The Immoral Traveler

I have been unable to come to grips with the increasingly prevalent notion that travel is immoral, at least to the extent that it consumes fossil fuels and contributes to global warming.

Yet I’m unable to dismiss the idea. I believe it must be considered.

It would be easiest to react with scorn, which has become the default
response in our society when someone challenges any widely held
assumption. The trick is not so much to scorn the idea.  Scorn the people who support the idea. Call them lunatics or tree-huggers. If you must address the idea at all, exaggerate the argument to a ridiculous degree and then ridicule the words you put in other people’s mouths.

It works with any idea, and we’re all so used to this tactic that we just tune in the part we agree with or tune out the whole mess. Thoughtful debate about the merits of the idea are boring and require us to consider points of view that don’t serve our personal needs.

Clearly, I love to travel. I want to travel. I believe that travel broadens my mind, enriches my life and makes me a better person. (I hope, also, that it contributes to cross-cultural understanding because I always try to understand stuff.)

Plus, I’m a travel blogger. I try to help people find ways to travel economically. I don’t want to think that I’m on the same moral level as, say, an advocate for robbing old ladies or killing puppies.

How easy it would be to tune out any additional thoughts on the subject.

But I can’t deny that my travel also consumes fossil fuels, contributes hydrocarbons to the atmosphere and (most scientists agree) contributes to global warming. This is true, whether I want it to be or not.

Of course this is an enormously complex issue with a multitude of angles to consider. The New York Times takes on a few of them this morning in a piece that focuses on bio-fuels in aviation. The article also reports that a survey showed 54 percent of the British population felt guilty about flying.

So if I want to be an ethical person, and I do, must I stop traveling? Am I selfless enough to do that?

I don’t think I am.

I’m willing to reconsider my choices and lean toward mass transportation over private transportation, so that maybe I’ll choose a train over a rental car when I’m on vacation. I’m willing to look at my overall carbon footprint and make choices in other areas of my life – to take the bus to work and to give up air conditioning in the house, for example.

That proves only that I’m willing to endure a bumpy ride with strangers or to sweat a little on a summer evening more than I’m willing to stay at home.

And I just haven’t figured out whether that’s good enough.


3 thoughts on “The Immoral Traveler

  1. Patrick

    “It would be easiest to react with scorn, which has become the default response in our society when someone challenges any widely held assumption.”
    The widely held assumption that you should be scornful of is the idea that global warming is happening at all.
    The earth has been cooling for the past decade.
    Even the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC says we will likely continue to cool until at least 2015.
    So if you want to heap scorn, do it on the politicians who are making trillion dollar public policy based on a myth.
    The result: the poorest of the poor are rioting for food while we pump their rice and tortillas into our gas tanks.

  2. Kate

    I think that there are reasonable ways of cutting down on your consumption of valuable resources while traveling. But I don’t think anybody should give up the idea of traveling altogether. I’m no expert in economics but it seems like a significant decrease in world-wide travel would have such powerfully negative effects on the global economy that it would outweigh whatever damage travelers are doing to the environment.
    That said, I find the idea that global warming doesn’t exist almost as willfully ignorant and deductive in reasoning as a refusal to accept evolution. Of course there’s a possibility that neither of these things are true, but let’s accept them as they are: extremely likely and inductively reasoned theories.

  3. John Bryan

    Hi Jeanne,
    This issue has been a difficult one for me as well: checking a site like (click on “Individual”), it appears that the two or three times per year that I fly produces almost as much CO2 emissions as my Honda produces in an entire year! Fortunately, there is a way to mitigate this somewhat — through the purchase of carbon offsets (pick your favorite environmental charity.)
    By the way, it isn’t clear to me whether perhaps Patrick is joking above. The IPCC, in their 2007 Assessment Report on Climate Change stated that global warming is unequivocal, and that it is very likely due to human activity.
    Now, the people I find even more fascinating than the global warming deniers are those who believe that the sun (and the universe) revolves around the earth, which doesn’t move. ( Poor deluded Copernicus.


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