Words || Lucy MacCulloch
A couple of years ago I had to renew my passport because I was going on exchange. Nope, not a proper exchange, just a short term one. I went to England for a month and while it was ludicrously expensive, I can look back and say that it was, ultimately, worthwhile. I met new people, befriended almost exclusively other Australians, went to The Globe Theatre, saw an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that featured a BDSM themed club and a Capulet in a T-rex costume, and visited a castle that was way cooler than I was expecting.
I am an extreme homebody, so it’s probably not surprising that, despite all of that, I spent a lot of time wishing I was back home cuddling my cat. Yet on the drive back from Sydney airport, I didn’t want to go back home. I didn’t want my old life and, most importantly, my responsibilities to start up again. I was ready to hop back on that plane and not come back until the weather warmed up 10 degrees and my room was magically clean.
Despite this, I could now be somewhat classified as “anti-travel.” The same tendencies that made me want to get back on that plane have very successfully hooked into my dad, who has become obsessed with taking three day cruises around Australia and/or dragging my mum to Canberra for weekends. I did a birth chart reading once which said “father travels under much stress,” and it’s become a running gag between my mum and I. Things go wrong, or things get hard or we get stressed, and off my dad goes. It’s one of the few times his baby-boomer-era-entitlement comes out: I’m retired, it’s my money, I can do it. He’s not wrong.
Travel is escapism and there’s nothing wrong with that. Likewise, I think travelling can result in personal growth, new experiences, a kind of learning that is ultimately difficult to receive elsewhere. However, I also think we’ve mythologised and idealised “travelling” and what it means. I saw a tweet months ago that commented on how Americans’ — especially rural Americans — lack of passports linked to racism. And well, have you seen stereotypes of American tourists? Their loudness, the lack of consideration, the ignorance for any kind of non-American culture? Leaving the country doesn’t seem to have solved the core issue, nor resulted in any kind of enlightenment. Even domestically, the hoard of tourists climbing Uluru have chosen to desecrate sacred spiritual sites rather than learn about them, and most of them are Australian — they should already know. That’s not to mention all of the cultures that have been exaggerated for the sake of tourism. Tourism was a popular past time of colonialism too.
The most celebrated forms of travelling, international trips, are inherently inaccessible. Most obvious is the financial element. Of course your private school friends go to Europe every semester break; why at least two of them spent their gap years backpacking in Latvia or spent it voluntouring in Kenya. A lot of travel options are also dependant on able-bodied people. Far too many disabled people have had their multi-thousand dollar wheelchairs broken by airlines. Sitting in a metal box for 13 hours with stale air and bad food isn’t particularly good for anyone, but it’s especially difficult if you have kidney problems and need to get up to go to the bathroom every hour and you don’t have an aisle seat. Fluid retention, compromised immune systems, and just general chronic illnesses don’t fair well with flying. You travel because you want to see new things, but a lot of the time that ‘seeing’ bit means walking. Whether it be roaming around a museum, art gallery, or historical site, not everyone can stand up for three hours. Not everyone who can’t do that will have a wheelchair handy either.
Travelling also becomes more complicated in the face of climate change. On one hand, there’s that desire to see the Great Barrier Reef or the Maldives or the Amazon Rainforest before it’s all gone. On the other hand, even short flights emit more carbon dioxide than most people in developing countries do in a year. Cruises are a disaster for both air and water quality, not to mention their underpaid and overworked staff and the obscene amounts of food waste generated — and yes I’ve sent my dad multiple emails about this to which he has not replied. The increased frequency and severity of natural disasters can make it more difficult and dangerous too. Being stranded in an airport, unable to book a hotel or communicate with others while a storm rages outside is going to suck. But at least you still get to leave without having to clean up the damage. At least you’re alive.
Even then, it’s still the 1% that are responsible for the majority of overseas flights. A study found that 48% of the English population didn’t fly overseas once in 2018, while 10% of their most frequent flyers were responsible for almost half of all international flights — which is why they’re currently discussing a frequent flyer levy. If you fly first class, your carbon footprint is three times larger than flying at all. Yet how many people rely on this for their income? A lot of people who physically struggle with flying need that extra comfort from business class and first class. Hell, apparently buying new clothing produces more carbon than flying, which is cool and normal, so who knows! We sure do live in a society, huh?
Flying is a signifier of success. You worked really hard and saved up all year to go on the trip of a lifetime with your friends and you really do deserve to go relax and have fun during your four weeks of paid leave that is less time off than a medieval peasant got. Fill your Instagram up for months to come, make your friends jealous, go for it. Then you can come home and go back to work, broke from flights and food and our absolutely garbage exchange rate, which makes you depressed and desperate for anything to look forward to in order to make life worth living, so you book another flight to cheer yourself up except that means you have to keep working to be able to afford it which makes you depressed so you—
Look, I don’t love travelling. I had a good time in England and I’m still not convinced it was worth the 24-hour flight over and the amount of lukewarm water I drank because I was paranoid about getting DVT. But I don’t have any family overseas. I’m white and don’t have any other homeland or culture to connect to, and I am never going to fully understand just how deep and necessary that connection is for other people’s personal and spiritual growth.
On the whole, environmentalists want you to travel less, rather than stopping altogether. Chances are your bank account, work, and other life responsibilities have taken care of that already. Similarly, you could prioritise domestic travel over international flights, though that is significantly harder in a country where an hour’s travel gets you into the city on a good day and not, like, Italy.
It might be worth thinking about why you want to travel as well. Is it so you can spend more time with friends and family? Is it for yourself? Do you just really, really want to go to the Maldives because Buzzfeed said that’s where you go should go based on the fact that your favourite foods are frozen yoghurt and a bagel. Or is it because it’s something you think you should do, rather than want to? Whatever the answer, limiting climate change isn’t based solely on individual choices. It requires an entire overhaul of society and what we’ve accepted as normal. That doesn’t mean you should buy a private jet — or support people who do — but it means the earth will continue warming whether you do or do not go to the Maldives, whether that makes you feel better or not.
Bon voyage, and send me a postcard.