Monday, September 7, 2015

Footprints: balancing travel with ecology

It's been ringing in my brain for years, and finally hit a pitch I can't tune out:

How can I ameliorate 
the minor devastation I wreak 
on this precious Earth?

Devastation may sound like an overstatement, but taking responsibility for how my choices impact the environment is one of my deepest values. Especially because nature is my deepest source of joy in Life.

Sunset on the High Sierra Trail, California. 2015

I've asked myself if carbon offsets are a good practice, or an easy penance that allows me to keep sinning. Is it better to focus on efficiency, waste reduction and living a simpler life? If I donate to one of the many charities that plant trees will my donation really become part of Earth's lungs?

The answer is: YES!

Since moving to Dublin in January my partner and I have traveled a lot, voraciously exploring the continent. It's so close! And the Ryanair flights are so cheap! I've been to Turkey, Scotland, the UK, Belgium, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark thus far. I plan to be in Spain, Germany and the UK again before the year is out, at least. 

In truth, my 2015 mileage doesn't outstrip my 2007 carbon footprint, a year I spent ping ponging from LA to the east coast and Chicago monthly in a national management role. Maybe this year just feels bigger because I'm farther afield, and the pleasure of exploring Northern Europe is just so good!*

In the past I've supported groups that lobby or raise awareness, like the Sierra Club Foundation, Nature Conservancy and Rainforest Alliance. I'm not fiery enough to be a grassroots activist myself, so my approach has been to support a group that operates on a national or international basis. I defer to their expertise and become part of a formidable collective political power working on various environmental causes.  

This year I'm aiming to offset my impact more directly: Finding an efficient and effective carbon offset program engaged in reforestation. The amount of information on the web is daunting, and my fear of making the wrong choice is almost paralyzing.** The types of projects that fall under the offset umbrella range from biogas to providing efficient cookstoves to families in developing countries so they stop hacking down forests. Costs range widely, too. Your per ton cost can be $2.50 or $25.00. A publication by US based points out that offsets are a commodity, and "additional benefits, such as habitat preservation, sustainable development, etc., can increase the price of an offset because these additional benefits increase the quality of the surrounding environment and are generally more marketable."

Knowing that my donations are turned into specific actions is the next best thing to getting my hand dirty volunteering. Offsets in direct proportion to my air travel will be a big step. And I am one of many: what I do is what we do, and I am interested to see conservation become a shared practice. We, collectively, can do better, right?

    Recyling Center in Zheijang province, China. (Reuters/Stringer).

Here are some things I'm doing to live a simpler life and mind my consumption:

  • Public Transit. It turns out train and bus is totally fun. If I do have to rent a car I'm not going solo: road trips are in groups or I rideshare.
  • Biking. For the first time in my adult life I am not sucking petroleum for a daily commute. I sold my car when I left the US. (Yes, it was a Prius.) It feels great to be in a city unarmored.
  • Urban Recycling:  Every town is differently supported, and it's taken a little research to maximize Dublin's system for household waste.***
  • The "Bring Bank". Baffling in a town that consumes more beer than water, I can't recycle glass at home. So I walk glass to the local bottle bank. Turns out I can also bring clothing and textiles. It's not convenient, but I feel good doing it, and it's nice excuse to take a walk.
  • Making my own. Buying raw ingredients to make my own nut butters, dressings and trail snacks rather than defaulting to individually packaged goods means there is far less to recycle.
  • Pausing on Purchasing. Purging my possessions to move countries has helped make me more selective in what I acquire. So has the price of imports to Ireland. Asking how badly I need it, how long I'll use it, or if I can get it used are all good practices.
  • Second-hand. Who doesn't love treasure hunting at a charity shop? I buy second hand goods whenever I can. I've cut that down, too. I haven't bought a new dress or cute shoes just for something "new" to wear every month. 
Train platform, Norway.

There are dozens of tiny things I still do that kind of suck: I drink coffee (and not always Fair Trade organic in my commuter mug). My Pink Lady apples come from a much sunnier country. We have four laptops in my two-person household. The point is progress. I am committed to making a positive impact and foregoing some "conveniences" for the sake of a richer living experience.

I'd love to hear what you're up to in the comments, too.

California apple orchard.

*There are some great carbon calculators on line that will estimate the tonnage of flights, households, and operating a car. Check out or to see what you weigh.

**Sites like Charity Navigator shows how much of the donation an organization receives actually go to its stated mission, and help you see if your money is actually where your mouth wants it to be.

***I've annoyed housemates, coworkers and innocent ride-sharers by asking them what they're doing for (or to) the environment. It turns out some people have different priorities. This year I'm working on a more convincing argument as well as on tolerance.