This post was written on the invitation of Zero Carbon Moreland.
Henry David Thoreau, the pioneering environmentalist and philosopher of the simple life, once wrote an essay called ‘Walking’ in which he informed his contemporaries – in all seriousness – that they didn’t know how to walk properly. In fact, he claimed that he had only met one or two people in his life that knew how to walk. When I first read this it took me a while to stop laughing, but then I realized that his point was that walking in nature is a sophisticated art form, promising untold riches to those who have a genius for walking, a genius for sauntering in the woods.
Perhaps if Thoreau were alive today he would write an essay called ‘Travelling,’ in which he would declare that few people know how to travel properly. How presumptuous of people to travel to the other side of the world, he might assert, when we haven’t even seen – really seen – our own backyards; our own locality. Just perhaps, he might suggest, unimagined wonders await those who are willing to open the doors of perception and dare to take a closer look.
Even Thoreau, however, might have admitted that the advertisements for exotic travel today can be extremely seductive. You all know the template: The sun is setting over a private pool in some island resort as two beautiful people sip their cocktails and smile at you. Then the sun is shining and the same beautiful people are laughing together on pure white sand as turquoise waves smoothly approach their tanned bodies. Next they are having a candle-lit dinner in a beachfront restaurant. As they look at each other lovingly, someone starts playing the harp.
Or consider another standard example: an ad for a fancy hotel. There is the grand stairwell and a smiling doorman. There is a sweeping view of a spacious, perfectly new hotel apartment. There is also a snap shot of a huge pool, a vibrant city scene, and a pianist playing in the hotel bar to remind you how sophisticated the patrons are. Everyone is having a fantastic time, including the hotel staff. Finally there is some closing slogan like: “You deserve it. Your family deserves it. Book today for only $299 per night plus airflights. Conditions apply.”
Well, perhaps that would be a nice way to travel, but personally I’m not so sure. When me and my girl take a bus or a train to some camping site an hour or so outside of Melbourne; when we light a small fire and have a glass of wine under the stars, and let our conversation wander in the midst of nature, I feel like the richest man on Earth. And it only costs $12 per night for the privilege of enjoying that small, humble but extremely beautiful corner of Earth. Even better when we go bush camping and don’t pay a cent!
Are campers supposed to feel deprived for not staying in those fancy, perfectly new (and expensive) hotel apartments? Is it expected of us to be envious? In all honesty, I wouldn’t exchange those simple camping experiences for the polished surroundings of a fancy hotel any day. I want to swim in the sea and stroll through natural landscapes. I want to carry everything I need on my back so that I reminded how little is needed to be happy and free. And I want the birds wake me up at dawn.
Living an urban existence as I do, where intimacy with nature is not always easily achieved, such simple travel experiences nourish me in a way ‘first class’ travel never could. Perhaps there are some among you who agree?
Aside from the very different experiences between camping and ‘first class’ travel, another increasingly important issue with respect to travel is that it so often depends upon airflight, and airflight is the world’s fastest growing source of carbon-dioxide emissions.
Part of the problem – strange as it is to say – is the fact that air travel is too cheap. Since the environmental costs of air travel are not built into the cost of the ticket, the human economy greatly under-prices and therefore over-consumes air travel, leading to momentous externalities like climate change, which economists call a ‘market failure.’ A market failure, indeed! At the very least, air travel should be priced appropriately to account for its true costs. But that takes government action, which too often is painfully slow in coming, or doesn’t come at all. Personal steps, however, can be taken to offset your emissions at websites like Greening Australia (see http://www.breatheeasynow.com.au/html/offset/).
Of course, I do not pretend that avoiding air travel is easy in our day and age. For many people it’s a necessary part of their job description. For others, with family overseas, avoiding air travel completely would be simply too painful, no matter what the climatologists say. Nevertheless, there are very good reasons for trying to minimize air travel. The main point that I’d like to make today is that this needn’t sound so depressing.
Travelling to exotic locations by private jet to stay in a fancy hotel might be a necessary way to enjoy travel for those with no imagination. But those who have an imagination should take a second look at their travel options. It may well be that there are cheap, low-carbon, and more fulfilling travel options that are closer to home than we might first think, if only we look at the world in a different way.