At NYU in the late 1970s I took a course called Basic Issues in the News from former New York Times reporter William Burrows. Global warming, which I’d never heard of, was one of the five basic issues Burrows said would be making headlines when we were old.
Not as many as it should be, it turns out. But I can’t fault Burrows for failing to anticipate science denial, especially since, even by the time I took his course, there was sufficient evidence the so-called Greenhouse Effect corresponded with the rise of fossil fuel emissions, and if humanity failed to curb those emissions, suffering and death on the scale of world wars would ensue.
That knowledge changed my life. Environmentalism became my most important cause. The Fabulous Wife and I share a Prius, which we drive only four thousand miles per year. We’re vegetarians, so the energy needed to produce our food is far less than for carnivores. We heat our small home to 64° max in winter and do not have air conditioning. And then there’s our biggest resource reduction of all: we chose not to have kids.
I’ve never thought that makes our hands clean. Just by living in the United States we use more resources than most people. So I’m always open to new consumption-reducing ideas.
But some ideas are too much for me—like renouncing plane travel.
Over the last few weeks I’ve read several articles that basically say “if you’re flying, you’re frying the planet,” such as this one in the San Francisco Chronicle and this one in the New York Times. The Chron article quotes a Canadian environmentalist who claims his recent round-trip flight between Ottawa and Vancouver was equivalent to “chain-sawing down an entire acre of mature forest.” Ouch.
I detest flying. It’s unhealthy and unpleasant. But most of my family lives on the other side of North America. Should I never see them again? And I do my best learning when immersed in foreign cultures. Should I watch Rick Steves episodes on PBS instead? (Apparently he’s now trying to go carbon neutral.)
Or can I compromise — like continue to visit family but forego foreign trips? There are reasons beyond climate change to give up transcontinental tourism, summarized in this recent Atlantic Monthly piece. And in an April New Yorker article, Rebecca Mead describes Barcelona’s tourism-related woes. We saw up close what she’s talking about, including the El Raval billboard she mentions.
Our vacations can have a devastating impact on locals, so while seeing relatives may be justifiable, perhaps flying to Europe isn’t.
Ugh. Right now I can’t consign myself to such a fate. I know that makes me a hypocrite. It’s the story of my life — and why I don’t donate time to any cause, even one as critical as environmentalism. I’m not pure enough to crusade for anything.
One reason I call my blog Element of Uncertainty is that I’m not sure where the line is between personal gratification and social responsibility. I know it’s closer to social responsibility than libertarians think, and closer to personal gratification than fundamentalists think. But beyond that, it gets fuzzy. And I would argue that in this case, the choice isn’t starkly black-and-white. My travel levels acres of mature forest and disrupts the locals, but it also makes me wiser and kinder. Does that compensate for the damage? Unlikely. But in this neverending chain of random interactions we call life, the sense of connection international travel instills in me and millions of other ordinary tourists may help avert suffering and death on the scale of world wars.