Can travel ever be ‘sustainable’?

I am lucky enough to have travelled quite a lot. I love it. I’ve learnt so much about the world; my perspectives have been broadened, my boundaries pushed, my wallet emptied, and connection to self, others, and the world deepened.

Nonetheless, I also love the Earth. I am passionate about the environment. I am passionate about inflicting only joy and happiness on my fellow beings and the world that surrounds me. I want to spread love.

In Melbourne, we are fortunate enough to live (almost) entirely off the grid in a suburban environment. We have a small DIY solar system, and we take every measures to live in what might be considered a ‘sustainable’ way.* I dumpster dive, from time to time, and otherwise always attempt to buy local & food. We are predominantly vegan in our household, and are in the process of growing a garden, have chickens, and are constantly looking for ways to improve the way in which we live. This lifestyle is, for me right now, the best way in which I could possibly live. 

Now, however, I am halfway across the world, slowly travelling en route to see family members. A rudimentary calculation, using this handy tool, tells me that in full, the flight alone will be using 1059 kg of fuel to arrive at my final destination. This is the equivalent of food for 14 people, or what might be considered a sustainable amount of carbon emissions for one person over 2.23 years. All in a 30 hour flight. As someone who considers themselves to be an environmental defender, this is absolutely shocking. Once in the continent of my destination, I will – of course, avoid flying for transportation wherever possible. But it begs the question, can travel ever be sustainable?

In short, it is difficult for international travel to be ‘sustainable’. If everyone on Earth were as privileged as I am, and decided to fly so far to visit someone, or explore a new region, the Earth would be in an even worse situation than it currently is. I recognise this. On account of the geographical positioning of my home (Australia, a huge island), simply arriving at a new destination burns a huge amount of fossil fuels, which has disastrous implications for the world. I attempted to find alternatives – but unfortunately monetarily, I could not afford a cruise; other options are not yet in existence. None of this changes the fact that I am here now – and I am on my way.

So, if international travel cannot be sustainable, what should we do? Well, staying home would be the obvious answer – or travelling domestically. I have participated in this kind of ‘travel’ often. I find it to be extremely rewarding exploring the area around my home, for example; there is always something new to see. But, for those of us who are internationally travelling, it is important to try to minimise the amount of damage that we are causing. Although it is contentious as to whether actually effective, purchasing carbon offsets might be worthwhile considering, as well as considering flying with less damaging aircrafts. When travelling, one will be spending money. Consider divesting, and using a bank account that practices ethical banking. If you purchase insurance, it might be worthwhile to also look into ethically minded insurance companies. I am yet to find one, but if you do, I’d love to hear of it!

Once in country, there are many other smalls things that we can do, and questions that we can ask ourselves that can assist in minimising our impact:

  • Do I really need this? Separating our needs from our wants can assist in avoiding falling into mindless consumption;
  • Carry a container and a keep cup everywhere. Whilst travelling, it is easy to drop habits such as avoiding packaging, in the face of convenience. Carrying containers and a keep cup not only avoids unnecessary packaging, but also avoids unnecessary food waste at restaurants and inspires others to do the same;
  • Walk where possible. Take the train, or bus over taxi;
  • Try to food shop locally. Avoid chains stores, and explore markets;
  • Think about your accomodation options. Look for local options – but be mindful of the negative implications that initiatives such as air bnb might have on local people; 
  • Try to support environmental, grass-root efforts in the places that you’re visiting. It not only demonstrates a sense of solidarity, but might inspire and give you ideas about how you might develop as someone who is engaged with environmental issues;
  • If volunteering or interning, make sure you dig deep to consider whether it is actually an ethical decision.

In my travels, I hope to expand on these ideas and explore the concept of environmental harm minimisation whilst on the road. The world is such a beautiful place, in many ways, but I am also well aware that many components of it – human and non-human – are suffering. As I traverse the Earth, I hope to continually assess what my impact is, and hope to make my impact a positive one in many ways. Bearing in mind my own privilege – and the privilege of travel – I hope that I can explore the Earth in a way that maintains my own personal values. I am making concessions by travelling, particularly when I was so happy with the way in which I was living in Melbourne. But hopefully, I can engage with alternative projects whilst abroad, and share my experiences with you to inspire you to do the same.


** I am aware that the term ‘sustainable’ is highly debated and contentious. Can we actually ever by sustainable? I am not sure. And what does ‘sustainable even mean? All good questions, which I hope to explore in later posts.


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