The backpackers' adage clearly states:

Take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints.

But this phrase was coined before the term carbon footprint. Today one's print is much larger than one's foot.

With all of the fossil fuel needed to get somewhere, are we now unable to resolve our desire to see the world up close with our desire to tread lightly on the Earth?

The question becomes, Is it worth it to travel?

Here I will attempt to answer the question with an unequivocal YES! contingent upon doing things with the impact of our choices in mind.

Cross-posted @ TLP

Some of you might know me from my work in the DKos Travel Board series. In my most recent effort on that front, a good question was posted regarding the carbon footprint travel entails and was the impetus for expounding on the topic in a diary.

I tried to frame my reply in a way that made it clear I appreciate, but don't actually agree with, the view expressed, that many share, that travel requires recalibrating one's green moral compass.

"Travel versus carbon footprint"

People who are "jet setters" indeed do leave a heavier carbon footprint on the earth. The concept of either/or is a false dichotomy here. We can mitigate our impact and wisely use the experience to learn, grow, & become inspired by our experience to then do more to reduce our carbon footprint in the long haul.

As is often framed within diaries by Meteor Blades, A Siegel & others, the issue is not "economy OR env't", but "economy and env't." We really need to think of 21st century problems in a holistic and long-range way. Without tourism that preserves the local ecology and culture, why should we think there will be either in the long haul?

Travel can be viewed as inherently destructive, as it requires energy to get from A to B. But we must also realize the danger of slipping into nihilism when thinking of carbon emissions in this way. In a perfect world, would we would sit motionless using solar-powered laptops to do all of our "travel"? I was once sent a link that cited a study showing that walking to the store for groceries might leave a greater carbon footprint than driving due to the fuel (food) we need to replenish our (human) fuel tank. No one would try to argue that ending exercise would be a good way to save the environment.

In that vain, we must allow ourselves to be able to do certain life-enhancing activity without the moral gymnastics that sometimes consume the conscientious modern human (sometimes called "liberal guilt"). I would even say that it is imperative we go beyond our comfort zone at times to gain life experience that can shape our world view. In my experience, nothing has helped open my mind and soften my heart like travel to another country.

A new term for a changing planet

The evolution of a new breed of tourist has developed to try and mitigate the effect of the act of travel. This new style of seeing the world can virtually supplant the old "cheapest at any cost" mode of travel popular amongst backpackers and gap-year tourists for generations. Of course, there is a premium added. Just as one can expect to pay a bit more for organic produce at the supermarket, trying to do the right thing with one's tourist dollar is also going to cost a bit more. In time, we can only hope that travel that is mindful of global issues will virtually supplant the more harmful variety for all who can afford it. Seriously, who these days buys products made from commercial GMO, pesticide-laden soybeans when the organic version costs merely 10 to 20% more?


Ecotourism (also known as ecological tourism) is travel to fragile, pristine, and usually protected areas that strives to be low impact and (often) small scale. It helps educate the traveler; provides funds for conservation; directly benefits the economic development and political empowerment of local communities; and fosters respect for different cultures and for human rights

...(There are) seven characteristics of ecotourism:

   * Involves travel to natural destinations.
   * Minimizes impact.
   * Builds environmental awareness.
   * Provides direct financial benefits for conservation.
   * Provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people.
   * Respects local culture.
   * Supports human rights and demographic movements.

It's good to see a certain amount of structure involved with what some might be inclined to summarily dismiss as subjective and unfounded "rules". I don't entirely concur with all of the above "7 characteristics," but I appreciate the pains people are taking to draw hard lines in the sand to help make this standard useful.

(Some of the trekking I have done traverses tribal areas which can hardly be called "natural destinations" as they are populated, albeit sparsely, by hill tribes in numbers great enough to merit calling the wildness of the region into question. However, in addition to "respecting local culture"{6}, a proper tour of such areas will "support the demographic movement"{7} with income that the villagers would otherwise lack. Bringing cash into these tribal areas can indeed save them from the lure of the quick buck that can be gained through slash & burn agriculture/monoculture.)
In addition to the guidelines set out by the platform above in an attempt to clearly define ecotourism so as to avoid accusations of attempted greenwashing, I think there are other ways to be mindful of one's travels that also can make a huge difference. Perhaps we can coin a phrase such as the Carbon-conscious traveler to distance the notion from what people hope is a properly defined industry with ecotourism.

For symmetry's sake, here are my 7 suggestions for greener backpacking:

   * Take your time: It's not always true that you see more by moving faster.  

   * Minimize package tours. The larger non-eco-tours will sound great and seem cheaper, but you get what you pay for: Shallow, plastic travel with a massive carbon footprint.

   * Extend your stay. Make each trip as long as you can possible imagine. And then add another week or two. Invariably you will be home again and wish you could have had another moment at that place you left too soon.

   * Take public transit. Just like back home, when you ride alone (or charter a vehicle) you ride with Osama bin Laden.

   * Walk. Everywhere. With your bags. Around town. Day and night. To and from train and bus stations. As much a possible. The most polluting vehicles in the developing world are usually the ones making the shortest trips.

   * Eat local food. As much as those Cheetos, Chips Ahoy and Guinness may sound irresistible, endure as long as possible before succumbing to "comfort foods." You will be home soon enough.

   * Enjoy where you are. The more you get to know a place, the better it usually becomes. One or two days is rarely enough time for any destination.

Understanding and appreciating other cultures

Listening to POTUS satellite radio Friday, I was reminded about the importance of Cultural relativism. Without a proper grasp of what things are like in other cultures, how can we begin to empathize and work with them to heal our planet? We cannot judge or blame other peoples for their actions within their own constructs. It's important for the various nations of the world to stop the blame game and start working together to enact tough policies that will allow the species to thrive.

The lack of understanding between the wealthy & developing nations seems well illustrated by David Horsey, one of my favorite political cartoonists:


h/t JekyllnHyde

It's a large can of worms, but cultural relativism is an issue which must gain traction as we continue full speed ahead towards a global economy facing global crises. Without knowing firsthand some of the obstacles faced by the people around the world, how can we begin to understand the challenges with which they are faced. We are only able to judge - and act - wisely based on the events that shape our lives.
Lastly, here is an item which I cannot stress enough even though it has little to do with the thrust of this diary.
Befriend the local people. They are more than happy to tell you all you need to know. All they want is your companionship (and maybe for you to try and send them a copy of the pictures). Exchange email addresses. Keep in touch. You will sound like the coolest person ever when you can refer to "your friend in _(exotic place name here)_."

Happy Travels, everyone!

Originally posted to The Laughing Planet on Tue Jun 30, 2009 at 10:53 AM PDT.

Also republished by DKos Travel Board.

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