So far, this blog has been a jumbled combination of posts on environmental issues and travelogues from my global adventures. My original intention for Navigating Nature was for it to be a platform for effective and meaningful science communication, and as my life has taken its twists and turns, various different types of posts have emerged.
I am currently a senior in college, and as I transition out of an intensive travel phase of my life and into an intensive environmental advocacy/career phase of my life, I would like to refocus Navigating Nature on the core environmental goals it was founded on. I think the first meaningful step I can take in that direction is addressing my own carbon footprint.
I talk about environmental issues on this blog, and I also talk about my travels, often to remote corners of the planet, but I have never taken the time to reconcile the two. I am a white, privileged, upper-middle class woman from the 2nd-highest carbon-emitting country on Earth. Not only is my default lifestyle having an impact on the planet; to top it off, I seem to have this inexplicable urge to fly across the globe every few months. From April 2015 to March 2016, I took 25 flights, most of them international, and visited 10 foreign countries.
My carbon footprint from just these flights alone is 836 tons of carbon dioxide emitted into our atmosphere. If you stacked up that much CO2 together, this is what it would look like compared to the size of the Statue of Liberty:
Maybe if a life-size box of my carbon emissions was deposited next to the actual Ms. Liberty in New York labeled “Emma Hutchinson’s Yearly Footprint”, I would pay attention.
Although in my defense, plane travel is by far my largest type of carbon-emitting activity, and April 2015-March 2016 was the most intense period of international travel I’ve ever had in my life. The rest of my carbon footprint – how much energy I use, the types of food I eat, how much water I use, and how much money I spend – totals less than 10 tons of carbon per year. Part of this comes from the fact that I am a college student. I live in a house on campus where the only personal space I have is the square area of my bed, and it is a vegetarian house, so I eat very little meat (and actually, not that much dairy either). I don’t own a car and I mostly use my bike and public transportation to get around. I’m good about turning off the lights when I leave a room, and I’m making some progress towards reducing my shower times. If I didn’t ever get on a plane, my carbon footprint would be less than half of the average American’s footprint.
But I do fly. I fly a lot. My travel turns all of my other efforts to be environmentally conscious into a complete laughing stock, because they essentially don’t matter. The thing that completely defines my impact on the planet is my time spent on planes. It makes my total yearly carbon footprint 42 times the average American’s, 94 times the average Spaniard’s (where I spent 3 months last fall), and 423 times the average Brazilian’s (where I lived for 2 years and visited for 2 weeks this summer).
And yet, I am a self-proclaimed environmental activist. I am dedicating my life to combatting climate change and other environmental problems, and I am currently busting my butt studying as many things as I can that will help me do the best job I can at that. I wonder, extremely selfishly, if there will ever be a way to calculate the carbon emissions that I save in a year through my actions. I convince myself that I need to use my own privilege to give back to the world, to right society’s many wrongs, to leave our planet better than I found it. But meanwhile, I’m contributing much more to climate change, the main problem I’m trying to address in my career, than the average person.
And to be completely honest, I’m not sure how to address this. Stop flying, Emma, you say. That’s a great point. But traveling is, in an extremely privileged way, part of my DNA. I got my first passport when I was six months old, took my first international flight when I was nine months old, and have now lived overseas four times, in addition to many many trips. Traveling has taught me about my place in the world, how much I have compared to others, and how to start to make amends for that. It has taught me common sense, how to protect myself as a woman, and how to feel confident and independent. It has taught me about other cultures, about people who are different from me, and it has allowed me to connect with humans around the globe. I would not be the person I am today without my travel experiences.
That being said, there are some steps that I can, and will, take to minimize my carbon footprint while still continuing to travel. I already tend to stay in youth hostels or cheap budget hotels, eat local food, and use public transportation when I am abroad, and will continue to do so. I will continue to reflect on my cultural, social, and environmental impact as a tourist on the ground in the places I visit, and to interact with the local people and ecosystems in the most respectful and culturally sensitive way that I possibly can. I will support, financially and/or through policy/advocacy, advancements in airplane technologies that move the industry away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources of energy. I will only fly when it is extremely impractical to drive, and when I have an important reason to go to a place. I will try to stay in a given area for longer, to avoid short trips that don’t give me enough time to fully appreciate and interact with a place and community. And I will do everything that I can to ensure that, despite my identity as a privileged American, my impact on the world will be net-positive by the time I leave it.
In the spring of 2015, I was sailing through the Pacific with Stanford at Sea, and I had a lengthy conversation with a local woman on the island of Kiritimati (pronounced kind of like “Christmas”) in Kiribati (pronounced “Kiribas”), a nation that will soon be underwater from sea level rise due to climate change. At that moment, I felt both humbled and humiliated to be from one of the countries that caused most of climate change, and to be talking to a person that was feeling the impacts much sooner and much harder than I was. I would not have had this meaningful experience without my ability to travel, and yet I was talking to a person that had not, and probably will never, leave her small island.
My role on this planet is not as a hero, or a savior, or someone that will swoop in and save people I don’t know, with cultures and identities I don’t know, from climate change. But I can’t change the color of my skin, and I can’t change where I was born, who I was born to, and under what circumstances I was born. What I can do is use my privileged background to fight, in the most effective, most culturally sensitive way that I can, for a better world.