Some disasters announce themselves with a roar, others with barely a whisper. No alarm bells go off when a species goes extinct, or when birds alter their migratory patterns from vertical (north to south) to horizontal (east to west) due to climate change. There are precious few warning signs before endangered destinations, such as the Philippine island of Boracay, buckle due to littering and vandalism of habitats, causing the decimation of entire ecosystems. It’s no secret that we are in the midst of a climate emergency, even when we don’t see the daily proof.
Is there an ethical way to travel the Earth and not cause it harm? I believe so. But it takes planning, deliberate choices, and respect for the people and places we have the privilege of visiting. Two ideas—summaries of quotes from tennis player Arthur Ashe and poet Maya Angelou, respectively—steer me: Do what you can with what you have and When you know better, do better. Every traveler must create their own set of principles. Some of my peers have taken a hard line. My friend Janisse Ray, a naturalist, has chosen not to travel by plane for the past 13 years. Many generations of Janisse’s family have lived in the United States, a vast country filled with pockets of wonder that she reaches by train or (reluctantly) by car. This works for her: She fulfills her desire to connect with nature and communities domestically while maintaining a lighter carbon footprint.
As a Black woman living in America, I am always aware of my body. The travel decisions I make are often more complex than Janisse’s hard-and-fast transportation rule. Travel—both domestic and international—affords me the ability to enter another narrative. In the best situations, it allows me to be more fully myself: highly curious, slightly adventurous, capable of cultivating joy and empathy. In my day-to-day existence, I’m not always given the space to be that person, due to the cloak of anti-Blackness that accompanies my daily reality. I have found great power in being able to roam, when my parents and grandparents, partly due to sundown towns and segregation laws, had no such luxury.
But before I book any trips, I practice some introspection. I ask myself about the origins of my interest. Am I looking to replicate something I’ve seen on social media or television? Do I have a deep curiosity about the landscape and people I would visit? Have I researched the cultural and environmental impacts of the trip? If I couldn’t take a camera with me, would I still go? What do I have to offer, beyond money, in this exchange?
The desire to see certain places before they disappear, or species before they go extinct—knowing that my actions would be accelerating their demise—is a sentiment I cannot stomach. I’ve conceded that there are places I will not ever go: the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras, one of the last stands of undisturbed tropical rain forest in Central America; the Galápagos Islands, due to threats posed by unsustainable visitation, overfishing, and invasive species.
When I do travel, I work to be a steward of the place I’m visiting. On the ground, I use public transportation. I note what foods are in season, to mitigate the emissions load produced by importing. I stay away from places that exploit animals or alter their natural behavior and ability to survive in the wild, and I avoid geotagging in most of my online posts, to keep fellow visitors from overrunning a particular place.
One of the biggest concerns to environmental biologists and climate change activists is the introduction of invasive pathogens or animals to sensitive habitats with endangered species. So beyond carrying reusable bottles, utensils, and totes, and practicing the principles of Leave No Trace, I have one rule that I refuse to break: When I’m going into vulnerable ecosystems, I decontaminate my clothing and shoes to eliminate pathogens before arriving. This usually means finding a washer and dryer so that the heat kills any bacteria or fungi that have hitched a ride on my gear.
I do the best I can with the information I have, but I don’t get it right 100 percent of the time. I’m always curious, constantly learning, and unafraid to ask questions. I’ve learned no action is too small to make a difference. Travel, after all, has the power to transform us and elicit reverence for the natural world. And if we’re able to see these places we visit as part of our global responsibility and treat them with respect, grace, and gratitude, that might just be enough to save them.