On bicycles, by foot, by boat and a mix of various methods. It seems that lots of people are embarking on slow travel, low carbon trips and blogging about them. While these alternative methods for movement are inspiring for those of us in the grip of the contradiction between wanderlust and woe over the emissions caused by rapidly moving across the planet, I have another idea. Stay put.
Easier said than done, I admit it. I'm a travel writer, and while I don't do many long-haul flights anymore, I find myself climbing on airplanes way more than I would like to. This month, I'll be jumping from Toronto to Detroit, all for the sake of writing a story about the place, to entice more people to go there. But flying is getting more difficult and lots of people aren't happy about it. On the forums at Travelwriters.com, my colleagues are livid over the recent move by American Airlines to charge for checked baggage. And airline surcharges for fuel are creating many a complaint from anyone eager to head out for a couple weeks in another climate. And even as gas prices soar and the term 'staycation' enters the popular lexicon, destinations are struggling to figure out how to entice people and stay environmentally responsible at the same time. In June, tourism professionals in the Caribbean gathered at a Sandals resort for a conference on sustainable travel. David Suzuki was their keynote speaker. He wasn't gentle.
"Air travel leaves the heaviest carbon footprint among all modes of transportation and skyrocketing fuel prices are already having explosive effects," he said. "Economists think tourism can continue to grow into infinity. But we have to realize that nothing can grow forever. This unchecked growth only accelerates us on a suicidal path."
I commend the man. It takes a brave sort to speak the unfortunate truth to a country largely dependent on tourism. He even appealed to their wisdom.
"Island people, better than most, understand limits, and that resources are finite," he said. "Looming ahead for the entire world is the great crisis of our economy, peak oil, the moment when available oil supplies are all known and being exploited so that supplies will inexorably fall."
It says a lot that these grim words were delivered at a gathering about greening up the annual vacation. Somehow the slogan "suicidal path" seems a bit more fitting for a rally once set up to protest Heathrow Airport's controversial Terminal 5 than a meeting to figure out how to get people over to a white sand beach without sacrificing the planet in the process. Simply put, it isn't possible. Air travel, and lots of it, is one of the worst things for the planet, Suzuki said. Period. He did not seem to offer any solutions, other than these generalities: "We've just forgotten the most important lesson. We are animals, connected to the rest of nature. Like other animals, we need clean air, water, food – all the elements – to survive. We need to focus on our eco-footprint today." Tucked in between these lines is the message that anyone taking their eco-footprint seriously is simply not going to fly to the Caribbean for a week in the winter no matter how environmentally-friendly the resort. Same goes for people without expendable income. They are going to find somewhere to go that's closer to home. I find it refreshing to hear the truth. Until now, until rising gas prices started hitting potential vacationers hard in the pocket-books, we have not been talking much about the need to change our habit of wandering. Even within discussions about saving the world, travel has been sacrosanct. Green magazines print features on eco-destinations and airports have been as busy as ever even while we've committed to changing some of our lifestyle patterns back at home. But our denial about the need to abandon the gold mine of easy excursions is starting to end. For anyone accustomed to seeing the world via bargain air tickets, this loss stings. It isn't like trading tomatoes shipped from a few thousand miles away for those grown in local soil. Giving up going to exotic places is the first real end of the exciting and engaging world that those of us in the more prosperous part of the planet (who are prosperous enough to afford it) have learned to enjoy over the past hundred years. Changing the light-bulbs or gardening or hanging the clothes out on the line might make us feel good, but opting out of that trip to Thailand is more likely to just hurt. And, within the scope of this complicated issue, giving up far-ranging travel is anything but beneficial to the poorest people in countries dependent on tourism. But it is better for a world with a changing climate. It is better for systems of dependence that need to start changing. And it's inevitable. Still, this process requires both adaptation and a new look on our local landscapes. Especially for those of us who love to travel. When I was growing up, there was a beach down the road from my house. Nearly white, it curved between a forest and the wide open water of Lake Huron. I'd walk there almost every day and stare out at the empty horizon and imagine it was anywhere but there – the Mediterranean, at Land's End, in England. Eventually, I went to both those places, but it wasn't enough. My need to be among new languages, new customs, new food continued. With the recent need to temper this wanderlust, I've been examining both this desire to visit other landscapes and my disconnection with the one I actually live within. Out on a hike the other day, a few kilometers from my home, I really took a look at the earth. Past wondering about the similarities between this bit of land and, say, Scotland, I really looked. I saw green moss growing on an ancient slope of mottled grey-blue granite. That doesn't happen everywhere, I thought. This is where I live, surrounded by these anonymous trees and plants that I've often deemed boring, simply because they are familiar. More excited by the Sonoran Desert, some 2300 miles away, I could point out a creosote bush, a teddy bear cholla, a Saguaro cactus but ask me to tell you the difference between a couple different species of maple trees and I'm at a total loss. This is where local travel is a good thing. Past the bad news of our lack of physical connection with the rest of the world, sticking to sightseeing within the surrounding few hundred miles can be a positive thing. Just like local eating gives us new impetus to be concerned about the health of the soil that grows our food, local travel encourages us to explore and learn about our own landscape and therefore care more about our communities and our own corner of the earth. Journeying has always been part of the human experience and all those people doing it in a way that doesn't damage the earth are both inspiring and deserve praise, but something also needs to be said about the benefits of staying put. Long blinded by both the dogma of entitlement and our taste for the exotic, many of us have neglected our own communities, content to spend our sightseeing time - and our money - in other towns. With all of this in mind, I've started playing the traveler closer to home. I'm learning the names of trees and the native plants that pop up unannounced in my backyard. And then there's the strawberry social at the local pioneer museum and the nearby ski resort's Norwegian baths and howling with the wolves a quick train ride up north and a local bluegrass festival and countless other excursions. I might hop that slow boat to China once I'm finished with everything on offer in my own backyard but that could be a long time coming.