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Climate crisis: Is travel writing — or even traveling — still morally legitimate?

, September 5, 2019, 0 Comments

As we grapple with climate change, travel journalist Paul Sullivan considers the cognitive and moral dissonance involved in selling destinations at a time when the planet needs us to be traveling less.

climate-crisisIt was while recently soaring 10,000 miles above Iceland’s famously pulchritudinous interior, looking down through my airplane window at the gentle folds and pastel shades of its rhyolite mountains and the receding white snow atop its glaciers, that I found myself wondering: Is my job as a travel writer morally justifiable any more?

I was on my way to update a guidebook and review some hotels for a newspaper. Excellent news for the local economy, of course, and certainly fun work if one can get it; but reports underlining the devastating impact of tourism on the planet — the majority of which occur via air, car, rail and sea transportation, with the rest coming mainly from the hotel business — are by now impossible to ignore.

Flying in itself makes up a large chunk of the overall percentage. Although a relatively small industry, aviation has a disproportionately large impact, accounting for between 3–7%, depending on which reports you read, of the total global amount of emissions. Yet the industry has no plans to slow down. Indeed, largely free of government regulation — it was given special status and excluded in the Kyoto and Paris climate change agreements — it is set to continue apace, with global passenger numbers expected to climb to 7.2 billion by 2035, almost twice as many as in 2016 (3.8 billion).

And while airlines like Boeing are developing biofuels, there are no industry-wide solutions on the horizon right now.

Dangers of over-tourism

In the meantime, major natural sights like the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos Islands and glaciers as far-flung as Iceland and Africa are disappearing before our eyes, 1 million plant and animal species are currently threatened directly by climate change, and cities like Venice, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Reykjavik are creaking under the strain of what has recently become known as “over-tourism.”

While I was in Reykjavik, locals were complaining about businesses being wiped out to make way for generic souvenir shops, bland hotels and multinational restaurant chains. Local nature was being damaged by overtourism, too.

How to justify our travels in such a problematic context? One immediate response is to reduce personal carbon emissions. This is something many of us, including myself, have already been doing for a long time, including taking the train for most of my personal and professional travels wherever possible (and offsetting the handful of flights I have taken). Yet it doesn’t seem enough.

Added to this is my role as the travel writer, which prompts rising levels of cognitive dissonance and moral guilt at being part of an industry that helps local economies, on the one hand, while effectively supporting environmental damage on the other. Again, an immediate response is to green wash articles; to write about trains and not planes, eco-hotels and “woke” destinations. But for all the goodwill of the industry’s efforts in that realm, the idea of eco-tourism and even “slow travel” already feel like a contradiction in terms.

We need to reduce travel

The conclusion, as far as I can see, is that the travel industry desperately needs regulation, but we should also be prepared to take on some personal liability — let’s perhaps call it “ethical travel,” as opposed to eco-travel. In the same spirit of the “reducetarian” movements that have sprung up around consuming meat or using plastic, this would mean questioning first and foremost whether we actually really need to travel; hopefully concluding that we don’t, at least some of the time; and only after that, considering how we travel.

In one sense, of course, certain travel choices are being taken away from us anyway. Tours and trips are increasingly being canceled or postponed because of a lack of snow or ice, or because places — including much of Europe this summer — are too hot, or too wet. Ironically, this situation has given rise to what is being called last-chance tourism, ironic because the influx of tourists to precarious destinations serves to hasten their demise. This is why UNESCO, for example, officially lists tourism among the greatest threats to the Galapagos archipelago.

It seems obvious to me that we need to urgently reduce travel. Of course that means economies will suffer, and jobs (including mine), will be lost. And for these reasons, as well as wanting to continue traveling myself, I still hope that things don’t get so extreme that we have to stop altogether; that we can find at least some compromises, perhaps in the shape of biofuels or other technological innovations, along the way toward an obvious endgame of planetary stewardship.

If not, and thinking more positively, staycations can restore us to our own landscapes and communities — maybe not a bad thing in an era of political polarization. Perhaps they might even combat the anomie that is the dark side of globalization’s utopian promises of ultimate connectivity. Maybe a break from travel could even enable us to appreciate it as a more authentic experience again.

In the end, I suppose I believe it’s better to make proactive sacrifices sooner, rather than have them forced upon us later, and that people and economies can bounce back in a way that a devastated planet cannot.