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Guilty Pleasure: Taking Flight

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

In my adolescent adventures, I wandered the local woods pretending the shrills of our jays, thrushes, and robins were really those of Aves belonging to distant rainforests, and instead of rambling through a little wooded tract in North America, I had awakened to find myself in a dense green jungle where exotic animals thrived around every bend. I had an active imagination and a strong curiosity about the world.

Flying into a rural region in the Philippines, 1984-ish

As an adult, I went off exploring whenever I could scrape together the time and the funds. I blame my parents for the wanderlust. Mom often read us stories of adventure in faraway lands, and Dad, who joined the US Army and served in the Italian Alps, filled us with tales of his own—replete with Italian flourishes for emphasis.

But Mom, whose two brothers are both pilots, was terrified of flying. When my parents went anywhere, they mostly traveled by car. To make sure I didn't suffer the same fate, for my seventh birthday Dad talked a military buddy into taking the two of us up in his Cessna. I can remember being hoisted onto the wing wearing a navy-blue dress with red trim. As the plane circled the skies, I peered from the window looking for our house amongst all of the small squares dotting the landscape. I didn't want to come back down.

At this writing, it's been several years since I've flown anywhere. I worry a lot about carbon emissions, and the pandemic hasn't helped. In the "before times," I'd fly and then purchase carbon offsets to green-up my travel. But my thinking has changed. The offsets were fairly inexpensive, and I have a sense that chump change will not get us out of this climate fix.

"If I were queen of the world, I'd make young people travel so they would learn about different ways of being—so they would be less afraid." Yes, that's what I've often told anyone who will listen, but for myself the question has become; how much is enough?

Even though I've been fortunate and have seen a lot of the world, there are still regions that call to me and faraway friends I'd like to visit. It feels a bit like someone is dangling a cookie under my nose, when I know I've already had too many cookies. And as one fellow traveler said, "I only have this one life." Truth.

So, I'm not vowing to never fly again, just like I'm not vowing to never eat cookies or buy shoes again. We're only human; I don't believe it works well to tell ourselves that this or that is completely off limits. But I'm looking for climate-friendly hacks.

Close-to-home adventures have helped. I don't take the patch of woods near my neighborhood for granted because housing developments long ago ate up the woodlands I enjoyed as a child. These days I get out on the trail as often as I can. One of the best things I've done is to make new friends by taking dance classes—I've developed a passion for social dancing—especially Argentine tango. Making space for these local pleasures has quelled the desire for vacations from my own life.

But one doesn't have to swear off travel altogether. A solo train journey, a family car trip, or just flying less frequently may help us reach our carbon goals. I dream of a cargo ship journey around the world, but in the interests of avoiding a long absence from home, I'll put that off for now. The next time I do fly, I'll make sure I support local communities wherever I land. It doesn't feel like a hardship to shop small businesses or to bundle some volunteer work in alongside one's enjoyment. And just in case, I'll get those carbon offsets.

Having the ability to make these decisions is a luxury. While many cannot afford air travel, some people must fly to stay in touch with family or to work. There is no one-size solution—we must consider what's doable where we live, at our stage of life, and with the resources at hand.

My hope is that together we will come to view our carbon expenditures a bit like managing a household budget. I'm still learning how to crunch the carbon numbers, but I do believe the changes we adopt will help.

How are you thinking about travel these days? What successes have you had in your efforts to do right by the planet? What are your persistent concerns?

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