Is Green Travel an Oxymoron?

How to Live a Low-Carbon Life by Chris Goodall How to Live a Low-Carbon Life, by Chris Goodall

Last night I had a personal crisis while reading Chris Goodall’s How to Live a Low-Carbon Life: The Individual’s Guide to Stopping Climate Change. The premise of the book is that each Westerner is responsible for emitting twelve tons of carbon dioxide every year–“four times what the Earth can handle.”  This book shows how the individual can personally reduce his or her emissions from twelve tons to three tons. 

I read through several chapters patting myself on the back for my low-carbon ways: I don’t drive, I don’t eat meat, I don’t live in a big house, I don’t turn the heat up too high.  Then I got to the chapter about air travel.  Goodall writes, “No single step that we could take as individuals to take responsibility for global warming comes close to deciding to stop flying.”  One round trip flight from England to the U.S. emits 3.6 tons of carbon dioxide.  A 3000 km (1864 mile) flight generates 4.5 tons-per person. 

Taking just one flight a year can easily push an individual over the three-ton carbon dioxide limit.  Goodall concludes that “the only morally responsible course of action is to avoid flying except in emergencies.”  He goes on to say that while this would be a sacrifice and curtail our freedom, the damaging effects of flying “means that severe and uncompromising self-restraint is an obligation.”

So there I was, congratulating myself for recycling a bunch of cardboard boxes and buying an organic apple–when I had just returned from a thousand-mile flight from St. Louis?  My daughter is now two years old.  In her lifetime, she’s already taken three flights to Denver, two flights to Reno, and one flight to Hawaii and San Diego.  How can I not fly?  Is Goodall saying that my daughter should never see any of her grandparents or great-grandparents again?  That she shouldn’t travel at all–see the world, experience different cultures, learn another language?  I immediately thought of ways to justify my air travel.  I also got defensive: It’s easy for him to avoid air travel!  He lives in England, where all his friends and family can be reached by rail in one day!Audrey 18 months with Papa Dave

I felt guilty–not only for the flights I’d made in the past, but for the flights I knew I would make in the future.  It’s especially difficult to vow to stop flying when I know that the airplanes flying to Reno, St. Louis, or any other destinations will fly there whether I’m on that plane or not.  Of course, if every eco-conscious person ceased traveling by air, the difference would be huge.

I’ve always valued travel as a way to broaden my horizons, experience different cultures, expand my world view–and these were values I wanted to pass on to my daughter.  So where do I go from here?

There are a few ways to become more conscious about travel.  Every “carbon calculator” I’ve come across gives me different numbers, but sometimes it’s better for the environment to drive rather than fly, especially over shorter distances.  Traveling by train is eco-friendlier than going by car or plane, so in the future, I’ll look into more opportunities to ride the rails. 

Also, some airlines are already working on going green.  This article cites Continental Airlines as one of the “Ten Green Giants” who are making strides to become more sustainable.  Virgin Atlantic is experimenting with flying their jets on biofuel, although there is some controversy about whether or not it will have enough environmental impact to make a difference.  Learn more about it here

If I’m not willing to stop traveling altogether, I can at least alleviate my eco-guilt by buying some carbon offset coupons.  This website allows you to calculate the miles you traveled and put money towards a “carbon reduction project” such as a wind farm.  It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a step towards acknowledging the harmful effects of my actions.  I may not lead the low-carbon life Chris Goodall wants me to lead, but I credit him for opening my eyes to my environmental transgressions.  And as Joy always says, “Progress, not perfection.”  I’m working on it.


  1. I think that what you are doing is a good start. If everyone were to think more about the choices we make and maybe cut back on a few plane trips here and there, it would still make a pretty big impact. This of course assumes that the airlines cut back on the total number of flights made and don’t just keep flying half full flights everywhere, in which case, using an alternative method of transportation or not flying at all might not make much of a difference. I am also a big fan of traveling to experience other cultures, but perhaps around the world trips will be the wave of the future. I have friends who flew to Africa and then took trains and “jeeps” and various other forms of land transportation across Africa and Asia, all the way to China, and then the flew home. This kind of travel can’t be done over spring break, but it certainly would be a learning experience for kids and parents alike!

    Great blog btw — I look forward to looking through your posts. We too are a family of a little cloth diaper wearing munchkin!

  2. I think it comes down to choices. I’m a total road trip junkie. One summer I actually lived in a truck and just traveled around the country. Of course I saved on energy and water 😉 but the gas issue makes me somewhat guilty.

    That said, I’ll be taking Cedar, my son on road trips too. He’s already been on many. I think that it sucks that we use gas, but the pros are he’s seen the desert, ocean, mountains, redwoods, Ashland in the fall, Minnesota lakes in the summer, and more. He’s going to appreciate what the world has to offer, and hopefully it will inspire him to take care of the planet. Be thankful for what we have.

    We do offset the road trip choice by making other choices; living with less, using few resources at home, recycling, and so on. It’s a tough call, but you can’t just show children pictures and expect them to feel the same peace with the earth as if you really take them out and let them live in the world. You know.


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