Sustainable Travel: An Oxymoron?

Hapu'u fern on the Big Island, Hawaii

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.

Sheer Cliffs & Waipi'o Valley

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.

Kevin photographing waves & an elusive sea turtle

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?


14 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing the big picture on this subject. One may tend to justify air travel by thinking, “The airplane will be flying whether I am on it or not.” The handful of indulgent air flights I’ve taken in the 50ish years of my life have been to the Peruvian Amazon, East Africa and Kilimanjaro, and to Denali National Park. All were motivated by a desire to take in the wonders of earth’s environment, and all were so inspiring and memorable, that my thirst for epic eco-travels has been satiated. I must confess, however, to one more epic trip I am taking next month to Tasmania to meet for the first time a magical girl I have fallen in love with. The collateral damage to earth’s environment from this journey is to be blamed on the technology we have created to make such things possible along with our innate drive toward fulfilling such irrational urges. When I really introspect about what our presence has done and is doing to this planet I am left wishing that our species had never evolved.


    • Hi Donn,
      It’s true that the plane would probably be flying regardless, but I hate that mentality — if I didn’t think my actions could make at least a little difference, it would be hard to keep trying. As with all things, air travel is a decision with costs that should be weighed carefully, and when we do travel, I think we should do so with greater appreciation. Tasmania — wow! I hope she turns out to be everything you imagined.

      It is unfortunate that humans as a species are just smart enough to create technology that satisfies immediate desires but doesn’t consider longer term effects. We’re smart animals, but not wise ones.


  2. Beautiful pictures, and tough subject! On the one hand, even if visiting scenic parts of the world reminds us to lessen our footprint, all of our household low-impact activities don’t make up for the huge amount of carbon released by flying. On the other hand, as Don accurately points out, the plane flies with or without us. Usually, lower consumer demand equals lower supply, but in this case the planes keep flying because so much of their business comes from moving people for work purposes. I remember sitting on a short-haul flight many years ago and noticing that I was one of only a handful of people not wearing a suit!

    All of that being said, I just don’t know whether it’s justifiable or not. Above and beyond my desire to keep this planet going, I seek happiness in my life, and I’ve experienced some of my happiest moments while travelling. It’s such a tough call to make.


    • Hi Andrea,
      I’m pretty sure that most of the people on my flight to Hawai’i weren’t going for business. 😉 (The sundresses and flipflops gave it away.) I wonder if internet conferencing and other technology has helped to reduce that kind of business traveling or just complemented it. My eyebrows go up a little at the idea of blog and ‘green’ conferences that lots of people fly into.

      I agree that I’m not so noble as to put planetary wellbeing above enjoying my life. I’ve discovered that there are plenty of compromises I’m willing to make, and that simpler living actually does increase my enjoyment in many cases. Traveling definitely is a hard call, though.


      • Well, yeah, most trips to Hawai’i are for pleasure. But how many of those people in sun dresses will go back again next week? What I’m saying is that even though the airline industry has taken a hit in the past decade, it’s not dead. And many more flights leave for business destinations than travel destinations, probably once per hour between big cities… all day long, every week, every year… that has to add up to something. The question is, why hasn’t online conferencing more significantly reduced business travel? Why are we still running trade shows when every company has a website?


        • Hey Andrea,
          Good point. Corporations probably do generate a huge part of total air travel for the simple reason that they’re loaded and can afford to fly their people around all the time, whereas people like us fly a handful of times or fewer each year. But when it comes to corporations, I feel very powerless to influence their behavior, even though someone clearly needs to be keeping it in check. I struggle with the personal/public action dilemma and can only conclude that I need to be doing more of both.


  3. This is a tough subject! I love to travel and will not give it up anytime soon. I want to see and experience as much of the world as possible before it’s all ruined by man. I try to be the most green person I can be in my daily life, so I justify my travels with that I suppose. My vegan, mostly organic and local diet reduces my carbon footprint by so much along with all the other little things I do. And I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the experiences I had in other countries.

    That’s a really great point about corporations and business travel! You would think with all this technology we could do less harm to the planet.


    • Hey Christy,
      I’ve loved reading your travelogues and can see that traveling means a lot more to you than it does to me. I could easily cut back to one flight every couple years. I do think that there is room for the not-so-green things that make our lives meaningful if we cut out the ones that don’t. For me, I’m just not sure travel is that important to my wellbeing, though I certainly do appreciate its ability to provide new perspectives.


