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.
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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.