Watching from afar as Australia burned – a newsfeed filled with stories of anguish and images of an inferno – I was nagged by the same question that challenged many expats this past January: Should I fly home and do something? This was immediately followed by another nagging question, which seemed to grow in direct proportion to the fires: Would taking that flight actually be making things worse?
When Yael Stone, the Australian actor from Orange is the New Black, announced that she was giving up her green card, the US document that allows her to work in that country, to reduce her carbon footprint – it is "not environmentally ethical to build a life across two continents", she tweeted, I understood the dilemma, because it was also my own. I live in America, but my family is in Australia.
Given how convenient it is to get on a plane and fly to Dublin or Dubrovnik, it is surprising to be reminded that travel as we know it today only really began in the 1950s.
Mass tourism is a post-war phenomenon, encouraged by nations as a means of economic recovery as well as a way for citizens to broaden their cultural understanding (and hopefully appetite for peace).
The Jet Age saw a boom in transcontinental movement. People could get out of their own backyards and go on a "holiday," which was a newfangled concept. Hotels popped up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Overnight, remote corners opened up to pleasure cruises. In 1957, a 16-day Green Hell Tour along the Amazon River was advertised in The New York Times, complete with "a black magic ceremony and a native wedding".
In the past six decades, the democratisation of travel has changed the world, in both good ways and bad. It has changed us, too.
To travel means to become a little less parochial, to learn there is more than one way of being in the world. Without the countless transpacific flights, the gap years and raucous Aussie backpackers slumming through Asia and Europe, Australia would be a far more cloistered place. Imagine what life would be like if travel still meant weeks or months at sea, how much we wouldn't have. Travel has made us better people by opening our minds to everything from sushi to a the hijab.
Must we now give it up? Does climate changedemand that we announce a retreat and accept that days of carefree globetrotting are history?
I don't think that's possible, but it is time to reconsider how we travel. Curiosity to experience different parts of the world needs to be balanced with ecological consciousness. And it doesn't even take much to make a difference.
The tourism industry, like all industries, is at the mercy of consumer trends. If consumers refuse to buy unsustainable products businesses will adjust their way of doing business or go bust. Free range eggs, for example, are now common in supermarke aisless not because chicken farmers had a sudden crisis of conscience, but because many customers decided to put animal welfare over rock-bottom prices. The same principle should apply to your next vacation.
This begins with flights. Aviation accounts for more than 2 per cent of global carbon emissions. According to the European Union, if the aviation industry was its own country, it would rank in the top 10 global polluters (alongside Australia).
This is a dismal record, but it's one that some airlines are already attempting to combat. JetBlue announced in January that it will buy carbon offsets for all domestic US flights beginning from July, making it the first American airline to become carbon neutral. JetBlue joins easyJet, which announced similar measures last year, as well as British Airways.
It is important to note that "carbon neutral" is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Carbon will still be emitted by the planes and offset programs, like tree planting, have been challenged by some critics as questionably effective and a way of "shifting moral responsibility to people in other parts of the world".
But it is better thandoing absolutely nothing, and it is a positive turn towards zero carbon emissions, which Qantas has pledged to achieve by 2050, in part by investing in sustainable aviation fuel.
By patronising the airlines that are making an effort is a first step and lazy airlines will soon get the message. Another measure is choosing your trips more judiciously.
As a travel writer, I have spent much of the past decade flying countless miles for individual stories. Not so long ago, it was not unusual for me to visit three continents in a single month, a fact that makes me queasy in retrospect, particularly when you consider that flying from New York to Paris return emits roughly the same as somebody heating their home in Europe for an entire year.
I can't ground myself, like Yael Stone, without going broke but I can take fewer flights, and I can stay in places for longer stretches of time.
I don't think of this as a sacrifice because immersion produces more memorable experiences. Our hyperactive culture encourages us to treat travel as a kind of shopping list, so you flit from place to place to tick off as many sights as possible. But I think back to the Mona Lisa and Eiffel Tower and remember almost nothing: crowds, perhaps, doing exactly the same thing as me, as though we were all stuck on a Disneyland ride. By contrast, I think back to Berlin, where I once hunkered down for weeks riding a bicycle and dancing in Berghain – just existing in the city – and the memories are so vivid that I lose myself in them.
Fly less, more deliberately, and stay longer in one spot. But we should stay, too, in hotels that have pledged to reconsider how they offer services. Most hotels now encourage guests to reuse their towels. Yet how many still place tiny single-use bottles of shampoo and conditioner in the bathroom? These are just as retrograde as plastic straws and are an appalling waste.
Pick hotels with pump bottles in the shower, with recycling bins in the guest rooms. Better yet, if you can afford it, select hotels that have made environmental impact part of their guiding philosophy. New York is a city with countless accommodation options, but something like 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge beats them all in my view for its shower timers, its recycled wood, its partnership with the Natural Resources Defence Council and Oceanic Global.
These are small things, of course. But then each individual's contribution to carbon emissions is also comparatively small. It is the cumulative effect that makes a difference, with small things adding up to big changes.
One area where this is plainly evident is indigenous tourism. Several years ago, I was lucky enough to travel to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. On the way to Volcanos National Park, I passed fields of pyrethrum, a white flower that is processed into natural insecticide. These fields had been cleared from the forest, and more forest would have been cleared – all of it, perhaps – had the local people not been presented with an alternate source of income: the gorillas.
Tourists bring money, but tourists want to see an animal in its natural habitat. Therefore, the forest must be preserved for the gorillas, for the tourists and thus for the local economy. Selecting ecotourism operations that hire locally and that return their earnings to the local community, is a passive way of encouraging those locals to recognise the value of what they have and protect it. This also goes towards protecting all of us against the further effects of climate change. Similar initiatives can be found in Kenya, Peru, and India.
Part of the paralysis that prevents meaningful action on climate change comes from the hysteria that taking action equates with giving things up – "they're trying to take your X away."
Some things – private planes, say, or disposable plastics in airline meals – should be given up as irresponsible and unsustainable. But we don't have to regress to life before the Jet Age – never seeing the world beyond the end of our street, never marvelling at the Manhattan skyline, never going to the Amazon, or to Rwanda to visit the gorillas – to address this issue seriously.
We just need to make adjustments. To pay closer attention to our choices, which are not, after all, just choices for ourselves, but choices that impact absolutely everything, like the mere flap of a butterfly's wings.