Is Travel Evil?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 4, 2019

I read two works this morning that makes me ask if travel is evil. The first was a short story “A Full Life” by Paolo Bacigalupi at the MIT Technology Review. I’m going to spoil the story since I doubt most of you will take the time to read it. It’s about a young girl named Rue, 15, who moves across the country several times as her parents seek work fleeing climate change catastrophes. Bacigalupi pours it on thick and heavy, showing weather-related heartache in Colorado, Austin, Miami, New York, and Boston. Poor Rue is one unlucky girl.

With each move, Rue gets encouragement from her grandmother, Nona, who extols the wonderful life she’s lived, of drinking espresso in Italy and meditating in Kyoto. Nona consoles Rue that travel is what makes life worth living each time Rue’s family is forced to move. In the end, Rue comes to hate her grandmother because she realizes all that travel done by Nona’s generation is what destroyed the world for Rue’s generation.

I don’t know if magazines coordinate their publishing efforts, but The New York Times featured this essay, “If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home?” by Andy Newman about how travelers are devastating the environment is a perfect afterward for Bacigalupi’s story.

Most people want to do something about climate change, at least theoretically. We just can’t change our habits, the way we live now. I’m sure people in the 19th century that owned slaves knew it was wrong too, but they couldn’t give up their way of life either, so they rationalized, to themselves and each other.

I don’t mean to sound holier than thou, I worry a lot about the future, but I do little to improve it. Does that make us evil? Are we all living some Greek tragedy where we know our fate but can’t avoid it?

I’m currently reading Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone by Astra Taylor. Taylor would interview people asking them to define what democracy meant to them. Everyone defined it in terms of freedom, especially to do what they wanted. None of them felt democracy was about equality, even though in the time of the American and French revolutions, equality was part of the definition. Equality can mean many things, including sharing in the wealth, but also sharing the costs of freedoms.

What Taylor figured out is people want the opportunity to do what they want, and that’s how they defined democracy and freedom. They didn’t care about inequality as long as everyone had equal opportunity. But what are the costs of opportunity?

Democracy doesn’t mean freedom, but rule by the people. It means we’re all responsible for running things. I don’t know why everyone in Taylor’s survey redefines democracy to mean freedom. I guess they figured if we’re running the joint we can do what we want.

I tend to think we all want to do what we want, and we don’t care about the consequences. Is this evil, or just human nature? We may think visiting Venice or Paris is enriching our lives, but what are the costs to everyone else?

My friends keep saying I’m dwelling on depressing topics. And that I must be depressed. I’m not. I’m fascinated by the interesting times in which we live. (A Chinese curse is to condemn your enemy to live in interesting times.) As a kid, I was fascinated by the Titanic. I even wished to time travel back to 1912 to be on that doomed ship. In a way, I’ve gotten my wish. We’re all passengers on the Titanic. I consider problems entertaining challenges. Are there solutions to climate change? Are there ways to travel that don’t doom the future? I think there are.

The most fascinating problem for me is: Will we solve our problems? If we are the rulers, then it’s our job. But I think Taylor’s survey about democracy is more revealing than my first thoughts. Maybe everyone does think democracy means we’re all free to do our own thing.

JWH

4 thoughts on “Is Travel Evil?”

  1. No coordination necessary between publishers. It’s probably just that more people now have been affected by climate change so it starts to seem like a real thing. As a(human) race we’re addicted to self indulgent travel and I am certainly guilty of that. We addicts need more than warnings and facts to change our ways, alas.

  2. I traveled a lot in my youth, but now I find travel a form of torture. Standing in long lines for TSA check-in, the cramped seats on airplanes, the risks that luggage doesn’t arrive when you do (or it disappears), the need to carry a pharmacy of drugs, and the poisonous atmosphere on most passenger jets are just a few of the reasons I’ve lost interest in travel. If I could teleport to destinations, I might consider a trip…but we’re far away from that option.

    1. I traveled a lot when I was young. I grew up moving almost ever 12-18 months. Even after I left home I traveled a lot. But after I got married my interest in travel waned. It’s now almost next to nothing. I’m too attached to all the comforts of home. Retirement is my endless staycation.

  3. Travel produces only 2 percent of all CO2 emissions. Even if we all stopped travelling and all become vegans, middle class can’t fix climate change. It’s big industry that’s producing the most. All we can do is vote well and also vote with our wallets.

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