A Future Without Long-Haul Vacations

As a global climate crisis deepens, even professional travelers should cut back on their air miles.

Airplane in the sky
Saul Loeb / Getty

About the author: Henry Wismayer is a freelance writer based in London.

The sun was still beating down when, one late afternoon earlier this year, I arrived at a dust bowl of baked earth where there should have been water. Lake Abbe, a soda lake on the border between Ethiopia and Djibouti, wasn’t where it was supposed to be. The local Afar people told me that an Ethiopian dam had stanched its inflow to irrigate a sugarcane plantation, and now the shore had receded to the horizon. Lake Abbe is the endpoint of the Awash River, a vital source of water in an ecosystem that is growing drier as local temperatures rise and the global climate crisis deepens.

And now, the lake is vanishing.

I’d gone to the Horn of Africa in search of timeless landscapes, but there was no respite from humanity’s penchant for remaking geography. It was hard to avoid a sense of complicity. After all, I was there to write a travel story, exhorting other English-speakers to visit the region as if all was well with the world. On that excursion, I would clock up 8,000 miles in flights, exceeding the annual carbon footprint per person recommended by the Swiss nonprofit MyClimate.org by a factor of four in the space of one long-haul round trip. As I stood where Lake Abbe was surrendering to the Grand Barra desert, the newly exposed ground appeared as a premonition of an uninhabitable Earth. A hot breeze blew eddies of dust around my ankles, scolding me. You shouldn’t have come.

As this summer’s tourism season draws to a close, anyone in a half-sane society would choose this moment to stop going on far-flung vacations. That’s a hard thing for a travel writer to admit. After family and friends, travel is pretty much my favorite thing—not only my source of income, but an inexhaustible wellspring of curiosity, empathy, and wonder.

Yet optional travel is also a major contributor to ecocide. Last year, a University of Sydney study examined the environmental impact of the many activities involved in tourism—including transportation, shopping, and more—and found that it accounts for 8 percent of all global carbon emissions, far more than previously imagined. The 100,000 flights a day that now crisscross the skies pump almost as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the 28 member states of the European Union combined. (In the United States, at least, roughly half of all airline trips are for “personal leisure purposes.”) In May, a landmark United Nations report into collapsing biodiversity found that humans have severely altered or destroyed about 75 percent of the Earth’s land; while human land use, including agriculture and ranching, was the greatest culprit, climate change was a significant factor as well. Moreover, while the report neglected to say so, the remaining 25 percent is hardly inviolate, as we scramble over one another to Instagram what idylls remain.

“Going someplace far away, we now know, is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change,” the journalist Andy Newman in wrote recently in The New York Times. “One seat on a flight from New York to Los Angeles effectively adds months worth of human-generated carbon emissions to the atmosphere. And yet we fly more and more.”

I certainly have. Since the turn of the millennium, I have amassed approximately 270,000 air miles, equivalent to flying around the planet almost a dozen times over. Based on the correlation between carbon-dioxide output and polar-ice melt established in the 2016 study cited in Newman’s article, this means that my flights alone have accounted for some 90 tons of carbon emissions, enough to melt about 260 square meters of polar sea ice. I have melted a tennis-court-size chunk of the Arctic all on my own.

Ignoring the impact of climate change is no longer an option, because I have seen its impact on four continents. In temperate London, where I live, global warming for now means that I didn’t wear a scarf last winter, and the daffodils opened early. Far more tangible are the symptoms of climate crisis I’ve witnessed abroad: shrinking glaciers in the Andes, record-breaking heat waves in southern Europe, the startling expansion of the Gobi desert. It has also become much harder to ignore the alarming testimonies of the people who live among them. Earlier this year, I received an email from a mountain guide I knew in Malawi. He was asking for help because his house had been washed away after Cyclone Idai barreled through southeastern Africa.

Every time I settle down to write a travel article lately, I feel like a canary in a coal mine, whistling denial. Perhaps, if my work achieves any kind of posterity, it will be in a museum of defunct pastimes from the Extinction Age. Amid the exhibits of hamburgers and combustion engines will be a gallery of press cuttings from the era of mass tourism, fossils for future, static generations to gawp at, wondering at the excess of their deluded forebears, who continued jetting around the planet even as that planet withered and burned before their eyes.

Cutting back on travel, of course, may be just one of many ways in which people can reduce their carbon emissions. We can reinsulate our homes, bicycle to work, modify our diets, lobby for carbon taxes, and more. However, in contrast with other climate villains such as domestic heating, transport, and food, holidays are a luxury, an extravagant add-on to life that we could live without. Our attitude to travel, then, is in many ways a barometer of our response to an urgent question: Can we accept that our pursuit of happiness might be inimical to our survival?

Despite the strong scientific consensus about the gravity of climate change, tourism levels are not dropping off. On the contrary, the UN World Tourism Organization forecasts that the industry, fueled by the emerging markets in Asia, will grow by another 30 percent by the end of 2030. Meanwhile, NASA recently announced plans to open the International Space Station to tourists, suggesting that our neophilia now knows no earthly bounds.

The slow death of traditional travel media is, paradoxically, another worrying portent. As I write, National Geographic Traveler has announced that it is shuttering after 35 years. In an Instagram post, the magazine’s editorial projects director, Andrew Nelson, blamed the decision on “the medium through which you are reading these words.”*  Social media, with its elevation of hyper-consumerist, bucket-list-driven travel, now represents a more pervasive form of denial than the travel magazine. A professional photographer’s lush images on a printed page no longer suffice when Facebook users are racing around the globe, competing with their friends to post pictures from the most exotic places.

For several decades now, travelers of all sorts have sought excuses to mitigate the damage we are causing the environment. We reassure ourselves that our hotel is eco-friendly, even though we know that banning plastic bottles is a Band-Aid for an emergency that demands a quadruple bypass. We scoff at decommissioning an industry that supports one in 10 jobs worldwide, although we know that a position at a Maldives beach resort won’t be much use when your archipelago ceases to exist. We place vain hope in the fuel-efficient transcontinental maglev trains of futurists’ dreams, despite the fact that they have been dreaming of them fruitlessly for 50 years.

But deep down, we know that these are just bromides, and that at least some of the calculus is more coldhearted. If the planet is doomed, I hear the devil on my shoulder rationalize, I’m going to see as much of what remains as I can.

With this acknowledgment, I understand that my peripatetic life needs to change. I’ll try to cherish my own home turf more and acknowledge that my responsibility to the planet should coalesce around these few acres of ground. I will travel occasionally, albeit less than before. Where possible, I will take the train rather than fly, but I will fly when there is no alternative, salving my conscience with carbon offsets. But all the while, I will reckon with a gathering sense that regular travelers like me are loving the world to death. And that perhaps this love might be better expressed by letting it be.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article included the wrong job title for National Geographic Traveler editorial projects director Andrew Nelson.