven action items on how to travel more consciously

  1. stop long-haul flights
    these are the most polluting, prefer local destinations or a train

  2. bring stuff to buy less
    at home you are better equipped to make conscious purchase decisions, leverage this to reduce the amount of stuff you need to buy at your destination e.g. toiletries, clothes, water bottles

  3. research your planned travel activities
    businesses who make a profit with non-ethical activities are rarely concerned with the ethics – research your itinerary before heading out

  4. buy from local businesses over global chains
    support the locally owned businesses to ensure sustainable economic development, rather than feeding the multinational corporations’ profit margins

  5. pack and travel with less
    do you really need a separate outfit for each travel day? the less you pack, the easier it is to move around, use less polluting methods of transport like walking and thus reduce your impact

  6. purchase carbon offsets
    i.e. spend money to compensate for the emissions created by traveling. according to Smithsonian magazine, this is the best individual option for travelers for reducing your carbon footprint

  7. travel less
    you could simply go abroad less: if you used to go every quarter, think about going only once a year and spend more time in domestic travel. the less you fly, the better.

Let’s get one thing straight. Traveling has an enormous amount of benefits. You can:

  • discover new lives
  • expand your comfort zone
  • have new experiences
  • gain perspective and gratitude for your existing life
  • meet new people and network
  • enhance creativity
  • expose yourself to new ideas
  • build confidence
  • learn languages and teach others
  • build a better life for yourself and loved ones

After weighing the pros and cons, I don’t want to completely stop traveling. To me, travelling is still worth it. But I do have to have a real discussion with myself on how to do it going forward. Flights to both China and Mexico are still in my calendar. And I feel selfish for having them there.

So, why am I talking about traveling less? Maybe I’m only having this discussion just because I’ve been lucky enough to have travelled so much already. Maybe this is just me experiencing and expressing homesickness. But maybe there’s something to it. What do you think? What is your future trajectory in travelling?

I’m not hoping for us to stop traveling because of this post. I’m hoping we’re able to find our own, unique motivations for making the trip abroad, exploring new cultures and hopefully growing in the process. I’m hoping we’re able to do it in a sustainable way, setting a positive example for our fellow travelers.

PS. Since I’m going to China, does anybody know where to buy human right violation offsets? Asking for a friend.

So what is it like there? – Cultural observations on Korean people, food and beliefs
Koreans have no sense of moderation