  4. This is such a conundrum for many eco-minded folks. And it seems, paradoxically, that many of the people who appear to be the greenest (ie: organic farm working, bicycle riding, recycling crazed vegans) are also the most addicted to travel. I hosted a young couple for a few nights recently who were WOOFers, had never driven a car, thought petroleum was the devil, were long-time vegans for environmental reasons, and yet… they just spent a year jetting around the globe. China, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, Cambodia, Nepal, India… how big was THAT carbon footprint? Enough to nullify a lifetime of conscientious eating and recycling? Perhaps.

    I too struggle with balancing personal benefit against environmental impact. Admittedly, some of my most enlightening experiences have occurred while traveling abroad. Yet I am also acutely aware of the environmental (and cultural) impact my travels have upon this planet. Really, how bourgeois we are to even be concerned with this dilemma and its ramifications! 😉

    My question: when are those damn scientists going to invent a functional teleporter? Jeez, get with the program, geniuses…


    • Hahaha, that’s exactly what I’ve been saying for years! I tend to watch a lot of sci-fi… 😛


    • I’ve noticed the same trend. Wonder if it’s some kind of catch-22? Travel helps to open our minds to environmental consciousness while actively damaging the environment. I hope that balances out somewhere down the line, but you’re right…it quite possibly doesn’t. My parents were into family trips abroad (so bourgeois!), and then I studied abroad, so I’ve made quite a few transpacific and transatlantic flights whose impact may well overshadow more recent changes I’ve made. Yep. Sigh.

      I’m with you on the teleporter, that’s for sure.


  5. What a timely post!

    I’m about to head out on my own vacation, a storm chase trip that I do nearly every year, usually with a group of meteorology-students-in-training from Virginia Tech. It’s a field research course that helps them understand, first-hand, how to identify tornadic storms and study the data they gather. Yes, I’m justifying here. 🙂 It’s a frustrating sustainability issue since the group often takes two vans (translation: awful gas mileage) and drives about 6,500 miles in the ten to sixteen days we’re on the road.

    Now, one could argue that the education on this trip is imperative, both so that students understand the nuances of forecasting that saves peoples’ lives and so they can deploy equipment that helps scientists understand storm development. But storm chasing for leisure is a growing activity, with dozens of tornado tours now running hundreds of people across the Plains each summer.

    I’m going with my husband this year as a chasecation (chase vacation) because I want to hone my chase skills and because my own research involves gender and storm chasing. But still, the idea that I’m contributing thousands of pounds of co2 to the environment makes me feel like a hypocrite. I buy offsets, I am constantly working to green my day-to-day life, but like your recent post on using a kiln (which is in no way as damaging to the environment as my chasing) it’s something I love to do–it’s my passion. And there’s no other way around it.

    So I’m not sure about the answer either. Later this summer I’ll fly cross-country for a wedding, and later still, I’ll fly my mom out to see me. Again, I’ll buy offsets, continue to write about issues of sustainability, and work on my everyday commitment to bettering my lifestyle, but it does sometimes like a hollow way to compensate for the damage.

    Thanks for the post! And welcome home.


  6. This post has really got me thinking. Or rather, I have been thinking about the exact same thing lately, since I have just booked a summer family trip to Nova Scotia, which is clear across the country from me. I felt considerable eco-guilt, and quickly purchased up carbon credits to offset it.

    I definitely will be limiting my travel in the future. That does not mean never travelling in an airplane again, but it does mean taking a big trip say, every 5 years, instead of every year. There are lots of unexplored places in my own backyard I can get out and see.

    The reverse side though – is that well travelled folks are often the ones who have a great love of this planet of ours. Will restricting travel restrict the love? I hope not.

    There is a book I have on hold at the library called “How Bad Are Bananas?”. I have not read it yet, but it makes a connection between carbon emissions and future deaths, which is kinda creepy, but gets you thinking about the cost of your footprint in human terms. It definitely makes it harder to justify airplane travel.


  7. This is such a difficult question! It seems to me undeniable that we need to limit our air travel. How much? I don’t know. I’m lucky that I live in paradise and have no need to travel aside from visiting family. It’s terrific that you are raising awareness about it to, at least, help us all be more conscious when we make our choices.

    Love the picture of Kevin on lava rock!


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