Hey, I get it. There’s already a lot to worry about when you’re traveling. There are the passports, the travel arrangements, those pesky connections, as well as the foreign foods. To then also have to worry about how to protect the environment is asking too much.
Besides, you’re flying anyway so you’re already pumping out too much CO2. What difference will those few changes make, right?
The thing is, the idea that as you’re already pumping out so much CO2 reducing your footprint will have no effect, makes no sense. That’s a bit like saying that since you already went on a shopping spree, you might as well buy more. A dollar buys the same, no matter how many you’ve already spent that day. In the same way, a particle of C02 doesn’t care how many other particles you spewed out. It’s going to contribute the same to global warming.
What’s more, we can do a lot for the environment without having to make unbearable sacrifices. Yes, that does go against the grain. In his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker points to research that shows how for many people the size of the sacrifice is more important than its impact. But of course, it should be the other way around.
To that end, here I’m going to include a whole shopping list of changes that won’t do your head in and yet protect the environment. (And if you think of any I haven’t mentioned, throw them in the comments and I’ll gladly include them).
Before we get to that part, though, let’s first discuss a few simple ideas that will multiply the effectiveness of these changes. So, we can do more with less! Not interested in that and want to get straight to the practical suggestions? Then skip to Actions you can take (or suggest).
Half is better than nothing
The first thing that we need to get out of our system is that small things don’t matter. Yes, we need to do a lot more to avoid that 2 degrees of global warming. And no, using – for example – fewer plastic bags at the checkout counter will not be enough. But what it will do is slow down how fast we approach that limit.
The more we can do that, the more time we give ourselves. And that will give us the time to innovate, convince people to do their part and find other acceptable sacrifices we can make to leave our children a habitable world.
Think about it like this: We’ve got a bank account that all the people in the world are drawing money from. At present, it’s not yet empty. But when it gets overdrawn, bad things will start happening. We’ll be put out of our house, our living situation will deteriorate, and there will be even more conflict. (Did you know that the Syrian war might in part be because of climate change?)
There is some money coming in (Trees, rock, and seas absorb CO2) but we’re spending it a lot faster than it’s being added. The gap between what is coming in and going out is eating into our reserves and why we’re hurtling towards zero.
Because the gap is so big, when we cut spending by a little bit we’re not eliminating that day we hit zero. What we are doing, though, is pushing it a little further back and buying ourselves time. In this way, we can find new ways to spend less (like using more renewables) and earn more (like plant more forests and building carbon positive stuff).
Of course, because it’s our collective bank account we need to take collective action. That causes a lot of grumbling. The thing is, that can actually make things easier as well if you approach it right.
Consider this: If you spend 100 dollars less, that’s great. If you can convince another person to do that same, that’s even better. But if you can get 1000 people to spend 1 dollar less per person, that’s going to do much more (100 X 1 = 100; 100 X 2 = 200; 1000 x 1 = 1000). That’s the power of collective action.
For that reason, don’t push one person into making big changes. Instead, push lots of people into making small ones. That’s both easier to do and – if you can influence enough people – going to make a far bigger difference.
For example, convincing 100 people not to eat meat or fish one day a week will help protect the environment more than convincing ten people to go vegetarian. As an added bonus, convincing a person to not eat meat one day a week is a hell of a lot easier! Just talking to people on the beach, in the bar or the hotel a few times can already do that!
Even better, small changes are far likelier to lead more, as people realize that the first sacrifice wasn’t that big considering the impact it made. A lot of people who go vegetarian for one day and realize that it isn’t that big of a deal will be willing to a little more. Maybe go without meat for two days, slow travel more or eat local.
Now, of course, not everybody will carry through. And that’s what pessimists will focus on. But there is also an optimistic angle, namely how others will go further. They will do more themselves and push others to do the same. These people can cause a cascade of environmental benefit that fans out from your original action.
For that reason, the best thing we can do beyond making personal changes is to nudge. Nudge our network, nudge the people we meet, nudge strangers on the street and nudge the communities we visit.
As the above youtube video shows, there is a lot of power in nudges. In case you don’t have an hour to watch the whole vide, the idea is that small changes, even like how you present a question, can have profound effects on behavior. This is particularly true when a group is large. For example, making people either opt in to organ donation (tick to donate) or opt out of it (tick not to donate) made a huge difference to how many people were willing to donate their organs.
