A friend recently invited me to join him on a trip to Thailand. Thailand, with its white sand beaches, elephant sanctuaries, and exquisite food, its cheap massages, textiles, and temples, has been on the top of my bucket list for years. I also desperately needed a vacation, tickets were cheap, and the timing worked out perfectly. It would have been a quick and easy decision, if I hadn’t just spent most of the year working on a climate campaign to support people in reducing their air travel.
During the project, I learned how taking long flights is the single most ecologically destructive activity we can partake in as individuals and that my flight to Thailand would generate as much greenhouse gas as I use in every other area of my life, including food, electricity, and transportation combined, for a full year. As one climate activist put it, when we fly, we’re literally destroying the places we travel to see.
At the same time, travel habits are the toughest to change. To support participants in reducing their air travel we invited them to explore the tug of war they feel between their desire to be good ecological stewards and the forces that pull them to fly, whether for work, to visit family, take spiritual pilgrimages, or just to expand their horizons.
As we helped them unpack their relationship to air travel, I somehow managed to completely avoid looking at my own. I figured the issue really didn’t apply to me. After all, I’ve taken maybe five overseas trips in the last 30 years, and all of them were for work. I travel less than anybody I know.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a big appetite for adventure and a long bucket list. But something always stops me and my plans rarely get off the ground. My lack of air travel is less of an ecological virtue than a psychological block. Boasting my infrequent flyer status would be like someone who can’t get laid bragging about their abstinence.
So, when my friend invited me to Thailand and the stars seemed to align to make it possible, a part of me felt like a wild animal being released from captivity. I dashed to my laptop, googled Thailand and swooned over images of long boats on white sand beaches, ornate Buddhist temples, and elephants strolling through bamboo forrests. I scrolled breathlessly through discount travel sites, found a cheap, direct flight and giggled as I typed in my credit card information. All that was left to do was to push the orange “Confirm Payment” button.
But I couldn’t. Instead, I just froze, staring at the screen as my conscience gradually broke loose from bondage and took the reins, pointing out that, with one click of that orange button, I would contribute to melting 35 cm2 of arctic ice. My super ego was quick with the follow up: There is absolutely no good reason for you to take this trip. It’s pure self-indulgence. I mean, guide people in reducing their air travel one day then hop on a plane to Thailand for a vacation the next? What a hypocrite! Step away from the screen and no one will get hurt.
I pushed my chair away from the blazing orange Confirm Payment button as a lead weight of shame pressed into my chest. It didn’t stay long as a force inside me shook off the shame and she. Was. Pissed: Why should I, and, frankly, the whole global majority have to stay home while the 1% hop to Paris or Dubai for a weekend? Not fair! Make the jet-setters stay putt while the rest of us can finally take a guilt-free island vacation.
My righteous anger settled into self pity (Of all the climate campaigns there are to work on, why did this one have to be air travel?). Eventually, roused by the challenge, the legal team arrived, rolled up their sleeves and began negotiating…both sides.
“The flight is going to Thailand with or without Gwen! Leaving one seat empty doesn’t reduce the impact! In fact, filling it makes the flight more efficient.”
“But people like Gwen, who are finally having breakthroughs in their psychological blocks to travel are creating the consumer demand that’s driving the rapid and destructive expansion of aviation.”
“She’ll make it a net positive for the planet – buy carbon credits, stay in eco-hotels, volunteer in an elephant sanctuary and become a better, more committed eco-activist.”
“Don’t fool yourself. Carbon credits are really guilt credits, Thailand is overrun with tourists and the only ethical elephant sanctuaries won’t let you near the elephants. So why bother?”
The tug-of-war was ensued for days, to the point where I stopped trusting any of the arguments. After all, how could I tell if that the case for going wasn’t really just an elaborate justification for indulging my desires. On the other hand, how would I tell if the case for not going wasn’t really just a strategy to keep me in my comfort zone of deprivation. I was going to have to go deeper and check with my gutt.
I decided to try on each choice and just see how it felt. When I thought about taking the trip, I got a terrible knot in my belly. When I thought about not taking it I just felt sad. I decided the knot was the more reliable sign not to go. After all, how could I even enjoy the trip feeling that way. So, I tried on the choice not to fly, reassuring myself that I could change my mind by the end of the week.
As I waited to see what would happen next, I secretly hoped for a sign. Please let me find a ticket to Hamilton on the sidewalk or get a call from a long lost relative planning a visit for the exact dates of my trip. But nope. I was on my own.
Eventually, I started to let go – no communion with elephants, no Thai cooking lessons, no adventures with hill tribes. As I felt my grief over the personal loss, a larger reality slowly began to sink in: The whole reason I’m not taking this trip is because the flight contributes to global warming. That means global warming must be real – real and serious enough to disrupt my plans! Oh no!! It was as if it had just dawned on me that everything I wanted to see in Thailand was actually in peril. I can be a little dense.
Feeling the reality of climate change penetrate my defenses was more than I could bear. So I did what everybody else does – I binge-watched Fleabag on Netflix. Then Killing Eve. Then The Crown. But ads announcing “Flying private is now cheaper than flying commercial” kept popping up on my screen, while PG&E threatened power outages in our area due to fire risk. There was no escaping it.
The damn began to burst and for days, I’d wake up crying. I’d cry whenever my attention wasn’t being fully occupied by something else. So, I took some time off and spent it sitting under the two giant legacy oaks that cradle my home listening to the brazen banter of the crows in its branches. I hiked the rolling California hills around my house and took long walks on the beach. As I did, I found myself muttering “thank you” to every creature I saw. “Thank you for your life.” I savored them the same way I savor every minute I have to snuggle with my aging pug, so grateful to still have his good company.
As I let myself take in the reality of global warming and feel my grief for our world, even just a little bit, I began to feel the depth of my love stir as well. Grief and love woke up in each others arms, blinked and realized they were also holding hands with the rest of creation…without going to Thailand.
The Buddha taught that the illusion that we’re separate from each other and the rest of life is the root of all suffering. There’s nothing more painful nor more dangerous. Our drive to be enough, do enough, and have enough are all strategies to get the connection we already have and they’re destroying our world. By centering the world’s needs over the desires of my separate self, began to dissolve the existential sense of separation that’s causing the existential crisis and I started
As I found myself softening and opening into more intimacy with the world, a strange paradox emerged.
Coming soon – HOW GOING TO THAILAND CHANGED MY LIFE