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I love traveling. I love the way it opens my eyes, softens and sharpens my mind at the same time, lightens my step, and propels me forward.
I believe I am a better person because I’ve seen and felt what it’s like to live in places and circumstances so different from what I call my own. But recently, I’ve begun to question whether certain forms of travel are worth it. That’s partly because I’m no longer in my 20s and don’t have the wanderlust I once had. I’m growing secure, happy with where I am, no longer needing to run away to find new and far-away possible lives to lead.
Recently, my mom told me about a credit card she has that gives great rewards miles. In a past life, I may have signed up immediately. But instead, I cringed. Don’t get me wrong—I love a good deal, but at what cost?
I’ve been fortunate to have the experiences I’ve had, but many of them have involved traveling far, sometimes even requiring more than one flight to get farther and farther away from home. And I now know those experiences came at an expense that I didn’t personally pay.
Unfortunately, of all the things we do, traveling by plane is one of the most, if not the most, fossil fuel intensive. Collectively, commercial aviation accounts for up to fve percent of all global warming activities, and the number of passenger flights is increasing rapidly over time.
I’m proposing that it’s time to give up frequent flyer miles and, ultimately, to fly less. Not because individual actions can resolve the climate crisis—only coordinated policy to rapidly phase out fossil fuels can, alongside many many other things. But as floods and fires rise up around us, there is something inherently wrong with a few very large corporations actively and enticingly encouraging more and more air miles. It’s disappointing—but not surprising—that this destructive profit-seeking is allowed, and that it’s seemingly unquestioned by most, including my mother.
While flying is sometimes necessary (I fly once every year or two to see my sister who lives abroad, and sometimes for work when it’s necessary), air travel is one part of our lives that deserves more scrutiny. How bad will the fires and floods have to get before we start making real sacrifices at the individual level, shift the culture of travel, and ban irrational frequent flyer miles that work against those very changes?
As long as frequent flyer miles exist, we will have to confront the fact that it’s cheaper to fly when you have them, and acknowledge that the cost to others exists, even if it’s not reflected in the price of your ticket. The way to address this conundrum is to fly less, to not use the miles—or find a cause like the Red Cross, where you can donate your miles to those with more urgent mobility needs.
Sometimes hard choices will arise. I recently turned down an in-person speaking engagement at a conference taking place across the country, but I was willing to provide a virtual commentary instead. I’m starting to think of my flight miles as how many miles it’s necessary for me to fly—in other words, how much pollution I am willing to create rather than how cheaply I can acquire tickets.
Like most policies and actions that would address climate change, this is not only about giving things up, but rather creating a healthy society in which everyone can thrive. Climate action can be of benefit in many ways, and we have to find ways to engage in these beneficial actions for both ourselves and others.
In the first year of the pandemic, I unintentionally completed Greta Thunberg’s “We Stay on the Ground” challenge by not flying for a year. And despite all the challenges of adapting to life in a global pandemic, I would say the constraint of staying local has ushered in a new way of being. When I hit pause on flying, my appreciation, gratitude, and excitement to discover the good that’s all around exploded. Necessity breeds creativity, right?
I can’t start to name all of the patches of nature I’ve explored within my own city and within a car ride away. Find the abundance of the woods down the street. Or whatever suits you. Within five hours of New York City, there are countless wonderful trips: beaches, wineries, breweries, weird or charming historic sites, hikes and parks, and waterfalls, oh my!
My partner and I got married in 2020 and took a “mini-moon” in a cute town in New York State. I reflect warmly on late fall afternoons spent at a winery one day and a brewery the next, each situated on a different rolling green hill, and staying at a bed and breakfast that I’d recommend to anyone. No part of me missed the extravagance of a full-blown beach vacation while we were there.
I don’t wish anyone to feel shame for flying or taking their dream vacation, but rather, to apply the same consideration, or more, as one would with any other consumer decision. We will each have to decide what necessary flying means to us, and at the same time, how to recreate the excitement of that travel closer by. Millions of mindful people questioning and challenging harmful systems, even if it requires challenging oneself, is a necessary start to counteracting climate change.
We can do this in a way that can happen right now. If some of the millions of people who live in the New York City metro area utilize its vast transit system to take local or regional trips or staycations, that alone could make a difference. The people living in housing near airports, who don’t generally create this type of pollution, might breathe a bit easier, too.
How can you make your bucket list more local? What are you excited to explore nearby?