When classes ended Friday, University of Michigan students hopped in cars and caught planes to their Spring Break destinations. Our travels guzzled jet fuel and gasoline, which feels somewhat contrary to the environmentally mindful views of the majority of the student body. Many of us feel that climate change and carbon emissions are the greatest threat of our time and necessitate immediate major action, but if you think your choice to emit carbon while traveling makes you hypocritical, it’s actually these feelings of guilt that are letting the big oil and gas industry win.
Big corporations that are massive emitters of carbon want you to believe that climate change is the fault of the individual. If it is the general public’s fault for over-consuming and only a change in our behaviors can save the world, then we reduce the responsibility big corporations must take. The truth is that 100 companies are responsible for over 70 percent of global human-caused emissions since 1988. These companies have made huge profits while destroying our planet yet would love for you to believe it’s your personal actions that are causing the climate crisis. BP even released its own Carbon Footprint calculator, helping further the belief that it is our personal actions that will be the way to cutting carbon emissions.
Transportation is the main source of carbon emissions for Americans. Carpooling and biking are great ways to reduce your carbon footprint, but the minute you step on a plane, your footprint skyrockets. A roundtrip flight from New York to San Francisco warms the planet with about two or three tons of carbon per person. The average American causes about 19 tons of carbon emissions a year, meaning about 13 percent of a year’s worth of carbon would be emitted in just one trip. That is a hard pill to swallow if you’re flying somewhere far for a quick spring break.
Is the expansion of travel to blame for our carbon overuse? Many tourist sites are overpopulated. People are traveling more and further than they ever have. The relationship and experience we have with tourism is so far away from that of our parents’ generation and even further from our grandparents’. Though the degradation of landmarks and our experience of them from overcrowding is tragic, this is an issue of poor government and institutional management, not one that is solely the fault of travelers.
Travel expands our worldviews. The exchange of knowledge and the experiences gained through travel have an unquantifiable benefit not only to society, but to individuals. Far-reaching travel is still financially inaccessible to the vast majority of people in the world, but it is also more accessible to the general public than ever before, making it more than for solely the wealthy elite. To shame people for travel now is similar to shaming developing countries for becoming more industrial. Just as the United States had its industrial revolution before carbon-limiting agreements came to be, the über-elite and wealthy had their time to travel widely before the middle class got their chance.
That being said, excessive travel should be limited as much as possible and especially travel done in private aircrafts. There is no reason for a luxury that does so much harm, and it is irresponsible to use jet fuel to fly a plane with only a handful of people inside. Students on a Spring Break trip, however, can still consider themselves environmentalists while engaging in the occasional environmentally harmful activity. Other environmentally friendly practices we engage in while traveling are not canceled out due to the fact we used jet fuel to get there.
Extreme personal responsibility as a requirement to environmentalism ostracizes those who would otherwise be willing to support the movement. It is not necessary to cut out red meat, stop buying new clothes and stop traveling to be a good environmentalist (though all of those actions are a great way to help the planet). We can contribute to the environmental movement in the way that we see fit and should not be shamed, or shame others, for doing so at our own level.
There is a balance between taking personal responsibility and remembering that corporations have a major fault in climate change. Both lifestyle change and major political change is necessary to combat the climate crisis. With that in mind, college students should be able to explore and travel during their Spring Break without guilt and remain credible advocates for the climate.
Leah Adelman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.