I Want to Travel Without Killing Polar Bears

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Glacier National Park, where many glaciers are melting and more have already disappeared

Recently I read this New York Times article that broke down global warming, and in particular how it is affected by aviation, into digestible information that alarmed me.

This article popped up on my Facebook feed shortly after having a conversation with a friend about this exact topic (the creepiness of that deserves its own post — I digress). In the time that has passed since the two of us last saw each other, my friend has adopted a vegan lifestyle, forsaken his car, and has now decided that after one “last hurrah” flight to hike the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal next year, he is swearing off transport by plane for good — and he encouraged me to do the same. Basically for the reasons that I’ve just read about in this NYT piece, with the thumbnail image of a sorrowful cartoon polar bear perched on an ice floe as airplanes fly overhead.

I was primed to read this article after last week’s conversation with my friend (following which I of course desperately googled the topic, hoping I would find a goldmine of information telling me that flying isn’t all that bad, really. I failed to find the goldmine.)

Recently I purchased a one-way flight from Sri Lanka (where I’ve been living and working for the past year) to India. In just a couple of weeks, I’ll be beginning my 5 month tour of Asia (perhaps more on that later). Like many other privileged millennials, I love to see new places, meet interesting people, eat weird food. Get out of my comfort zone.

But does my desire to see the world (and my western lifestyle in general) justify that, according to this study by John Nolt,

A while ago, I read a BBC article explaining why brain biases prevent action on climate change issues. I can see the effect of many of these biases in my own life and my attitude towards world travel — particularly hyperbolic discounting, and the bystander effect. For example, I choose to believe that the present is more important than the future and that it is the job of governments and companies to take climate action, while it is my job to travel the world now, while I’m young (and before it’s all destroyed).

I asked another friend his opinion on the topic. His point was essentially that we need better technologies to mitigate these issues, but one thing is certain — humans refuse to downgrade their quality of life. The rest of the world is catching up to the standards of the west, which is a problem because we aren’t practicing sustainable living.

I watched a Ted Talk called “100 Solutions to Reverse Global Warming” by Chad Frischmann of Project Drawdown, which claims to be the world’s leading source of climate solutions. “Drawdown” refers to the point when greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere level off and then start to decline, thereby reducing global warming. Through its research, Project Drawdown has identified 100 solutions that will make drawdown possible, all of which exist today and can be fully utilized with technology. By proposing real, attainable solutions, they aim to change the negative narrative surrounding the topic of climate change into one of opportunity and hope.

Out of all the solutions to reversing global warming laid out by Project Drawdown, aviation was not at the top of the list (it’s #43). So what tops the list?

  1. Refrigerant management
  2. Wind turbines
  3. Reduced food waste
  4. Plant-rich diet
  5. Tropical forests
  6. Educating girls
  7. Family planning

While diving into this website and clicking through many other links, I realized that I didn’t know too much about global warming, what’s causing it, and what can be done to prevent it. But as I read, I began to feel much more optimistic about these proposed solutions and saw how I could be putting many into practice in my own life. A plant-rich diet and reducing food waste? Of course I can do that! Turn off the AC? I live in the tropics, but still I know I can vastly cut down here. Supporting programs to educate girls and promote family planning? Quite easy to get involved.

I liked and saved this Instagram post by Sophia Bush, an activist who I admire, also generally relating to this topic:

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BUT, I still feel a nagging sense of guilt when I think about the damage that the flight from Sri Lanka to India will incur, or the continuing negative impact that my 5 month tour of Asia could potentially cause if I’m not intentional about the way I travel.

So, what’s my point in all of this? Honestly, I’m not sure. But with the wealth of knowledge at my fingertips, I can’t use the excuse of ignorance. If I’m going to travel and see the world, I need to make sustainable travel my top priority. What I’ve realized is there are many ways that I can adapt my lifestyle, without downgrading my quality of life, that will in turn help my planet and my fellow humans. But that first requires me to be aware, to care, to learn, and to make changes. As Aziz Ansari put it…

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keeping track of all the beautiful interludes // interested in people, ideas, travel, nature, culture, food, art

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