We can use these lessons ourselves, by nudging our own communities. This can be as simple as reminding them to do their part or showing them what you’re doing and hoping you inspire them. Maybe you can make a pledge in front of a group of travelers or on social media. Another choice is to ask people to join you in an event that helps the environment. Or suggest ways a weekly party, bar crawl or a tour can go greener (even if only for a week).
Or lead by example by embracing small changes and showing people how these little things can still make a lot of difference. Hey, I bought these cool hemp bags in Amsterdam! I thought they were so cute, so I bought five! Who wants one?
Or, instead of targeting fellow travelers or the people back home, we can try and help the communities we pass through. After all, we’ve all seen places where the people have environmentally destructive practices they could change. Maybe there is plastic garbage everywhere, or they burn it. Perhaps they run expensive diesel generators when they could save money by going solar. Or they could attract more tourists by conserving their environment instead of destroying it.
So why not mention it? Of course, you have to be careful. There is always the risk that they won’t appreciate travelers with their cushy lives interfering in their local affairs. The best way to avoid that is to:
- Not turn it into a crusade. Nobody likes a holier-than-thou outsider telling us what to do, especially since they often ignore the underlying group dynamics.
- Tell them as equals. A lot of travelers unconsciously look down on the locals. Perhaps they think they’re less cultured, less educated or less well off. Don’t do that. You can be sure the people in these communities will notice that and resent you for it.
Nonetheless, by sometimes saying ‘do you teach your children to pick up litter?’, ‘have you considered buying solar panels?’ or ‘what will happen to the flow of tourists when there are no more animals for them to see?’ You can nudge. Then, perhaps when other people say something similar, you might create change (even if it only happens after you’ve gone).
Perhaps other people have said something similar, or other people will in the future. Or maybe you’ve found a community or a person in that community who is open to your idea and would love to learn more.
And yes, your comment can fall on deaf ears. But though it might be personally infuriating, on the global scale, that’s not what matters. We don’t need to make changes with every comment or suggestion. As long as there is enough nudging going on, we only have to be successful some of the time to be effective.
And sometimes you’re going to run into situations where the people didn’t know. I’ve encountered it myself. There was a man in Indonesia who’d never heard cigarettes were harmful. In Nicaragua, I met a woman who didn’t realize the fumes from burned plastic were poisonous.
We often assume people know what we know. But that’s just the curse of knowledge, where we can’t imagine not knowing something, talking.
This article as an example
This article is a case and point. Many of the people who’ll read might agree with me, but still not change their behavior. Heck, I might even get unlucky and not influence anybody’s actions.
The thing is, that doesn’t really matter. Let me clarify that. Obviously, from a personal perspective, it does. After all, it’s nice when you can take personal responsibility for changing things. But on a societal scale, it’s not about one article. Instead, it’s about all the articles, and actions, and laws, and protests, that are happening and how they are changing behavior in total.
When you put enough nudges together, they amount to a giant shove. Even better, one nudge can create others. This article is an example of that as well. I did not write it in a vacuum. Instead, I too was nudged. In turn, my actions will nudge others.
So, if you want to help the environment, do two things.
- Change your own behavior.
- Suggest others to do the same.
Now preferably, you’ll do that second one without acting self-righteous, getting in their faces, or demanding sacrifices they’re not willing to make. Sure, all that will feel good. It is nice to feel righteous. But more often than not it won’t be as effective.
Similarly, don’t expect a thank you. The fact that we’re doing our bit to protect the environment should be thanks enough!
Actions you can take (or suggest) to protect the environment
Okay, wow! That was a lot of theoretical stuff! Sorry about that. I like to talk. But we’re done with that now! Let’s look at the actual actions which will start having an impact right now.
These are directed at people who want to reduce their footprint while traveling but can be implemented by anybody.
There is no getting around it. Planes put out a lot of CO2. So, the first piece of advice which you no doubt already heard is to avoid flying when you can. Trains, buses, and cars are all better for the environment than plane travel is.
And besides, if you’re flying a distance that’s less than an hour, taking the bus or the train is often as fast. You don’t have to be at the train stations two hours before you travel, nor do you have to travel to some out-of-the-way location where they’ve put the airport.
Another great choice is sleeper trains and busses. Often, you can arrive in another country pretty well rested when you take one of those, at a fraction of the environmental damage and financial cost. Especially when you consider you don’t have to book a room for the night you’re on that bus!
Do make sure they have that sleeper icon. Trying to sleep on a regular bus isn’t half as much fun.
