I Have Climate Anxiety. Can I Travel Guilt-Free?

Our Unpacked advice columnist helps a traveler reconcile the wish to visit fragile parts of the planet with the desire to keep those places safe.

Two beaches on curved peninsula of Bartolome Island in the Galápagos Islands

As the climate warms, delicate places such as the Galápagos Islands may have an expiration date. Should we visit them?

Courtesy of Explorations by Collette

We are a family of five that thinks a lot about our carbon footprint. We feel in a rush to see disappearing species and natural wonders—and at the same time, conflicted about traveling to fragile places and becoming part of the problem. We are passionate about showing our kids what we could lose if we don’t slow climate change and yet we are all accountable. How do you think about this?

I appreciate your question and resonate with your dilemma. Whichever way we look at it, travel contributes to carbon emissions and fuels the climate crisis we are in. There are two simultaneous truths here: first, that our individual choices matter, and second, that the threat of climate change is larger than any decision you or I make. Even if we forgo a trip now and then, journey by train instead of flight, and stay longer in destinations to maximize our experience, we are still implicated.

I think about the climate crisis similarly to how I think about living in an unequal world: I would rather not live in and amidst inequity and its attendant suffering, and yet here I am, and here we are. Pretty much every facet of our lives is embedded in inequality—what foods we eat, which neighborhoods we live in, and where and how we travel. Our habits and choices are not neutral, and they impact us differently. People from more privileged backgrounds might reconsider next month’s travel plans: “Should we go?” Others, who bear the disproportionate brunt of climate change firsthand, must now consider where to live: “Should we leave?” That seems at the outset incredibly unfair and impossible to wrap our heads around.

That we worry about the changing climate shows our innate connection to the planet, its people, and its living creatures. On the other hand, what happens when the worry morphs into an obsession? The speed and severity of the climate crisis can turn into a continuous cortisol-releasing activity that begins the moment we wake and gets activated at every swipe. However, being all bugged out does not actually help the bugs, fish, mammals, or forests that are now under threat. Our feelings of concern can themselves become a detrimental comfort zone, trapping us within its boundaries, sapping us of variety, vibrancy, and joy.

I’m not saying to ignore what’s happening. Rather, reconnect with your motivations to travel in the first place. In your desire for adventure, I sense a love for collective learning and showing up for issues you care about together, as a family. These values allow you to introduce big global concepts to your children and to speak openly about our roles, responsibilities, and rights on this planet. What a great foundation for the kids!

These values also serve as the foundation of your family’s climate justice activism, which might not necessarily be realized only via travel. Are fragile environments the ones you should be visiting? I’m not sure. I do know that when we are driven to check off disappearing species and fragile ecosystems from our bucket list, it’s good to notice how urgency, competition, and a desire to feel special might be unconsciously motivating us. Mindful attention brings us back to our values and serves as a tool, a strategy, and a politics of resistance against the continuous negative news cycle. And if you do go to fragile places, are there ways to go well, or go better?

I know I cannot solve the climate emergency on my own. I also know that when you or I are frazzled with guilt and destroyed with worry, we become less effective decision-makers—and less effective advocates. For me, mindfully guiding my attention to notice, appreciate, and deepen my values in creative ways is nothing less than rebellion. You seem to have something special with your family’s curiosity. Nurture that by remembering that there are multiple ways to learn, share our voices, and be change makers. Sometimes we will do that by traveling to another place. Other times, we won’t have to go so far.

Unpacked is AFAR’s advice column. Once a quarter, Dr. Anu Taranath answers an ethical quandary that a reader recently faced. If you have a question you’d like examined, please submit it to unpacked@afar.com.

Dr. Anu Taranath is the author of Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World and has been a professor at Seattle’s University of Washington for 20 years. She’s one of AFAR’s new Unpacked columnists.
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