So, I’m back. For ten days I had limited phone and internet access while in a lush, remote-ish part of the Big Island, Hawai’i. I loved it. Without the internet, there was so much time. Time to sit out on the lanai (porch) in a hammock and listen to the cool green sounds of frogs, birds, insects, and rain. Time to draw, time to cook, time to read, time to learn the rhythms of the sea and wait for the incoming tide.
It was a gift, and a luxury. Our hosts were environmentally conscious, and in some ways our lives in their home were greener than they would have been at home. Our hosts were on a macrobiotic diet, so many of our meals were vegan. We drank and bathed in rain catch, a soft, sweet water that tasted and felt startlingly pure. The big water tank outside their house was a visible reminder that fresh water (though abundant on the Hilo side) was a finite resource. Every time we turned on the water, I could hear the water pump starting up, and it became a game to see how conservative I could be with my water usage. I hope that’s one habit that sticks with me in California, where water shortages are, if less visible, more urgent. We stepped lightly, bought little beyond food (and some locally made soap made by this fun indie company — yep, they use sustainable palm oil), and practiced as many of our usual habits — reusable water bottles, bags, napkins, etc. — as possible.
But I have mixed feelings about travel and sustainability. Sandra from Always Well Within probes the issue of air travel (and a sensitive one it is, too) in some depth, and she’s right to question how necessary and even moral flying is. We flew to Hawai’i, of course. Then we flew from the Big Island to Oahu for my sister’s wedding and back. And although our budget rental car was a gas-sipping Toyota Yaris, we still drove — a lot. According to the Terrapass carbon footprint calculator, that’s 2,596 pounds of carbon dioxide for the flights alone. Ouch.
I switched off my computer for the trip, but my brain continued worrying. One question in particular caught and snagged: Can traveling ever be justified from an environmental standpoint?
The cynic that I am, I’m accustomed to thinking of ‘ecotourism’ as a form of la-di-da greenwashing. Traveling isn’t sustainable on a literal, carbon-counting level, that’s for sure. It would have been lower impact to stay at home (actually, staying home and not eating, drinking, or breathing is always the lowest impact solution), but there is something undeniably conscious-widening about travel. And not just that, but traveling to a place of incredible natural beauty renews my conviction to keep my showers short, my food local, and my footstep light. It’s about the gentlest yet most effective kick in the pants the Earth could deliver, the reminder that there is nothing— no convenience, no technology, no immediate satisfaction — that is worth balance, beauty, and the longterm viability of our planet.
I’m still not sure that benefit justifies the high costs. Traveling isn’t necessary to keep me on my toes as far as the whole green thing is concerned, and I’m not in love with traveling for the sake of traveling. Some (though not all) of my awe at the post apocalyptically barren volcano caldera could have been conveyed through video. And even within our decision to travel, there were plenty of greener choices we could have made and didn’t. It’s always humbling how much more we could be doing, and how short we fall of even our best intentions.
As usual, I don’t have the answers. What are your thoughts on traveling and sustainability? Is it a worthwhile compromise, or a selfish extravagance?