Safe travels (if you’re wealthy and western)

At home, many pretend to be preoccupied with stopping climate change; Europeans bike to work and gather their rubbish into compartments, Americans drive their hybrid cars, everyone imagines that they are doing their part. They are not. Research has shown that air travel is the single largest contributor to an American’s or European’s carbon footprint. One round-trip flight from Europe to New York emits two to three tonnes of carbon dioxide a person. This is a huge percentage of the 19 tonnes an average American and the 10 tonnes an average European produces every year. The round-trip flight produces half of the total emissions a car produces every year, and most wealthy Westerners take a lot more than one trip. If climate change were truly more than a conceit, there would be fewer Western travellers zipping across continents toting plastic luggage and cramming into jetliners with their goods. Frequent travellers, whose total contribution to air pollution is huge, would not be wheedled and wooed with credit cards and canapes; they would be blacklisted. But this is not so; far from it. Experts estimate that there are currently 20,000 aeroplanes being operated, many to the “safe” vacation destinations listed in the State Department rankings. The numbers are only set to increase; it is estimated that by 2040 the number will double and reach 50,000. The kicker, however, is not simply in these numbers; it is also in the fact that while Westerners are furiously polluting the world to sate their travel fetishes, none of their nations recognise climate refugees whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the pollution that their travel-happy selves emit into the atmosphere. Farmers fleeing famine, medical asylum seekers whose asthma cannot withstand the poor air quality of their homelands are not welcome in America, or anywhere in the Western world. There is also a generational component to the equation that demands safe travel yet denies safety and refuge to those not out to have fun but travelling to save their lives. A 2016 survey of US Millennials found that 72 percent of the generation prefer to spend more money on “experiences” rather than material things. Inevitably, “experiences” include travel to distant (but safe) lands, where they can post their “experiences” (the more obscure and rare the better) on social media, thus gaining recognition from their peers. To stanch any lingering guilt that this generation may have about their habit of widely broadcasted consumption, new industries of “eco-tourism” (where travelers emit jet fuel all the way to distant destinations and then may help plant trees when they get there) or “voluntourism” (where thousands of dollars are spent to travel to an exotic locale, and a few hours of hugging children at an orphanage is presented as the justification) have cropped up. Since the companies selling tour packages are beholden to their experience-craving customers, nobody ever points this out. The recipients of their “help” are, of course, too poor, not to mention entirely unwelcome in the same countries their benefactors have come from. None of these do-gooder travellers ever seem to go back and oppose the closing of borders, or the granting of citizenship based on the fickle accidents of birth.

Rafia Zakaria in Safe travels (if you’re wealthy and Western) (Aljazeera)