Why I Feel Guilty When I Travel

My mother bought me a globe when I was a little girl.

I stared at it for hours, daydreaming of foreign lands while I traced the outlines of faraway countries and memorized their funny sounding monikers. I must have been the only kid in the first grade who knew where was Svalbard was.

I was born to an multicultural family of nomads and globe trotters. My mother’s father was the definition of a rolling stone (he still drives across the country in his early 70’s) and her mother and stepfather were international chefs who trained and cooked around the world. My father grew up caravanning around Europe, the Middle East, and Africa alongside my hippie grandparents and even attended primary school in South Africa. Traveling is who we are.

That is why I never thought I would see the day when traveling would make me feel guilty.

Traveling has many benefits. It opens one’s eyes to other ways of living. It encourages tolerance and prevents you from thinking other cultures are “weird” and far removed from your own. The more one sees the more they realize how similar we all are. Every place that I have traveled to has made me a better and more open-minded global citizen. Through these experiences, both foreign and domestic, I have realized that the world is actually incredibly small and that we are all connected.

The joy that travel has brought me only further stirs my own internal turmoil as I acknowledge the devastating consequence of it — the destruction of our planet. Being vegan is not enough. Buying local produce is not enough. Going zero waste. Rescuing instead of buying animals. Adopting orphans instead of reproducing. Walking instead of driving. Becoming a minimalist. Planting trees. We could go crazy trying to produce a “size zero” carbon footprint but that does not mean we should just give up our efforts entirely, does it?

I ignorantly bought a car with leather seats five years ago. I have flown hundreds of times (and am flying next week). We have a little Amazon addiction in my household and I absolutely purchase produce that has traveled 5,000 miles to get to my local supermarket. I decided to reproduce (and definitely plan on doing it again!). So where do all these environmental faux pas leave me on my eco friendly report card? My quick answer is — not anywhere I am proud of. Let’s just say Leonardo DiCaprio would not be impressed.

The truth is that we all make the changes that we can when we are ready. When we become aware. Even if that unfortunately means being too late to save our planet. 10 years ago, I would not have believed how much guilt I experience when I forget to bring my reusable grocery tote to the market. At the time, I had no idea about the plastic in the ocean. Not yet had I waded in Balinese shore breaks peeling Circle K bags off my arms. It takes these eye opening moments of realization to springboard sustainable change. It is The Inconvenient Truths, The True Costs, and Cowspiricies of the world that turn on the internal lightbulb that makes us think — hey we could be better about this.

That aha! moment has arrived for me when it comes to travel. I started to ask myself — is my desire to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef more important than the health of its dying coral? Is my “need” to see the glaciers of Alaska worth the pollution produced by a massive cruise ship? Can I not get the same enjoyment in the local forest just outside my city? We all know the answers to these questions. Accepting and acting on them, however, is a different beast.

Countries around the world are exploiting their natural habitats for the money that tourism brings. This was never more clear to me than when I visited places like Costa Rica, Thailand, and Bali, Indonesia. Their entire economies are leaning on the very wanderlust that I held onto with such passion and pride throughout my youth and early 20’s. How can I visit these countries knowing that I am exploiting the native population by giving my money to land barrens, hotel moguls, and tourist guides? There will never again exist a cabana or poolside chair comfortable enough to quiet the awareness I now have of my choices. The pina-coladas just won’t taste that great anymore. Climate scientists often remark that our generation will be the last to enjoy many of these exotic destinations (the Maldives, the Amazon Rainforest, Venice, Italy, etc.) due to rising sea levels and atmospheric temperatures. Their advice — if you think a place is beautiful, don’t go to it. But alas it is as if we are all rushing to soak up every last moment these places can offer us before we destroy them forever.

Flying is — unfortunately — necessary for most of us. I would hardly see my family, if at all, if I did not hop on a plane from time to time. We need to visit some family in South Korea in the future and there are some weddings and special circumstances which I will choose to prioritize over the size of my carbon footprint (I will just have to make it up to our planet in other ways). There are several occasions, however, where I do not have to fly and thus release 1-5 metric tons of CO2 in the air just so that I can go home and scratch off a country on my world map for my inner satisfaction. The world needs me to let it be more than I need to explore the world. The dying polar bears, the suffering orangutans, and the starving African elephants need me to choose a staycation instead of a worldwide escapade. Future generations need us to plant a tree whose shade we never expect to sit in.

Ask yourself, what kind of world are we leaving our children? If your answer is one that you are not truly happy with — consider what actions are within your power to make the changes we need to make before it is too late.

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