Every trip you take, be it by bus, plane or train, adds CO2. So, the most effective thing to do is to travel less. If you go on vacations then a good way to do that is to take fewer short holidays and put the days you have into one trip. If you’re a long-term traveler, then the best thing you can do is slow travel.
Instead of moving on every week or two weeks, stick around for longer. As an added bonus, there are a bunch of other benefits to slow travel, like you’ll get to know the place you’re at better.
I’ve been moving around for a couple of years now and I couldn’t imagine traveling any other way. A month is generally the minimum I want to stay somewhere. Any faster, and I get stressed out. Besides, it generally takes about two weeks to find the hidden gems those fast-traveling tourists never hear about.
Make smaller hops
In effect, this is a variation of the above. It isn’t only how often you travel that decides how much your journeys hurts the environment, but also how far you go. So why not make smaller hops? These will have less of an impact on the environment and save you money besides!
Do note, the most energy-intensive part of air travel is the taking off and landing – that’s where 25% of the emissions are generated. So, if you have to go a certain distance, you’re better off doing it in one go. Smaller hops only work if as a result, you travel fewer kilometers.
Yes, that also means you should avoid layovers.
Another great way to make sure the distance you travel has a smaller impact on the environment is to take less weight with you. After all, the heavier a vehicle weighs the more fuel it needs to use to get to its destination. That’s what all that stuff in physics class about inertia was all about!
So, particularly if you’re a nomad and travel a lot, taking less with you will consume a lot less fuel in the long run!
So get rid of the stuff you don’t need. Give it to a charity, the people in the communities you pass through, or other travelers. And don’t cart around all those souvenirs with you! Send them home by snail mail instead.
Of course, your luggage is the only place you can get lighter. It doesn’t matter whether the kilos are in your bag or on your butt. They have to get lifted into the air all the same! So, consider changing your diet and going to the gym – it’s good for you and the environment!
Consider what airline and model plane you’re using
Some airlines generate less CO2 per kilometer than others do. So, where possible use the ones who work harder to do less harm. Here’s an expansive list.
Also, if you can find out, consider which type of airplane you’re flying with. Some are far more environmentally friendly than others. According to the article I linked above, the Airbus 319 is 15% more fuel efficient than the Boing 737-300 (which is one of the least efficient planes in aviation). Similarly, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is 20% more efficient than the Boeing 767.
The Airbus A330-200, Boeing 737-900ER, and Boeing 767-400ER are also good choices.
Note that I’m not talking about Uber, here. There, when you book the ride, you’re creating the trip and pumping out CO2. Instead, I mean services like bla bla car, where people list where they were already going and then see if others want to come along. Traveling in your own car? Then become one of the people who is offering rides! You’ll pay less and protect the environment while you’re doing it!
Another adventurous way to ride share is by thumb or sign! Hitchhiking is an underappreciated form of travel. It can go quite fast and even when it isn’t, it’s still exciting. And as those cars were driving anyway, your impact will be tiny, at least for that trip. Make sure you obey the local hitchhiking laws, though. For example, you can’t hail a ride on the freeway as no pedestrian are allowed there.
Also, some people will want some money for fuel. It’s better to arrange these things before you start off rather than afterward.
And no, it’s not as dangerous as the movies make out! According to wandrlymagazine the risk of being raped or killed while hitchhiking is 0.0000089. Your bathtub, in other words, is more likely to kill you.
Unplug your chargers
Yeah, chargers have become a lot better at not consuming lots of energy if they’re plugged in and not in use. But they still use power. So, why not unplug them when you don’t need them? To be sure, the difference isn’t very big. Doing is like bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon as a Techradar article puts it.
At the same time, it’s such a small gesture! And if you could have an automatic teaspoon helping you do the bailing at almost no effort, why wouldn’t you?
Buy a high-strength grocery bag (and carry it with you!)
Plastic bags are destroying our oceans. It’s now so bad that even Antarctica is polluted. To stop that trend, we need to use less plastic. One of the easiest ways to do so is to buy an environmentally friendly grocery bag and then actually carrying it with you.
That last bit is important as to be effective you need to commit to using those grocery bags a few hundred times. You see, the process of making those high-strength bags is more energy intensive than ordinary plastic bags. To win that back, they need to get used a lot.
Avoid plastic bottles
Another big contributor of plastic waste is the plastic bottle – particularly bottled water. Instead of using them, learn to purify tap water. You’ve heard of boiling, but there are a lot of other ways to do it. Every single time you purify your own water, you save money and the environment.
