April 26, 2008

Is a Smaller World a Healthier World?

It's hard to go five minutes these days without hearing about sustainability and being green. As a long-time environmentalist this is both cheering and infuriating. Yay that the masses and big business have finally gotten on the bandwagon. Boo that they keep talking about everything as if they just discovered it, and in the same breath as some other fad. Caring for the earth is not a fad: it's a way of life. But it does make it easier to be an environmentalist. There are more tools and resources popping up all the time. The carbon footprint calculators that are springing up all over is such an example.

Ever since I heard Matt Jones talk at Adaptive Path's MX Conference last week, this idea has been rolling around in my mind. Matt talked about the work he was doing with Dopplr, and showed how they just added the ability to see how your travel is adding to your carbon use.

My carbon footprint isn't that bad for an American (notice I qualify it :). I don't eat meat, I ride the bus to work, I compost and recycle, I bring my own bags to the grocery, my detergents and bath products are natural and not tested on animals. Sure, there's lots more that I could be doing. And things that I used to do that I probably should get back to doing (whatever happened to my EcoSneaks?). But I try to pick the more earth and animal friendly options when I can.

Except in one place: travel. My carbon footprint always tanks when you calculate in how much I fly. Airplanes are big time polluters. As a consultant, I am on the road a lot. I also love to travel in my personal life. Exploring other places was a value that I grew up with. And I believe that you can't fully understand some place if you haven't experienced it physically.

Obviously , movies, museums and zoos, photographs, video conference calls, and virtual worlds like SecondLife go a long way to broadening our horizons. They are suitable surrogates for the real thing in a lot of situations. For many people, it's the closest they will ever be able to get to the "real thing." Seeing a zebra in a zoo is better than never seeing a zebra at all, right?

But this brings us to the dilemma I've been wrestling with. If we really want to cut back on our pollution, energy use, and greenhouse gas production, we really should stop flying around the world. The "good" environmentalist would opt for virtual or local surrogates whenever possible, right? As the web and other technologies get better, we won't need to use up resources to go someplace; we just get there from our living room.

But... I don't think I can fully subscribe to that. As wonderful and beautiful and amazing as the Egypt-wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York is, it just can't compare to standing in the great hall at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt. I've been to the Acropolis on the Greece sim in SecondLife. It's cool, but it's nothing compared to actually being in Athens. There are cases where close enough isn't good enough. Sometimes you need to have a face-to-face conversation. You can't approximate visceral reactions.

I believe what Baba Diou from Senegal said, "You only conserve what you love, you only love what you understand, and you can only understand what you've been taught." Which says to me, don't give up on having real, authentic experiences. It is through those experiences that we learn. Travel to Kenya and go on safari to see the zebra. But find a way to do it that has the least impact. And it may mean cutting way back in other areas of your life to balance out the excesses elsewhere.

Posted by chachi at April 26, 2008 12:30 PM

Definitely a tough dilemma: I try to buy local and all that, but in the end there are some exotic things that I want to experience. Although travel is on my radar because I want to be a true "citizen of the world," those words take a much different meaning as regards environmentalism, as you note. I purchase carbon-offsets when I can. I realize that is "just money" on my end, but I hope the money is used to combat pollution.

Posted by: Kari at May 1, 2008 1:51 PM

I think your last sentence really makes the whole difference. I couldn't give up traveling; it would suffocate and depress me. But there are things I can trade out in order to offset what traveling I do. Sort of like imagining I've been given a certain amount of carbon footprint credits, and I have to choose how to spend them.

Althoug, we're in the process of building a house, which is going to take up A LOT of energy credits! Yikes!

Posted by: Stephanie at May 1, 2008 10:50 PM

(Here from Karianna!)

This is a tough one for me too, for all the reasons you cited. The last time I calculated my footprint, I was disappointed to see how "average" I was -- and I know it's from the air travel. Between work, leisure, and the very important need to visit family (I have two little kids and live far from all relatives), it's difficult to avoid.

Posted by: mayberry at May 2, 2008 7:34 AM

@Kari - Yes, the carbon offsets are "just money." But if enough folks start funding renewable energy this way, maybe we can finally make some traction.

@Stephanie - I like your metaphor about having a certain number of credits to spend how you see fit. True, building a house takes a lot of all kinds of credits. But you are in the unique place to put in all kinds a crazy cool things at the start to help with your footprint down the road.

@Mayberry - I agree that travel is not a place that can be cut, a lot of the time. Kids certainly need time with extended family as much as you can get them. I try to assuage myself that just the fact that we are all AWARE of this is a big step in the right direction.

Posted by: Chiara at May 2, 2008 10:42 AM

Why can't we encourage "the industry" to find alternatives to the way jets work?!?!? There's gotta be a way. Explorers 200 years ago didn't leave much of a carbon-footprint. (They left other things, but that's another discussion.) Why can't we get loud about wanting alternatives, like solar-powered jets or jets with sails where they only use the engines at take off? (Okay, my Dad is probably laughing, because a jet can't *fly* without enough power to get lift under its wings.) My point is just to tell the industry to explore alternatives.

Posted by: Indi Young at May 2, 2008 11:24 AM

I just checked with Dad (he was a pilot and built airplanes as a hobby), and he says there might be stuff going on at NASA, because getting into orbit is the only way to "sail" a plane and be able to have it on a schedule where you can transport people. Gliders are too dependent on conditions to meet the needs of mass transit schedules. He did say that high speed trains are a much better way to go, much lower carbon-footprint. I'm going to look into these for when I'm in Europe. Maybe we should lobby for Amtrak to get up off its *ss and do something. :)

Posted by: Indi Young at May 2, 2008 11:55 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?