No sooner than two days after arriving back from Patagonia, a good friend of mine here in the village sent out an email to his list, asking us to sign a petition he signed pledging not to fly for “recreation” in 2014. I hardly had my laundry done and was just starting to organize my photos. Talk about buzz kill. My first reaction was confusion. Glenn has been asking me to talk about my trips at our community hall, and now he’s telling me not to go anywhere? And please, define “recreation”. There’s plenty to unpack here.
To begin with …
A little context is required. Glenn is a self-professed doomsayer when it comes to our global climate change issues. He believes it’s way too late for us to do much about the mess we’re in, and the fact that precious few seem to care, he’s pretty sure we’re toast. Glenn and his wife are also among the most intelligent, articulate and well-informed people I know. There’s nothing worse than having reality shoved in your face by people that know what they’re talking about. They started (with some others) the Eden Mills Going Carbon-Neutral initiative here in the village, they built their own energy efficient strawbale home and they live very simply. Because they lead by example, I have a lot of respect for Glenn, for what he has done, but also because he’s outspoken – he’s not shy about telling it like it is.
And on most points, I don’t disagree with him. I too am frustrated by the despondency, and lack of will to meet the climate challenges facing us all. I too have built a strawbale home, drive hybrid cars, created a company and spoke to advocate for organizational sustainability, am concious about the food we eat and all our purchase decisions. My wife and I now sell ourselves as “green realtors”. So, I get it. And yet I travel to far flung places.
How can I live with myself?
Most of us are pretty good at rationalizing our contradictions and can get defensive faster than you can untag yourself on Facebook. I will acknowledge right away, that I live with contradictions. You know that strawbale house I was talking about? It has an electricity gulping hot tub out back. We belong to a biodynamic Community Supported Agriculture farm that provides us with local and delicious organic food. We often enjoy it with Argentinian Malbec. Both health and bliss are fundamental values of mine. They debate daily. It’s hard to stay ‘in shape’ when you can’t find the off-switch while enjoying a delicious meal.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” - Walt Whitman
The point is, as already stated we all live with contradictions. Life’s just a bit complicated, which opens the door to rationalize.
What exactly is recreation anyway?
Glenn and his wife fly too, and live with other contradictions. I can only guess they “rationalize” their flights because their flights are not recreational, but have purpose. Fair enough. I like to think my travel has purpose too. I fly to far away places to learn more about our world to help me make more sense of it. One could easily argue that I don’t really need to go to, say, Easter Island, Mexico, Rome to learn how civilizations did themselves in.
There are plenty of spectacular images online of Iceland, Patagonia and New Zealand – does one really need to go there to appreciate the raw beauty of nature? For me, the answer is emphatically YES.
I used to own an experiential learning company. The basic premise of the organization was to expand on what we “know” intellectually or academically, to learn more deeply through an emotional “experience”. Lasting change happens on an emotional level, not an intellectual one. For me, to set foot upon nature is viscerally and profoundly important. I also want to think that by sharing what I learn through speaking and/or writing inspires others to either think more critically or to go themselves. I believe those that want to save the world, savour the world, and you do that best by experiencing it first hand. By travel.
Another friend of mine was incredulous by a posting that encouraged people to travel to see the top 11 destinations in the world that will be most affected by climate change. Hurry, before it’s too late. The contradiction was palpable. I do postulate however, if more people did go to these places, the more they’d be incented to preserve them.
Of course, it’s not that simple. It’s too easy to judge others and what they deem recreational. Is going to a resort to lie on a beach purposeful? It is to many who live in Northern climates and are stressed with life. Is traveling to new countries so you can put a pin on a map justifiable? I find it bewildering how quick we admire people who have been to so many places, yet when you ask them about a place, they have so little to say – especially about what it meant to them. I know of a person in Portland, whose objective was to see every country in a year. Really?
“I don’t travel to collect stamps in my passport, I travel to have experiences stamped on my memory”.
In contrast, I met another Portlandian in Patagonia who quit her high paying job to spend six months in South America to learn Spanish and re-boot her life to something that’s more in line with her values. Christina is having her memory stamped – the rest of us can be inspired by her courage.
Nobody wants to be a tourist, the guy with the funny hat and loud shirt, jumping off the bus to take snapshots of each other in front of something. We all want to be travellers (or even “pilgrims”), and go on “adventures” – the most overused word in travel. I don’t believe every trip you take needs to be a pilrimage and I’m trying to be more tolerant of those who find the need to go to Disneyland, but let’s acknowledge, there’s a profound difference and it’s hard for travellers to have a lot of respect for tourists.
“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” Paul Theroux
I’m not sure if “recreational” travel is the problem to begin with? The US Dept. of Transportation says that 40% of people jumping on planes are doing it for business. As someone who has done most of my flying “on business”, most of it was not necessary. I used to jump on planes to sell video conferencing! To Glenn’s point and the real purpose of the pledge, travel is banal for too many people on planes, and we should think twice. And then think again.
So think about it, why do you travel? Sometimes the real purpose of our journey isn’t truly revealed until it’s over. I’m paraphrasing from a movie called 180° South. It’s inspired by the journey Yvon Choinard (founder of the clothing company Patagonia) took with his climbing buddies back in the day. I heard him speak in Britain a while ago and have long been inspired by him, his business practices and his philosophy. It’s partly why I felt the need to visit Patagonia – before it’s too late.
Patagonia is one of the last accessible nowhere lands on the planet. After Antarctica and Greenland, the Southern Ice Field in Patagonia is the world’s third most important reserve of fresh water. On this wilderness of glaciers and mountains, companies are primed, and supported by the Chilean government, to raise seven massive dams connected to a 70-meter-high transmission line with more than 5000 transmission towers to transport power 2400 kms away to Santiago. The line would require one of the world’s biggest clear-cuts, a 120-meter-wide corridor through ancient forests—fragmenting ecosystems, and blighting the magnificent views.
The movie suggests that Patagonia is the last wild place on Earth. Catchy, but not true. In my country, Canada, there are many similar wild places and we face the same challenges of development as mining companies lick their chops with opportunities being born from climate change. The Northwest passage is melting, providing new shipping channels for all that copper, oil and gas. The Canadian Arctic is a “minefield of opportunity”. Pipelines that cut through the Rockies will deliver oil to energy hungry China. The Great Bear Rainforest be damned, there’s serious money to be made. The Peel River watershed in the Yukon is the source of so many major rivers in the Yukon and Northern British Columbia, that acclaimed Canadian anthropologist and author Wade Davis calls it the Serengeti of the North.
It’s true, these are far away places – or are they? If you are a bonafide traveller, you know they are not that far away at all. And when you wake up to the tragedy of it all, you begin to see more clearly what’s happening in your own backyard. And trust me, the same thing is happening in your own backyard.
As for Glenn and his no-fly pledge, he was dismayed when the originators of the social media pledge had subsequently invited him to join 6,000 others in Johannesburg, South Africa for the “Climate Reality Project”. No contradiction there.