The tradeoffs between quality of life now and quality of life in the future

Mark Morgenstein
Jul 25 · 4 min read
Photo Credit: Creative Commons.

I’m flying to Italy for the first two weeks of August.

I’ve only been to Europe once, in 1998, and I didn’t make it that far south on the continent. My children have never been out of the Western Hemisphere, and I keep telling them this is a “once in a lifetime” vacation.

My generous in-laws are providing us with free lodging and some other experiences such as Italian cooking lessons during the trip. They’re the kinds of gifts — experiences rather than more “stuff” — that my wife and I constantly request for our birthdays and holidays.

We ask for experiences because in our family, we consistently relive a cycle common in more affluent, developed countries. We purchase shiny new objects, which quickly become damaged, boring or unloved stuff. We accumulate that stuff, reclassify it as junk and then throw it out. I feel guilty about wasting things for two main reasons. First, so many people live without the material goods and essentials that we take for granted. Second, it’s bad for the environment.

Strangely, despite that credo, despite working for a leading environmental nonprofit and despite the ubiquitous (and usually cynical) complaint that environmentalists who fly planes are hypocrites, I never thought about the environmental impact of traveling to “experiences” until earlier this month.

On July 9, the (relatively) new New York Times travel editor Amy Virshup published an essay called “The Times’s Travel Desk Takes a Step to Offset Its Contribution to Climate Change.” Virshup wrote that her staff will follow the lead of Times reporter Andy Newman and start buying carbon offsets to compensate for how its travel degrades the environment. Let me cherry-pick two paragraphs to provide context.

Some [readers] criticized [Newman’s] decision to buy carbon offsets, saying that they were too little, too late, or said that focusing on the individual traveler lets carbon-polluting industries and the governments that have not done enough to curb carbon emissions off the hook. Some also took broader aim at the idea of simply writing about travel at all, saying that we were encouraging readers to take part in the destruction of the planet.

But travel also has benefits. It provides economic resources and jobs for people, often in places where there are few other prospects. For travelers themselves, there is the delight and magic of discovery, something we on the Travel desk strive to share with our readers every day. And while there are alternatives to flying, not every place can be reached by climate-friendlier means.

Barring the imminent discovery of a teleport or a renewable energy-powered sea vessel that would take less than three weeks for a round trip to Italy, we’re going to need to fly.

According to the Times article, scientists say that one passenger’s share of the emissions on a one-way flight from New York to Los Angeles shrinks the Arctic’s summer sea ice cover by three square meters, or 32 square feet. Given that the mileage from Denver to Milan is roughly twice the distance, the emissions from our round-trip flights for a family of five will melt about 60 square meters of Arctic ice. That’s nearly half of one side of a tennis court, within the lines.

That’s a lot. But in fairness, our individual choices don’t make nearly as much impact on the environment as a drilling or mining company’s does. A mere 100 companies are linked to 71 percent of the industrial greenhouse gas emissions spewed into the world over the past three decades — and the same study shows that 25 of those companies alone are linked to more than half of those global emissions.

The way I look at it, life is full of choices.

Sometimes they’re black and white. Carbon-polluting industries need to minimize their pollution or face consequences. Governments need to ensure pollution compliance or impose those consequences.

Sometimes those choices are various shades of gray. Cumulatively, the choices we as individuals make daily can add up. We can choose to take public transportation or drive an electric car rather than a gas guzzler. We can choose to bring reusable canvas bags to the grocery store rather than adding to plastic pollution. We can choose to take short showers rather than bathing in a full tub. And, of course, we can choose to be an environmental advocate, either professionally or as a volunteer.

Ultimately, all these choices are about leaving this world no worse — and hopefully better — than how it was when we entered it, because we want our descendants to be able to replicate the amazing experiences that make life worth living. Those experiences include travel, with its inherent “delight and magic of discovery,” which, in turn, encourage so many people to want to preserve the world around them.

So here’s a salute to the Times’ new carbon offset policy. While the Times’ reporters’ individual actions won’t make much progress toward our society reaching net zero carbon emissions, by writing about air travel powered by fossil fuels and responding in this public way, the Times is raising awareness about the problem. That awareness helps groups such as ours muster support for renewable energy and other policies that help us live life to the fullest without damaging the planet. If we don’t, at some point, the special, “once in a lifetime” places we want to visit may not be so special anymore.

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done. https://publicinterestnetwork.org/

Mark Morgenstein

Written by

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done. https://publicinterestnetwork.org/

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