Note that in countries where you can’t drink the tap water, this one combines well with slow traveling. If you can get one of those 20-liter water tanks where you bring back the bottle before you get your next one, you’re making a big difference.
While you’re at it, avoid sodas. Then you’ll avoid plastic and sugar! That’s good for the environment and for you! Teas are good alternatives. There are a lot of iced tea recipes if it’s too hot to drink them warm.
Separate out things people will recycle and see if anybody collects them
In a lot of developing countries, people collect cans and cardboard to make money. A guy in Michigan collected $1500 in a year collecting a few cans during his break.
Now, it might not be worth as much in all parts of the world, nonetheless, there is always somebody on the lookout for this kind of stuff. Don’t want to do it yourself? Then ask if there is anybody in the area who collects it. You’ll be doing them a solid and reducing your impact.
Here’s a list of ten other things that are important to recycle (taken from here).
- Aluminum cans
- PET plastic bottles
- Corrugated cardboard
- Steel cans
- Glass containers
- HDPE plastic bottles
- Magazines and mixed paper
Do make sure the country you’re in will actually recycle these before you collect them.
Go (semi) vegetarian
If you can, stop eating meat and fish. If that’s asking too much, then cut down. Every kilo of meat releases about the same amount of CO2 as burning six liters of petrol. Yeah, that is a lot.
I’ve committed to about three vegetarian days a week, but it’s up to you. Yeah, you can also go vegan. That’s even more effective, as many dairy products also have quite a big footprint. At the same time, going vegetarian for a day is a lot better than not doing anything at all.
Often the reason people eat certain foods in the country you’re traveling through is because they’re grown there. That means that by eating locally you’re at least making sure the distance from the field to your plate is going to be shorter. This will reduce the impact each meal has and thereby protect the environment.
Besides, eating in the local restaurants helps the local people. And there is always something to be said for that!
Check out where the country gets its energy from
It isn’t just important how much energy you use but also how that energy is won in the first place. For that reason, when deciding where to go make sure you also check out how they win energy in that area. Do they use dirty coal or do they rely more on wind, solar or hydroelectric?
Wikipedia has a useful resource about how countries generate their electricity.
While you’re at it, don’t only decide to go or not to go to a country based on their energy signature, but also let them know. Because if countries realize people are avoiding them based on their energy signature, they’ll have an incentive to be greener.
In large part, because of their eco-tourism, Costa Rica has spent a huge amount of effort going green. As a result, they now have incredible bio-diversity and huge areas given over to national parks.
Go to places with a mild climate
Heating and cooling are expensive. So, if you’re moving around a lot anyway, why not avoid climates where the temperature is unpleasant? Of course, getting onto a plane to avoid the heat or the cold won’t actually save energy. After all, that airplane consumes more than its fair share!
At the same time, if you’re going to move anyway, or you can relatively easily move to somewhere that is more comfortable, then go for it! You’ll not just be somewhere where the weather is nicer, but you’ll help the environment to boot!
Pay attention to the right sources
Though you might think that if a travel company advertises something as green it is going to be green, that need not be the case. Though no doubt some manage to actually create green holidays, others simply see an opportunity to exploit. I mean, putting ‘eco’ or ‘green’ in a title allows you to charge a premium. That’s more money in your pocket if you only make a few superficial changes.
Is that ethical? No. But hey, they’ve got a mortgage, their children are going to university and they promise they’ll do more next year.
Whatever their reasoning, if you want to travel green don’t believe what’s on the box. Check with environmental groups what they say about the offer. After all, they don’t have the conflict of interest where the greener their suggestions are the less money they make.
Share this article
If you share this article you’re not just committing to changing your own behavior. You’re also giving your entire network of friends, followers, and family the chance to change theirs as well.
Does your share change one additional person’s behavior? Then it was worth it. And, of course, it has the potential to change a lot more. The ALS Ice Bucket challenge went global. As a result, more money went into the coffers of the foundation than they could have ever hoped for. As a result, ALS research has been given a huge boost.
Will this article go the same distance? Hey, I’m not getting my hopes up! But then, it doesn’t have to. Because, as I already said as long as all the things we’re doing together to get us there, we’ll be okay. I wrote this article towards that end and to do my part.
Now it’s up to you to do yours! So, what do you say? Will you make a change and nudge others to do the same? Will you write or film your own stuff, or share what I’ve written? In so doing you might just be able to turn your travels green and put something back into our collective bank account.
Together our actions will make a difference and if we’re all in it together we can beat this thing.