Photo: Organic Red Rice Paddy, Bali by Gary Diedrichs
Living consciously, even a little bit, means constant choices. Automatically jump in the car to go those six blocks, or walk? Buy that imported shrimp even though there’s a good chance some Third World environment was degraded and workers were badly treated so it can be so cheap? Default to texting to keep in touch with friends or, at least once in a while, meet on a park bench or in a café?
Like I said … choices, choices, choices.
OK, I ask myself then, what about travel? Travel for fun, I mean. When it comes to choices, this one’s a lollapalooza. Near, far, or in between? Planes, trains, or automobiles? All-inclusive in Jamaica, bed and breakfast in Vermont, or a volunteering vacation somewhere? And so on.
Oh, yes – and shouldn’t I be traveling green?
Travel, by definition, is often carbon intensive. Flying 150 people from New York to Honolulu spews an average 375 tons of greenhouse gases—that’s 2½ tons per passenger. For an entire year the typical American emits 21 tons of carbon. So what’s the conscious choice? Sit home and be armchair travelers, reading about someone else’s globetrotting adventures or staring at them on a screen?
No. Staying home may be greener but what a drag! Because green travel is not an oxymoron. In addition to everything else we derive from the experience—personal growth, rejuvenation, expanded horizons, to name just a few—we’ve got important work to do! We’ve got influential choices to make!
Before you go, take planning steps to minimize your travel footprint. You probably already know the drill. Mass transit is usually better than car travel. Riding your bike? Even better. No matter your means of transport, you can purchase carbon offsets through legit organizations that plant trees to absorb carbon dioxide, invest in alternative energy, or other green ventures. Many hotels and rental car companies offer this option too.
Now the fun begins. You’re there. Have a great time—and vote with your dollars.
This is your chance to support the good guys and show the not-so-good actors there’s a market for a better way. Every time you take out your wallet is a chance to make a statement. Don’t think it won’t be noticed (especially if you make a point of thanking local businesses for caring about the health of their customers, their workers, their community, and the environment—or better still, also give them eco-kudos online, so other travelers can see it).
Here’s an example. Most travelers today have at least heard about green hotels. They’re even called out now on travel websites like TripAdvisor and Expedia (and reviewed on our own Green Traveler Guides site). But what about that other most frequent travel activity, eating? Did you know there are green restaurants? Good ones too. All of celeb chef Mario Batali’s restaurants, for instance, are certified green by the Boston-based non-profit, the Green Restaurant Association. That means they buy fresh food from local, organic farmers, recycle, compost, and do lots of energy-saving, eco-friendly things in their everyday operations. A huge new study in England just concluded that organic food is indeed healthier for us (surprise, surprise). So what’s served on your plate is likely to be better for you at a green restaurant, and the ambiance will be too. The flip side is scary. We’re not just talking pesticide-laden veggies and meat from inhumane industrialized farms, but get this: the average U.S. restaurant uses 300,000 gallons of water a week, adds 100,000 pounds of waste to landfills per year, and consumes more electricity than any other kind of retail business. Multiply that by the million-plus restaurants in America. Going green is all about reducing this consumption with absolutely no harm done to your dining pleasure.
Still don’t think your travel choices can make a difference? Well, whenever I’m tempted to give in to that dark thought, I remember something I personally experienced in southern India. This is gruesome, so I forewarn you. It happened on a beautiful beach. Two gorgeous kids, maybe about age six and eight, approached me holding up a handlettered sign: I CAN’T TALK. PLEASE GIVE. Then they opened their mouths. They had no tongues. I was shocked, of course, and deeply saddened. Every impulse within me impelled me to help these poor children. But I shook my head no.
Only a few hours before, a veteran traveler had told me I might encounter such a situation. “Adults, probably their own parents, cut off their tongues. So they can beg foreigners for money.” If I gave, he warned, I would only encourage this unspeakable (no pun intended) practice.
Now that was a hard choice. But being a green traveler also means not reinforcing negative cultural practices.