Should We Feel Guilty When We Travel?

Should We Feel Guilty When We Travel?

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Recent events, including the activist Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech to the United Nations and the global strike on September 20, have kept the climate crisis prominently in the spotlight.

For some who wrestle with the impact that their carbon footprint has on the planet, climate change has turned the notion of vacation travel into a moral quandary.

Have you ever traveled with family to faraway places? Do you have dreams of one day exploring the world? Do you feel guilty about traveling? Should we feel guilty when we travel?

In “If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home?” Andy Newman writes about the rise of tourism and travel around the world and attempts to show, in concrete terms, the cost of certain choices.

It is hard to think about climate change in relation to our own behavior. We are small, our effects are microscopically incremental and we mean no harm. The effects of climate change are inconceivably enormous and awful — and for the most part still unrealized. You can’t see the face of the unnamed future person whose coastal village you will have helped submerge.

But it turns out there are ways to quantify your impact on the planet, at least roughly. In 2016, two climatologists published a paper in the prestigious journal Science showing a direct relationship between carbon emissions and the melting of Arctic sea ice.

Each additional metric ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent — your share of the emissions on a cross-country flight one-way from New York to Los Angeles — shrinks the summer sea ice cover by 3 square meters, or 32 square feet, the authors, Dirk Notz and Julienne Stroeve, found.

The article continues:

And what of my vacation’s impact on my fellow man? Actually, academics have attempted to calculate that, too. Philosophers, not climatologists. But still.

In 2005, a Dartmouth professor, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, wrote in a journal article provocatively titled “It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming and Individual Moral Obligations” that he was under no moral obligation to refrain from taking a gas-guzzling S.U.V. for a Sunday afternoon joy ride if he felt like doing so.

“No storms or floods or droughts or heat waves can be traced to my individual act of driving,” he wrote. Conversely, “If I refrain from driving for fun on this one Sunday, there is no individual who will be helped in the least.”

Other philosophers questioned his reasoning.

Professor John Nolt of the University of Tennessee took a stab at measuring the damage done by one average American’s lifetime emissions. (The average American generates about 16 metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent a year, more than triple the global average.)

Noting that carbon stays in the atmosphere for centuries, at least, and that a United Nations panel found in 2007 that climate change is “likely to adversely affect hundreds of millions of people through increased coastal flooding, reductions in water supplies, increased malnutrition and increased health impacts” in the next 100 years, Professor Nolt did a lot of division and multiplication and arrived at a stark conclusion:

The average American causes through his/her greenhouse gas emissions the serious suffering and/or deaths of two future people.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Is it fair, or even realistic, to ask people to give up long-distance travel to preserve the environment? Do you think it would make much of a difference? What moral obligation do humans have to preserve the planet — and is that duty the same for everyone?

  • Does learning about the consequence of your travel choices impact any future plans you may have to see the world? Would you ever feel guilty about flying to visit friends or relatives, or to explore an exciting part of the world?

  • What do you do in your everyday life to be “greener”? Do you see those actions as sacrifices? What would you be willing to give up if you believed it would benefit the planet?

  • Do you believe the actions of individuals can make a difference in an issue as enormous as climate change? Or is collective action and government policy the only real solutions?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.