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I zip through travel literature at the airport’s stall and encounter one platitude after the other. “Travel is a mindset,” “Travel should be transformative.” Media is fueling the fire of the travel as a life-altering experience, existential adventure and the glue to connecting cultures. I search for free wifi. The most common local connection modern travelers make is the next local uplink to the internet. “Travel is the ultimate bridge.”
I enter the plane and find my seat. The bridge of any contemporary traveler is an airplane. I open up the airline’s magazine. Its CEO puts it more bluntly in the editorial note: “Air transport is the engine driving economic growth, and we are happy to contributing to this growth.”
Looking out of the window during takeoff, I am dazzled by the magnificent views over the Bay area below, the Atlantic Ocean in the distance, before the red-orange light of sunset, and a blanket of clouds cover everything. The paradox of flying: looking out the window you can’t fail to notice what a truly precious and fragile planet this is. But then also the emissions of you flying contribute to its destruction.
It takes a Swedish school girl with Asperger Syndrome initiating worldwide school strikes and taking on traveling on long train rides across Europe to speak in front of the World Economic Forum and UN Climate Summit to focus media’s attention towards the obvious fact: We need a radical change in policies and lifestyle; otherwise any generation after us – if not ourselves – will pay dearly.
Travel will not only be profoundly impacted by global warming through a changing climate and sea level rise, but it is also a significant factor that drives it: According to the UNWTO tourism accounted for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2005. A recent study published in 2018 estimates it already at 8% – excluding aviation’s non-CO2 emissions, which are still hard to quantify but potentially hit with double the impact. The transformative experience is just a flight away.
The flight attendants serve refreshments. I enjoy tea and tomato juice with salt and pepper in disposable plastic cups. According to the WEF, we dump the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean each minute. Researchers expect there to be more plastic than fish in the sea by the year 2050. Just one more factor by which homo sapiens (economicus) is digging the graveyard of biodiversity – and, ultimately, his own.
I read a story from a major newspaper’s selected traveler going around the world to 52 places in a year, logistical and personal challenges, what she learned. It bores me to death. I turn the pages and find tips for green traveling such as shutting your window shades during landing, as it conserves energy, I find gadgets to deal with jet lag. There is a simple strategy for both: Go slow. Travel local.
Is there a human right to a beach vacation in Thailand? A stroll through Venice? Is there a human right to travel at all? Is the life-changing yoga retreat in India, the hike through Africa, the surf camp in Indonesia, the eco-lodge in the rain forest worth wrecking the future of your children? Who should be allowed to travel? And why? What is sustainable travel?
The crew prepares for landing. The ground is illuminated by the lights of sprawling suburbia, freeways cutting through it like blood vessels in an obese body. We are heading towards the distant blackness of the sea – the Pacific Ocean. I am looking forward to kissing my wife, who lives and works here. It feels a bit like home — a bit. But I have to leave in less than 90 days. My passport and my bones originate from another continent.