(Last Updated On: January 31, 2023)

Jonathan contemplating the environmental impacts of tourism
Jonathan in Myanmar

Our species has never been as mobile as it is today. Getting from one side of the planet to the other has never been as easy or affordable. You can wake up this morning in Boston and through the magic of air transport, go to sleep in Barcelona, Botswana or Brisbane.

The downside of this movement, while it brings people together, there are huge environmental impacts of tourism. A study released by Nature Climate Change estimates that global tourism accounts for eight percent of carbon emissions worldwide; with air travel alone accounting for one-fifth of these emissions. That is a big chunk, but what can we do about it?

So, What is the problem?

It is easy for people, especially people who aren’t interested in travel, to say, “If you are interested in the environment, then you should stop traveling.” I don’t think in a world where people are becoming more fearful of “the others” that that is a good idea. Xenophobia is another malady polluting our planet. We need to be looking more people in the eyes and making more connections.

Say what you will about the environmental impacts of tourism and the negative impact of transcontinental flying, wars are not environmentally friendly. Empathy and understanding go a long way toward making us all safer.

As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

So, you care about the environment and still want to travel and learn more about the world. What are you supposed to do? Here are a few ideas. Some are more impactful than others, but every valuable step, no matter how tiny, can help unravel this mess into which we have gotten ourselves. There is no one solution. A problem of this magnitude requires many solutions. There are a lot of personal steps you can, and should take, but some go further than others.

What can I do about the environment?

A few weeks ago Sarah and I were walking in a park near our home. The night before it had been thoughtlessly trashed by people at an after wedding party. Sarah grabbed a few of the plastic water bottles and beer cans that were left in the bushes and carried them to the trash bin. Without thinking, I followed her lead and grabbed a few bottles myself and threw them away myself.

There was a small group of Chinese tourist visiting the park who saw what we were doing and started picking up some of the litter themselves. Soon, together, we had made a noticeable difference in how the park looked.

A small step. The more lasting term solution would be educating people in the wedding party about how their carelessness impacts the environment and how badly it reflects on them. Enforcement of existing litter laws and substantial fines when permit holders don’t clean up after themselves would help too. But you have to begin somewhere, and activism is contagious.

Plastic on a Beach in Mexio shows environmental impacts of tourism
Plastic on a Beach in Mexico

Yes, stop using plastic straws, but…

Recently there has been a movement to abolish plastic straws. The movement went viral, and people started buying fancy stainless steel straws on Amazon to do “something” for the environment. Maybe, even after manufacturing and delivery costs were factored in, in some small measure, they were helping. I wonder how many of those straws have been abandoned in junk drawers and no longer used. But, plastic straws aren’t how we reduce the environmental impacts of tourism.

Buying your own fancy stainless steel straw may feel great for a few moments, but imagine how much better you could do. Convincing just one restaurant to stop using plastic straws altogether would make a much more significant impact.  Imagine how much more impact you could make by convincing your university or the town you live in to outlaw plastic straws altogether.

We need more than individual action

polluting plant environmental impacts of tourism

According to Lindsay Meiman of the environmental group 350.org, “The best thing individuals can do to tackle climate change is to stop merely acting as individuals. The climate crisis is a systemic issue that will only be meaningfully tackled through transformative action. That means joining mass mobilizations, digging deep into community action, and connecting with leaders across movements for justice.”

She continues, “That said, traveling has a harsh impact on carbon emissions. Fossil fuel divestment aims to tackle the root of the problem: halting investments in fossil fuel companies who have spent the last half a century blocking meaningful climate action and perpetuating the crisis. If it’s wrong to wreck the planet, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

You can pressure your legislators to stop using your tax dollars to subsidize fossil fuel interests. That would be good for deficits and the environment.

Divestment from fossil fuel companies and reinvestment in sustainable energy companies is an impactful way to offset the effects of your travels. Standing with your friends and other communities to pressure the institutions you interact with to divest from fossil fuels can be very impactful.

Think you don’t have “investments” in fossil fuel companies? Think again. Pension funds, universities, mutual funds, churches, charitable foundations, municipalities, banks, insurance companies, and others are using your money to invest in carbon fuel industries. Start a campaign to get them to stop. 350.org has some great resources to get you started.

We need to consider how many of us there are

One of the most controversial pieces of the puzzle, but also one of the most important is family planning. Making sure that all families have access to quality family planning services, contraceptives helps save the planet.

Yes, it is a longer-term solution, but perhaps the most impactful and it isn’t just a third world problem. Access to family planning resources in some wealthy countries is under attack, yet the wealthiest 10% of consumers cause almost 50% of climate change.

Educating women can have a huge environmental impact

Another piece of the puzzle is getting women more access to education. Better educated women have fewer children. On average, fewer people means less competition for increasingly scarce resources, less conflict, and less pollution.

No, I am not an advocate of any government dictating how many children a family can have. The ethics of family planning are – and should remain -personal matters, but the math is clear. 

At present growth rates, someday there will be more population than the earth can sustain. At 7.7 billion humans and growing, arguably we have reached that point already. Giving you money or time to a family planning charity is a great way to leverage your environmental efforts.

Should we be concerned about the environmental impacts of tourism?

So, is your holiday running the planet? Yes, it is. But so is your commute to work, your DIY project, that gas-guzzler you drive, the steak you had last night and heating those unused rooms in your too-big house. The solution is taking an “all of the above” approach that reverses the destruction we are causing the earth.

Becoming aware, becoming activists, and working together to improve the environment is how we fix the world. The longer we wait, the harder it will be, if not for us, for future generations.

Given the global aspect of the world’s pollution problem, hiding behind walls and vegetating in one little corner of the earth, won’t solve them. I am not sure how much enlightenment you get from another trip to Disneyland or Las Vegas, but we need to get over our fears and meet people different from ourselves. We need to figure out ways to work together. Future generations are counting on us. Let’s not let them down.

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