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Should We Travel Less?

I'm not sure what to do with all of my 'flight guilt.'

Last year alone, I took nine roundtrip flights. I traveled far to Paris, Copenhagen, and Guatemala, but also within the States. And it wasn't until this morning, when I sat down to actually count, that I realized I already have five flights scheduled over the next four months: I'm heading to Guatemala for Christmas, Reno to visit my parents, New York for our minimoon, Park City for an annual ski trip with friends, and Milwaukee for Jonah's grandma's hundred-and-first birthday. And I'm already feeling an enormous amount of guilt about it.

Recently, on a plane no less, I read a New York Times article that converted the impact of my flight into a tangible, terrifying figure: "32 [is] the square feet of Arctic summer sea ice cover that one passenger’s share of emissions melts on a 2,500-mile flight." I was sitting next to Jonah's mom, and we darkly joked about how we'd patted ourselves on our backs moments earlier for bringing reusable silverware and straws to the airport. Then, when Jonah and I visited Copenhagen in March, we asked friends who live in Germany if they could join us, and they declined on account of committing themselves to one flight a year, due to carbon emissions. (Swedes even have a word for flying guilt, "flygskam.") After our a recent flight to Milwaukee, Jonah and I talked to the pilot about how much fuel a plane burns, and did some quick math to realize one flight is the equivalent of every passenger driving an SUV solo from Los Angeles to Milwaukee—and our flight was at capacity. That's 215 SUVs driving halfway across the country. 

There is evidence everywhere that I shouldn't be flying. And as a member of the group who takes more than six roundtrip flights each year, I emit, statistically speaking, "3 tons of carbon dioxide per year, a substantial amount, particularly by global standards." So much for diligently cutting back on single-use plastic, unnecessary and online purchases, and responsibly composting and recycling. This recent New York Times article poignantly suggested, "Taking one or two fewer plane rides per year can save as much in emissions as all the other actions [we take] combined." 

And yet, it can feel nearly impossible not to travel, especially when family is spread across not only states but countries. Reno is technically within driving distance, but I'd have to take two days off of work to make the ten-hour drive worthwhile, which isn't always possible. Telling Jonah's grandmother I won't be celebrating her hundred-and-first birthday because of emissions bears the chance of ostracizing me from the family, no matter how kind and understanding they are, not to mention the fact that I'd hate to miss it! And the only time I see my entire family is during our annual trip to Guatemala. Even the solution of moving closer to family wouldn't be possible—we're far away from some family, no matter where we live. 

Of course, there are small changes I can, and have, made. For Jonah, his mom, and my annual National Park trip this year, we're keeping our destination within driving distance. Jonah and I are also planning on condensing several international trips into one larger one a year or so from now, to minimize our flying distance (which also happens to be cost-effective!).

Thanksgiving is among the busiest travel holidays of the year—last year over thirty (thirty!!) million people took flights for it. And I'm not trying to make anyone feel guilty for flying cross-country to share a memorable and important meal with family (I am far from a shining example of cutting back on flights) because, as unsatisfying as it is to conclude an article this way: I don't have the answer. I've long believed travel is the surest way to open someone's mind and inspire creativity, empathy, and a sense of wonder—but at what cost? 

I'd love to hear your thoughts: Have you come across a solution that's worked for you? If you live a flight's distance from family, how often do you see them? Have you taken the same route as our friends and cut down on travel? Share in the comments below! 

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